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Torn in Two

book cover
Thomas A. Bass

Waiting and Wondering: An Amerasian couple posed for author Thomas Bass.

Sagas of Amerasians caught between the ties of the past and the hopes of the future

By Andrew X. Pham

'WHEN I DIE, I know I'm going to heaven, because I have spent my time in Hell." It was a common motto for the American servicemen stationed in Vietnam. After the war, when the servicemen had gone either to heaven or home to America, they left behind--unwillingly, unknowingly, intentionally or otherwise--30,000 living legacies, their Amerasian children, to live out their motto.

In Vietnamerica, journalist Thomas A. Bass has given voice to the suffering of these Amerasians, compiling a delicate folio of vignettes of a people who carry the weight of two nations. Bass' considered approach, flavored with poignant cultural insights, speaks of human conditions across cultural gaps without patronizing his subjects. It is also a study in racism.

After the war, the American government punished Vietnam with a crippling embargo. Cash-starved, the Vietnamese government wanted to unload its undesired lowest class, its Amerasians. Attempts by independent volunteer organizations produced promising arrangements with the Vietnamese government; the U.S. State Department, however, failed to offer support and even allegedly sabotaged John Shades' arrangement with the Vietnamese government to transport 8,000 Amerasians to America.

The release of Amerasians meant three things to Vietnam: an opportunity to clean out its social outcasts and criminals, a humanitarian act on the international front, and a seeding of a foreign land with refugees who would remit to their families--and, consequently, the motherland--as much as 20 percent of their income. The fruit of such a crop had already been proven by the hundreds of millions of dollars that earlier Vietnamese refugees had sent to relatives in Vietnam.

The State Department's entrenched position on "no diplomatic ties" with Vietnam strangled the "rescue efforts" in the late '70s aimed at a few hundred legitimate Amerasian-Americans with U.S. birth certificates. Consequently, by the late '80s, media exposure and public outrage precipitated legislation that covered all Amerasians.

Despite stiff opposition from the State Department, Congress, under public pressure, passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act in September 1989, 14 years after the war ended. The Vietnamese government, long ingrained with blatant corruption, knew then for certain it had a cash cow in hand and began to milk the American government at every turn.

Literally overnight, Amerasians went from being the "dust of life" to "golden children," endowed by the Amerasian Homecoming Act with the power to fly themselves and their families to America. But it was not that simple. The system had two tiers. The first was run by the Vietnamese officials, the second by the Americans. In order to get their applications reviewed by the Americans, prospective immigrants had to bribe their way through the Vietnamese bureaucratic thuggery.

Since Amerasians as a class are desperately poor, many recruited sponsored strangers as family members in order to raise the necessary administrative grease. With clear evidences of widespread fraud, suspicious U.S. immigration interviewers rejected scores of genuine applications based on as little as a hunch. Rejected cases are barred from entering the U.S. forever. There are still several thousand Amerasians living in Vietnam. Few remain by choice.

The false families that do make it to America suffer from internal friction and ridicule from the Vietnamese-American communities. And Amerasians, in general, suffer from cultural shock, disillusionment and trauma from family separation. Still, the reasons behind the fraud are not straightforward. Bass astutely observes that for the majority of Amerasians, their "motives are a Confucian cocktail of family obligations, blackmail, money, guilt and fear of crossing the ocean [alone]."

WHETHER EACH Amerasian leaves or stays is in itself a complex, compelling story permeated with a profound sense of abandonment. One of the saddest stories Bass relates is that of Tay Thi, a 29-year-old Amerasian woman whose life is woven of threads common to many Amerasians. Born to a Vietnamese mother whose American consort refused to acknowledge her child as his, Thi lives a painful collage of lives punctuated with physical abuse, emotional abuse, racial persecution, rape, slavery and prostitution. Thi finally parleys her body into investment capital that she turns into a successful silk business. Still, she lives alone, forever scarred by the violence focused at her heredity but vented upon her.

The greatest of the Amerasians in the book is perhaps Charlie Brown. Born in 1959 in Danang, son of an American adviser and an unknown Vietnamese mother, orphan Charlie drifted from one American army camp to another, earning his keep as gopher, camp mascot and "little brother." After 1975, Charlie's survival balanced between selling cigarettes on the streets and eluding the postwar persecution and xenophobia. He began a series of incarcerations and daring prison escapes.

Brown's pivotal contribution to the Amerasian ordeal began when he slept in the park in front of the Presidential Palace in Saigon and organized a soup kitchen that attracted 200 homeless Amerasians to the highly visible locale. He garnered the attention of foreign journalists, paid for stories about Amerasians to be published in Saigon's newspaper, and helped other Amerasians apply for departure to America.

Vietnamerica chronicles the suffering as well as the statistics in human terms--blond hair, green eyes, black skin--on the streets of Saigon. In the teeming desperation of sharp hungry faces, Bass records personal histories, real moments and connections that ring with disturbing familiarity.

He extracts these telling details and brings them to bear by following the Amerasians from the tropical streets of Saigon to the sewer refugee camps in the Philippines and well into the inner streets of Utica, N.Y. (the official resettlement center for Amerasians processed through the Amerasian Homecoming Act). He also subtlely captures the deep-rooted bigotry and racism that issue from unexpected quarters by quoting, noting the facts and letting the reader pass judgment.

No doubt there are gaps in Vietnamerica that leave some questions unanswered and provide an only partially accurate portrayal of the whole Amerasian experience, especially the transition into American culture. Although half of Vietnamerica focuses on an Amerasian population and their families in Utica, it does not--nor does it claim to--rigorously address the encompassing Amerasian-American experience.

With the difficulties of cultural differences and disorientation between local Americans and their new refugee neighbors, it is clear the war has come home and with it the weight of the past, the responsibility of action--all brimming with half-meanings about America and being American.

Bass' views changed as he became more intimate with the issue and with Amerasians. His unconcealed initial naiveté unfolded into compassion even as all the Amerasian programs crumbled in scandals and mismanagement, leaving their charges in financial and psychological disarray. He made no effort to hide the raw, almost brutal survival instincts Amerasians developed as outcasts in Vietnam, but he does redeem them as humans trapped in conditions not of their making.

Bass offers no solutions to the slew of problems, only candid snapshots of what he perceived during his own limited journey. He proffers no real names for accountability or blame, only his intimate concerns. He reports the facts or the essences, whichever suit the situation. Yet, most important of all, he realizes the irony: "In fact, many of the stories in this book may be untrue. The pain behind them, on the other hand, is real.''

Vietnamerica: The War Comes Home
By Thomas A. Bass
Soho Press; 278 pages; $25 cloth www.vietamerica.com

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From the May 2-8, 1996 issue of Metro's Literary Quarterly

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