Dear Adoption, I’m Tired.

Worn out from years of explaining who I am and who I am not. I have grown weary of trying to assimilate into countries and cultures that ask me to be for them and not with them. I have grown fatigued of tracing a story that befits only a partial narrative, left only with speculation and the inability to reconcile the truth of the story. And I am one of the lucky ones—one of those whose story gaps were nearly filled after looking so long for the answer. But there are no complete answers, only more questions. I am tired of the questions left hanging like a string of lights above my head, filaments twisted on the inside and no longer producing a spark. They will remain unchanged—my once-steady hand exhausted from stretching out to change the bulb, the ladder I’ve used all these years weakened from my constant climb. I ache, after 40 years, from the moments I had to reel myself back in from feelings of loss and inadequacy, trying to find value in a space that wanted to compartmentalize me: my feelings, my worth, my identity. I am weakened by decades of trying to articulate what it means to be adopted, knowing that even in the best circumstance I could have been given, in many ways, I still lost. I was lost. Shuffled under damp blankets that suffocated me, weighted down by tears that accumulated in the taut threads of longing and silent suffering. Words left swallowed back down when I knew that I could not say what I felt. Hurt. Lonely. Sad. Simple statements you’re not allowed to voice because you’ll sound foolish. Ungrateful. Incomprehensible. I have typed out these ideas over decades—arthritic fingers connecting with black keys that are stiff from constant use, trying to capture the sentiments that sound like a betrayal to what I have been given. But they’re not. They’re just words, coalescing over waterfalls of ambiguity that I have lived with all these years. They’re just thoughts, simmering under surfaces of loss that I drag behind me. I am exhausted from pulling. The ropes are beginning to fray from the weight of all the time I was trying to find my worth because of one moment that makes you feel worthless forever. I am tired, Adoption. Not because you gave me everything but because sometimes, you gave me nothing.

First published on DearAdoption.com November 14, 2017.

Paper Trails

With the recent worry about providing paperwork to affirm one’s citizenship, I have been sorting through files and boxes in my basement looking for my naturalization certificate. I just recently received a new passport, but in this political climate, I’m worried that it may not be enough. When I lived in Hanoi in 1996, the first advice given to those of us who were Vietnamese adoptees was: “Do not get in trouble with the law. If they throw you in jail, you’ll have a hard time getting back out.” I was twenty-three and rebellious enough to not care but mindful to store that bit of knowledge for later use. As adoptees of Viet Nam, most of us did not denounce our Vietnamese citizenship (effectively granting us dual citizenship up until 2011 or so). As a result, my U.S. passport was somewhat moot in 1996 in the event I was caught in the clutches of the Vietnamese government for some 23-year-old-rebellious-reason. Fast forward to 2017 and I’m now concerned about my U.S. citizenship, wondering if I will be detained upon reentry from international travel and questioned about my purpose, my background, or honestly, about my faith. It’s stressful and sad that I would question my years of U.S. citizenship or the gold star on my license. I have been filing taxes since 1992 and have enjoyed a privileged and democracy-driven life as a hard-working, U.S. citizen. Nonetheless, I still worry, and I still haven’t found my naturalization certificate.

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Lost Time

Over the past forty years, my biological father may have remembered me now and again. He may have remembered my presence in the passing of a young, Khmer girl, a furrowed brow resembling my own even though she was not his daughter. He may have wondered how my mother and I were carrying on across the Delta, believing I was there with her the entire time. It’s hard to say. Either way, 42 years came and went without my knowing him or him, me, and now, more than ever, I feel that loss of time. I sometimes want to clutch those wisps of memory, like thin strands of pulled cotton-batting falling away from the much larger memory called family. I want to collect them as they lay pooled at my feet, stuffing their thinness in a clear jar I can hold on to. But really, there is nothing more than recollection, someone else’s telling of the story and all I can do is nod with understanding. But still, I do not understand. It was only me that lived on the other side of the world, with memories of my own to fill the pillows that cradle my head. In those four decades, I lost time.

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Get Back on the Boat

When I think of school I am caught off guard by the multitude of racialized experiences that sent me daily preparing for battle.  I remember the kid that pushed me down in a bus and called me a nigger, stepping on my head as he walked over me and out the swinging doors.  I saw kids in seats all around me, oblivious to the behaviors of others because, back then, a push and a shove were common experiences for kids riding to and from home in yellow busses.  No one classified such incidences as bullying and frankly, no one really cared.  I knew that when I caught the eye of the bus driver as I was getting up.  He had seen the incident and did nothing.  Said nothing.  But he watched me as I got back up, gathered my things, and made my way out the door.  On the bus I knew I was on my own.

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Passport

The first name I ever traveled with was Kha Thi Huyền Châu. In Vietnamese, “Huyền Châu” means “black pearl.” I sometimes wonder if the woman who gave me this name wanted to give me a sense of value after is was so obvious that I had none. In the orphanage they called me Josette, a name still lingering from a hundred years of French occupation, its long lilt feeling loose and frayed in my memory’s pocket. When I arrived to America I was placed in the arms of a second mother and given another name, also French, and names that resembled black pearls were left far behind with the drifting of lotus. Throughout my life, names have been given to me and taken away, attachments to identity abandoned with time, circumstance, or tradition. Like breadcrumbs they lead me back to the beginning, to a woman who continually scrawled out information in passports, the sweltering heat of a makeshift office making her tire, but the war urging her hand to move faster. Just another name in a passport. It means nothing. It means everything.

Things I Remember Living in Hanoi, 1996

  1. Dirt road to and from the airport.
  2. Large numbers of policeman with AK47s.
  3. Not going to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.
  4. Bun Cha Nem.
  5. Hoa Sua and chocolate croissants.
  6. Drinking cafe sua non on the balcony of a hostel in Sapa before the fog rolled out of the valley.
  7. Hiking to Fansipan with an Excalibur-like moment that included a horse riding off into the fog.
  8. 306-no home.
  9. Cyclos that were actually necessary transportation.
  10. Amoebas.
  11. Being the wrong color.
  12. The squealing of a pig on a motorbike.
  13. The squeak of tennis shoes on a makeshift badminton court.
  14. Civilians lining up for military exercises at 5:30 AM in the field across from where I lived.
  15. The woman selling her food at 5:00 AM in a sing-song voice.
  16. The day a dog got stolen from the neighbor.
  17. The day a dog got run over by a motorbike.
  18. Learning nothing.
  19. Learning everything.
Photo: Sapa, 1996