When he was 14 years old, Hung Nguyen left his godfather’s farm and set out alone for a town some 100 miles away at the southernmost tip of Vietnam. He had heard a rumor that people who wanted to escape to America were leaving from there secretly in boats, and he was determined to go with them. He knew that his American father, if he was still alive, probably didn’t know he existed, but he wanted to find him if he could. And he was already sure that America, not Vietnam, was his country.
A couple who ran a coffee shop in the town took him in. “I help them with cooking,” he says, “and every day I go to the sea and I catch crabs.”
Everyone knew how dangerous it was to try to leave Vietnam by boat, that hundreds of those who had set out had died, but Hung didn’t care. He soon learned that many people were making plans to leave from the town’s docks. “Every morning they come to my store, and they drink coffee, and they talk about going to United States. A lot of people go to United States from that place.” Given a map, he can point to one spot after another along the rivers and coast of Vietnam where boats slipped out into the ocean.
At first he hoped someone would simply agree to take him along, but no one did. “Usually the people don’t let you go if you have nothing. If you want to go, you give them the gold and a lot of money. But I have no money.” Then he hoped to discover a boat that was going and simply steal aboard. But that too was impossible. The docks were filled with boats, and he never knew soon enough which one was about to leave. “It’s very, very important for them, so they worry about communists knowing where is the boat. So they don’t let a lot of people know about that. I wait there a long time, but I didn’t get on a boat. So after that, a lot of people told me I must go to Saigon.” This time the rumor was that Americans were accepting applications from Vietnamese who wanted to emigrate. Five months after he left his godfather’s, Hung boarded a bus for the city. It was 1980. Nine years would pass before he finally landed in Chicago.
Hung’s mother died when he was only nine, so most of what he knows about her and her life with his father he learned from his godfather. She was 22 years old, a maid in a hotel, when his father met her and asked her to be his housekeeper. She moved into the house he owned in Vung Tau, a town on the coast some 40 miles southeast of Saigon, and later moved with him when he was stationed farther north. Sometime in the year or so that they lived together their relationship changed.
His father, who was in Vietnam for at least two years, had a wife and family back home. “He told my mother about that, but they didn’t care,” says Hung. “They think, ‘Too far.’ They loved–they wanted to get married. They didn’t care about that.” He gives a short laugh and shrugs. “I don’t know. A lot of American Army they do that.”
His mother told him his father was unhappy about being shipped back to the U.S. “He really didn’t want to leave Vietnam. He really didn’t want to leave my mom. Before he left, he just drinking always.” Hung’s father never saw his son, who was born sometime in 1966–Hung doesn’t know the date. And Hung was never sure whether his father even knew his mother was pregnant.
Before leaving, his father wrote his address on a number of envelopes so his mother could write to him in the States–though she knew only a little English, and he only a little Vietnamese. He gave her everything. “He just left for my mom money and everything in the house. He didn’t bring anything back to United States. House and everything in the house–TV, radio, gold, diamond. Everything.” For a long time she lived by selling those things one after another.
In 1970 or ’71 an accident with a kerosene lamp burned a part of the house, destroying all the papers that proved who his father was, including the envelopes with his address. His mother had sent his father just one letter. The only clues left to his father’s identity were the few photographs his mother had kept in her wallet. On the back of one she had written his father’s name and social security number. Later, Hung had the photos laminated in plastic. They’re musty, and their color has faded. In one, his father stands alone behind a car that’s parked in an American driveway. In another, he’s in uniform outside the Vung Tau house with another American soldier who’s holding a little Vietnamese girl. In a third, he stands behind Hung’s mother, his arms at her side, her head leaning back against his chest.
In 1972 Hung’s mother sold the house and moved with her son to Saigon. A couple years later Hung started school, and for the first time in his life he was ridiculed for being different. “The first time I know I am American I’m going to school. And the Vietnamese students they don’t like Amerasian students. The children only six years old or seven–they don’t know about the war. But they know we are Amerasian, different from them. After one year I don’t want to go to school anymore.” To Americans his features seem distinctly Asian, but the Vietnamese saw his father in his face. The children called him my lai, a cruel term for someone with part American blood. The teachers and older South Vietnamese called him con lai, a general label for someone of mixed race that doesn’t carry the same sting.
There was no official policy of discrimination, but racial purity has always been prized in Vietnam–and those of mixed blood have always been disparaged. The Amerasians were only the latest group to be ostracized, though black Amerasians seem to have suffered more. Amerasians were called the enemy and were told to go back to their own country. Yet the depth of the prejudice seems to have varied greatly depending on where they lived, and some Amerasians led relatively normal lives.
Hung might still have continued in school, but it was 1975 and the North Vietnamese had taken over South Vietnam. Schools were no longer free, and Hung’s mother had little money left.
She had never married, and he doesn’t believe that she was ever interested in any man other than his father. “She always missed him, and she always told me about my father and what did he do with her when they lived together. She loved him. And she feel sad, and she feel hurt, and she feel lovesick. She sad all the time, but I didn’t know why when I was a young boy.” For a long time she hoped his father would come back. “She say he told her after he come United States, in three years he come back to Vietnam and take her and me to America. She always think so, and she waiting for him.” But she never heard from him. She drank and smoked heavily, and in 1975, a few months after the North Vietnamese rolled into Saigon, she died of lung cancer.
Hung’s godfather, an old and dear friend of his mother’s, came to Saigon and took Hung with him to live in the country, some 100 miles southwest of Saigon near the Cambodian border. There was no one else to take him in. He had an aunt and uncle, but he had barely met them, and both his grandparents had died before he was born.
The North Vietnamese had taken over his godfather’s farm and moved him and the eight members of his family to a collective farm. “They saw some farms good for land, so they took–the government officials got,” Hung says.
There was plenty of work on the farm for even the youngest children. “My family we had two water buffalo, so I take care of the water buffalo when I was a little boy. Yeah,” he says, and then laughs.
They were allowed to grow vegetables on a small plot of land, but they worked with others in the large rice fields. They couldn’t always produce enough to feed themselves. “Because when we finish the rice, the government took about 50 percent for taxes. So usually we got not enough for food for my family. Sometimes I must go work for somebody–I help them plant the rice or work with them somehow, and they give me some money.” During the harvest they worked through the night, afraid someone would steal their grain before they had it safely stored.
The family treated Hung like another son, and Hung loved them, especially his godfather. But the family understood when he told them he wanted to leave Vietnam. “They want let me go because they want I come to my country in America. They hated the communists.”
Having abandoned his first plan to escape on a boat from southern Vietnam, Hung arrived in Saigon–few there call it Ho Chi Minh City. He had no idea how to find out which Vietnamese authorities he had to talk to about emigrating, and neither did anyone he asked. But more important than finding the emigration offices was finding a way to feed himself.
He began by helping people in the market, running errands for the old women who sold goods on the sidewalks and carrying baskets that were too heavy for them. They would feed him and sometimes paid him a little money, which he kept in his shirt pocket. Within three months he had saved enough to buy a full pack of cigarettes, which he sold one at a time on the streets and in restaurants. “In the restaurant, if you’re a little boy, you can come in the restaurant–you can sell anything.” Though Hung was 14, he had always been small and slight; he still looks much younger than he is.
He worked on the sidewalks, and he slept on the sidewalks, even when it rained. “The house in Vietnam, they have a–” He draws a long roof overhang with his hands. “So you sleep on the sidewalk so the rain can’t come. If it rains very hard, I came to the stairs–they have stairs that go to the next floor–and I sleep there.” It doesn’t get cold in southern Vietnam, so he could sleep outside the year round.
He bought food from the street vendors, but he usually couldn’t afford much and sometimes couldn’t afford anything. “I not have a lot of meat. Fish sometimes. Usually I take bread, not rice, because bread is cheap.”
He says all this quite matter-of-factly, perhaps because the country’s shattered economy had forced so many people onto the streets of Saigon. Some were Amerasian, but most were Vietnamese. All of them were called bui doi, the “dust of life,” a particularly contemptuous label, one that Hung heard from Vietnamese and sometimes even from young Amerasians who were better off than he was. “Some Amerasians, they have the rich family, and they go to school all the time, and they don’t go to work. Not everybody poor like me. But a few like me–take care of myself.” He laughs. “I’m not lucky, you know, because nobody rich in my family.”
Hung kept asking people where he had to go to apply for permission to leave Vietnam, but more than a year passed before he found someone who knew–the mother of another Amerasian. Hung went to the place she’d told him about and showed the emigration officials there the pictures of his father. But they didn’t want to know that his father was American, they wanted identity papers–a birth certificate, residency papers. And he didn’t have any. Frustrated and upset, he left.
He went back several times and repeated his story, always to a different person, always with the same response. Finally he took the bus back to his godfather’s, who gave him the birth certificate of one of his own sons. Until then Hung had never had a real first name. His mother and later his godfather had always called him Lai, from con lai, the phrase for someone of mixed race. When he returned to Saigon, he became Hung. His last name remained Nguyen because that was both his mother and godfather’s name.
But when he went back to the Vietnamese authorities, they told him his new papers weren’t enough–they wanted different papers, more papers, papers he didn’t know how to get.
In 1982, more than a year after Hung first arrived in Saigon, he went to see his cousin, Riem Nguyen. Their mothers had been cousins and friends, and they had worked together and lived near each other in Vung Tau when their two boys were small. Riem, whose father was also American, was born June 10, 1966. His father had been stationed in Saigon and had lived with Riem’s mother for almost two years. Riem was more than a year old when his father, who had called his son Jim, went back to the U.S. Riem’s mother, who had separated years before from her Vietnamese husband, never remarried.
Riem started school when he was six and, like Hung, was made fun of by the other children. But he stubbornly held on until 1975, when the North Vietnamese took over and sent many city families–the wealthy, Amerasians, and other undesirables–to live in the “new economic zones” in the country. That same year his mother, afraid of how her relationship with an American would be used against her, burned every paper and photograph that could connect her to Riem’s father. With nothing written down, she soon forgot even the American city where he lived. “My mom, she very poor education,” says Riem today. “She don’t know how to read Vietnamese language–so how she know about America? When they talking, he understand a little, she understand a little. But she don’t know how to read or write.” Asked if he knows his father’s name, Riem takes a piece of paper and writes “John.” Below it, he writes “doctor.”
Soon after he and his mother arrived in the country, Riem decided he was going back to the city. “I lived out there, and I don’t like. So I come back to Saigon and take care of myself. In Saigon it’s easier–you can make money and live easier than in the country. I think so. I always wanted to live in Saigon, I didn’t want to live anywhere else in Vietnam.” To avoid the police, who would have sent him back to the country, he kept changing where he stayed at night, sometimes sleeping on the street, sometimes at a friend’s, sometimes in the house his mother had bought after they left Vung Tau. He was only ten years old, but he too found people in the market who needed help and he quickly worked himself up to selling cigarettes. His mother soon followed him to Saigon and began trundling goods back out to the country to sell.
Riem used some of the money he made to go back to school. “If I don’t do that, nobody help me if I want to learn,” he says. But he had missed a year, and so he was a year older than the other students, who taunted him for that as well as for his American face. His teacher finally told him to quit, and he did. He’d finished only five years of school. Many Amerasians dropped out of school at an early age–some because they were ridiculed, some because they couldn’t pay the tuition, some because they had to work.
Hung moved in with Riem and his mother, though she hadn’t liked Hung even when he was small, for reasons he isn’t sure of or doesn’t want to give. She fed him and bought him new clothes, and in return asked that he spend much of each day selling lotto tickets. He and Riem went out together every morning, found each other in time to eat the lunch Riem’s mother brought them, and met again when they went home for dinner. On Sundays they went to mass together–both were raised Catholic. At the beginning and end of each summer Hung would go back to his godfather’s to help him plant and then harvest his crops. He also visited his godfather at New Year’s.
Riem’s mother heard that Voice of America had been broadcasting that the U.S. had made special provisions for accepting Amerasians who wanted to leave Vietnam. She and Riem, who had the papers the Vietnamese government required, quickly went to fill out the forms for permission to leave. Riem had almost nothing to go on, but he too wanted to find his father–it’s terribly important in Vietnamese culture to know who your father is. “And I wanted to be American–really American. If I lived in Vietnam, I not have a future.” Riem’s mother asked that Hung be allowed to go with them but the officials said no.
Riem and his mother were sure they wouldn’t be long in Vietnam, and shortly after they filled out the application forms, his mother sold her house so the Vietnamese government couldn’t confiscate it when they left.
When the French lost their war with Vietnam in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, they evacuated all the French soldiers’ sons and daughters who wanted to leave. The children were made French citizens and guaranteed a college education.
The children of American soldiers were not so lucky. In 1970 the U.S. declared in a Department of Defense paper that “the care and welfare of those unfortunate children . . . has never been and is not now considered an area of Government responsibility.” Over the next couple of years, Congress proposed several bills concerning Amerasians, but only one, allocating $5 million for services to Amerasians in Vietnam, passed. The rest failed, in part because South Vietnam opposed them. After the war ended in 1975 stories about Amerasians disappeared, along with most news from Vietnam, and the children were forgotten.
In 1980 Vietnam and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) set up the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) to help stop the massive illegal and dangerous flight out of Vietnam by boat, because the care of the refugees was becoming an enormous burden on the asylum countries. (The escapes were also quite embarrassing for Vietnam.) Under ODP a number of countries, including the U.S., agreed to accept various categories of refugees Vietnam had said could leave. Though news stories about desperate Amerasian children living on the streets of Saigon–the Amerasians most visible to the foreign media–began appearing in the late 70s, Amerasians were not specifically made eligible under ODP guidelines, though they could leave as Vietnamese refugees.
Also in 1980 Vietnam began stating frequently and publicly that the U.S. had a moral obligation to the Amerasians, and that it was willing to release every Amerasian who wanted to leave–on the condition that the U.S. take responsibility for any costs, for Vietnam had no money. It had lost at least a million soldiers in the war, and the general destruction had been immense. The children of its former enemy were hardly a fiscal priority.
If the offer was a bluff, which is what some in the State Department thought, the U.S. chose not to call it. Neither the State Department nor Congress responded. As one man who has worked for years trying to get Amerasians out of Vietnam puts it, what congressman was going to stand up and make an issue of the bastard children of prostitutes, the product of a war so many wanted to forget? In fact, there is evidence to suggest that very few of the mothers were prostitutes. A study of 415 Amerasians and their families done in 1985 showed that the average amount of time the mothers spent with the fathers of their children was two years. Only 5 percent had never lived with the fathers.
By 1982 only 73 Amerasians had left Vietnam under the ODP, most of them as U.S. citizens through the efforts of their fathers. Embarrassed, the U.S. expanded its ODP criteria to explicitly include Amerasians, and in September the first children began leaving under the new language. It was an announcement of this change that Riem’s mother heard over Voice of America.
Hung lived with Riem and his mother for nearly two years, selling lotto tickets and turning all the money he made over to her. He had no spending money, and one day he took the cash he’d earned in the morning and went to see a film–he was fascinated by movies. But when he came out of the theater, he was afraid to go back home. For two days he walked around on the streets, selling his clothes to get money to eat. When he finally went home, he was relieved that Riem’s mother didn’t seem particularly angry. But that night after he was asleep, he says, she crept up to his bed, tied him down, and beat him. Then she threw him out of the house.
Hung, who was now 17, had heard that some people had escaped Vietnam by walking across Cambodia to Thailand and seeking refuge in the U.S. embassy in Bangkok. He had no idea that a war was going on along the Thai border between the Vietnamese-backed Cambodians and a quasi-coalition of U.S.-backed Cambodian guerrillas and the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge. He took a ferry upriver from Saigon and was dropped just inside the Cambodian border. He didn’t speak any Cambodian, and he didn’t have any money. He started walking in the direction he assumed Thailand would be and was promptly picked up by the Cambodian military police and thrown into jail. The Cambodians brought in some Vietnamese officers, and Hung, afraid of what they’d do if he told them his real plan, said he was looking for work. A week later the Vietnamese shipped him back downriver to Saigon.
Hung went back to sleeping on the street and making money however he could–selling newspapers, movie tickets, and whenever possible the most profitable thing, cigarettes. He saved as much money as he could and eventually had enough to buy himself a bicycle. But he was tired of fending for himself, and he threw in with one of the many gangs that prowled the streets of Saigon. “I needed somebody take care of me,” he says. But being in the gang of teenagers and young men meant that he was expected to steal–earrings, watches, packages. “They say if you steal something, give them–and they take care of you, nobody fight you. But if one day you bring nothing, they don’t give you the food.”
Within a year Hung had decided that he couldn’t bear what he was doing in the gang; it’s a period of his life that he now talks about only reluctantly. “I did that when I was a little boy. I didn’t understand that’s the bad thing, so I do–because I must take care of my life. If I don’t do that, I can’t have the food, I can’t live. But when I grow up, I understand. I know that’s the bad thing, I know that’s the bad people. I don’t want to live with them, and I’m going the other way.”
He left the gang and went back to selling cigarettes and whatever else he could think of. Sometimes he washed dishes for the sidewalk food vendors. Sometimes he sold bus drivers cans of gasoline that he bought from families who couldn’t use up their monthly ration. “I told the bus driver if he needs gas, I get the gas.” He managed to save a little money again, which this time he gave to a tutor for math and Vietnamese lessons. “My teacher liked me because I very fast,” he says. But the inflation rate was so high at the time (a year later it would hit 700 percent) that he soon couldn’t afford to continue.
Both Hung and Riem, who still saw each other occasionally, tried to get regular jobs, but no one would hire them. “The people, they don’t want to give Amerasians a job, because they think Amerasians is not good person,” says Hung. “I don’t know why, but a lot of people think that. They think Amerasians work very hard, but they not good person. But some Amerasians, they have the cousin or the relative, and they let them have a job.”
Every six weeks or so Hung would go back to the emigration offices and plead with the Vietnamese officials to be allowed to apply for permission to leave. He was turned down every time. Then he heard from the mother of an Amerasian that there were Americans in the city interviewing people who wanted to emigrate. He showed up early one morning at the office building she had described, but the police were keeping out anyone who didn’t have an appointment. He waited outside until one of the American interviewers left for lunch and then chased after the man. “I told him my father American and my mother Vietnamese, so I Amerasian. I just have picture of my father, I don’t have any ID–so Vietnamese government they don’t want me make application to go United States. I let him see my pictures, and this make him sad. And he give me some money–and he give me the papers.”
The American persuaded the Vietnamese to give Hung the papers he needed to be allowed to fill out an application. Hung filled out the forms, and the officials sent them to Hanoi. It was March 1984. Hung, like Riem and his mother, was sure he would wait only a short time–perhaps six months–before being given an interview with the Americans. He was so excited he took the bus to his godfather’s to tell him the news.
But eight or nine months later Hung had heard nothing. He went back to the American interviewer. “He really wanted to help, but he said I must wait for Vietnamese government to let me go.”
Riem and his mother’s frequent inquiries at the emigration offices hadn’t done them any good either. Riem and Hung were sure that it was the Vietnamese government, not the American, that was making them wait. “We believed Americans help Amerasians come United States early,” says Hung. “But we must wait for Vietnamese government.” Yet he believed that eventually the Vietnamese would let him go. “Because the Vietnamese government, they don’t like Amerasians. I thought I will go–I always thought so.”
The two boys had watched other Amerasians and Vietnamese be interviewed and then leave the country, and they had figured out that bribes could speed a departure, though bribery was hardly an option for them. “Somebody, they have a lot of money, and they want to go first,” says Hung. “But they didn’t have their name on the list. So they give the Vietnamese government money. The government they didn’t say, ‘Give me the money. I let you go first.’ They didn’t say that, but they do that.”
Ironically, by 1984 the Amerasians’ American blood had become a valuable commodity. It was a potential ticket to the U.S. for the wealthy Vietnamese who offered them money, a job, whatever they wanted if they would agree to marry their sons or daughters, or claim the wealthy Vietnamese had taken care of them since they were small–and then take off as soon as the temporary family reached this country. The Amerasians who accepted such offers often had to leave their own families behind, as ODP policy allowed them to take along only their spouses and children or their primary caretaker and that individual’s immediate family. “In Vietnam a lot of Amerasians do that way, because they need the money,” says Hung. Then he adds, “If you have two or three Amerasians, you sell two, and you keep one, and you go United States.”
Riem and Hung knew many who accepted the offers, but they both refused. “I don’t want to do that, because I think that’s not good,” says Hung. And he didn’t want the Vietnamese to lie their way into the U.S. “Because I think America my country.” He laughs. “You know, they told me if I want go to school, they let me go to school every day if I go with them to United States. If I want the best clothes, they give me the best clothes. If I need money, they give me the money. But I said no.”
Hung kept going back to the Vietnamese officials, who were soon irritated with him. They told him that they couldn’t do anything, that if he wanted something done, he had to write Hanoi. They gave him an address, and he wrote one letter after another. He got no response.
Under the broadened language of 1982, the ODP emigration process essentially required Amerasians and their immediate relatives or primary caretaker to first get permission from the Vietnamese government to leave the country. Lists of those who had permission were given to UNHCR representatives, who did a preliminary review of the paperwork on the cases and then sent the papers to American officials at the U.S. embassy in Bangkok for a second review. (The U.S. maintained no official diplomatic ties with Vietnam, which was still considered an enemy, and so the Americans who reviewed paperwork and did interviews in Saigon were UNHCR employees.) After the paperwork came back from Bangkok, the Vietnamese set dates for interviews with the UNHCR representatives. If officials in Bangkok then approved the individuals, the Vietnamese set dates for medical exams and departures.
After 1982 the numbers of Amerasian children leaving rose, but only slowly; 1,300 left in 1983. The U.S. complained that the children weren’t coming fast enough. There were a number of reasons for this. No one from the Vietnamese government was helping the Amerasians, who had to figure out for themselves how to get permission to leave. Those in rural areas often weren’t notified about the ODP, and in some places those who simply asked about the program were harassed. Conditions in Vietnam also hindered the processing of those who’d made the permission list. There were no photocopiers, little paper, and few phones. In addition, Vietnamese security checks could take two to three years, Vietnamese doctors who did the medical exams were often not available when needed, and departure flights were allowed only once a month.
The Vietnamese responded to the American complaint by saying that it was inappropriate for the Amerasians to be included under the ODP in the first place, for they were not refugees who were being persecuted by the government–the proof of which was that only a tiny number ever fled the country on boats. Rather, they said, the Amerasians were a unique legacy of the war and their status should be resolved by the two countries alone, not as part of a larger multilateral program. The Vietnamese, though offended by the use of the refugee label, also seemed to be subtly trying to use the Amerasians in a broader push for increased dialogue with the U.S., which they hoped would lead to the normalization of relations.
Though it was already holding bilateral talks with Vietnam on POWs and MIAs, the U.S. repeatedly refused another direct official contact. According to a State Department press release, “Any demand by Hanoi that the United States tailor its refugee laws and programs to suit Vietnam’s preferences would be grossly inappropriate.” The U.S. also insisted that it wanted the Amerasians to come here labeled as refugees, making them eligible for help in resettling that was not offered to immigrants. Heavy criticism from the voluntary agencies working with Amerasians followed, and late in 1984 Secretary of State George Shultz announced that the Amerasians would become part of a subprogram in ODP, a partial acknowledgment that they actually were a special case.
By 1985 it was Vietnam’s turn to complain about the American bureaucratic tangle. It said the U.S. was moving too slowly, requiring too many documents, making it difficult for mothers of Amerasians to prove their relationship. In fact, the American process was unwieldy, in part because of the elaborate mechanisms necessary to prevent any appearance of official contacts. Yet it was also true that while the Amerasians’ faces were usually proof enough that they were who they said they were, it was difficult to be sure of the identity of the people claiming to be relatives or caretakers. In 1986 the Vietnamese stopped processing new ODP cases, stating that there was a backlog of 25,000 people that the Americans had interviewed who had been neither rejected nor accepted. Before new names would be submitted, the Americans had to process that backlog, a list that included very few Amerasians. In 1986 only 578 left Vietnam, in 1987 only 213.
By early 1988 the waiting for some word from Hanoi had made Hung nearly desperate. Eight years had gone by since he first left his godfather’s farm. “I worry about my life–because I feeling I too old. I want come to United States early, and go to school, and make good my future. I don’t want stay there such a long time. So I decide to come to the Vietnamese government in the north of Vietnam, Hanoi. My money not enough for train ticket, so I decide to sell my bicycle–just the one thing I have. And I bought one ticket–just enough for one ticket, just one way.”
He left on January 26, and it took him three days and four nights to make the 1,000-mile journey. It was a humiliating trip. “The people from North Vietnam, they really don’t like Amerasians. They just look me like a dog.”
Hanoi was bitter cold when he arrived. He made his way to the address of the emigration offices and showed the authorities his pictures of his father. “I said, ‘I alone. No father, no mother. And my life very hard.'” The officials retrieved the file they had on him and immediately saw the letters he had written. They gently told Hung that he should be allowed to leave and wrote a letter to officials in a Saigon office Hung hadn’t known about, stating that his identity papers were in order, that he had cleared the security check, and that he should be promptly given an interview.
“So they give me the paper, and I must bring this paper to Saigon. But I have no money, so I can’t buy a ticket.” He went to the station and simply boarded the train south along with the other passengers. The conductor didn’t discover him and throw him off until the train was at Da Nang, halfway to Saigon. A friendly truck driver gave him a lift most of the rest of the way. On April 15 he had an appointment with the Americans.
Hung’s brief interview was held at Tan Son Nhut, the airport just outside Saigon. He was immediately accepted, on condition that he pass the medical exam, and told he would be put on the list of people waiting for a flight out. But he wasn’t told when he would leave. A month later Riem and his mother were interviewed and put on the same departure list.
Afraid he might not be found when it was his turn to go, Hung moved into a large park near the Vietnamese emigration offices known as Paris Park, which has retained its French name. The park was also near the hotels where increasing numbers of visiting Americans stayed. “When Amerasians saw American people, they missed their father,” says Hung. “And that make them come to the park every day–because they can see Americans come visit them.” Many of the visitors were former soldiers looking for their wives, sons, or daughters, few of whom were found.
“Some Americans come to the park and teach us the nose, the eye, the ear, the eyebrow, the eyelash,” Hung says, pointing to each one and laughing. “Tooth, teeth, chin, face.” One man came to the park and taught them for an hour every day for two weeks. “He just come to Vietnam looking for his son. He didn’t find his son. But he love Amerasians, and he teach us about American history. We really liked to learn, but he got married with a Vietnamese girl–she’s a very nice girl, and she speaks very well. He got married and come back to United States.”
Hung often asked the Americans to help him find his father and gave them his father’s name and social security number. “Sometimes they photocopy his picture. When I live in Vietnam, I’m not very smart. I live in the park–I have no house, no address. So how can they let me know?” He laughs. “I know about that, but I just want looking for my father.”
Asked if he knows why American soldiers fought in Vietnam, Riem says, “I don’t know why should Americans come to Vietnam fighting against Vietcong–because they different. But I hear somebody say Americans come to Vietnam to help the government of South Vietnam.”
“Maybe help the republic army fighting the Vietcong, fighting the communists,” Hung says. “I’m not sure, but I think American Army help the Vietnamese army keep the freedom. The Vietcong they want control everybody, they want control the people from South Vietnam. The communists they don’t like the people from South Vietnam. They think people from South Vietnam like Americans–want freedom of South Vietnam.” Later he adds, “When I was a young man and a little boy, I not thinking about the freedom or communism–I don’t know about that, I don’t worry about that. I just know about my life.”
Every morning of the year Hung lived in the park, he would wash up at a nearby theater, where he also washed his clothes, hanging them to dry in the trees. Since he didn’t want to leave the park during the day, he came up with a new way of making money, selling iced tea. He bought tea and ice, and then boiled water from a hotel on a small stove that he fed with branches from the trees.
Some days 50 to 60 other Amerasians joined him in the park; on other days only 3 or 4 would show up. One of them, Raymond, had lived with his father long enough to learn some English, which he passed on. “Amerasians make friends with Amerasians because every day we sit around the park and talking together–about go to America and about our future,” Hung says. “We got not enough food, but a lot of fun. Sometimes we saw a movie–a fun movie or a love-story movie.” Both Hung and Riem, who sometimes came to the park, had girlfriends.
Hung landed in jail a couple of times that year. “Because we live around the park, and the police they don’t want Amerasians living in the park. But after three days or four days they let me go,” Hung says, and then laughs. “If I stay in jail, they must give me food. Not good food, but I don’t care because I have food every day–I don’t have to worry about how to get food or how to get money.”
Riem and his mother were the first to be given a departure date, September 5, 1988. Riem worried that his mother would be unhappy if she went. “Before I leave Saigon I say to her that when old people come to United States, they feel sad, they feel not good. Because a lot of people come and they’re too old, they can’t talk together with someone. It’s difficult the life.” He laughs. “I said to her that, but she say, ‘I want to come! I want to come United States!'” The two spent seven months in a camp in the Philippines, where they were taught some English and were given classes on American culture. They didn’t know anyone in the U.S., so they were assigned to Chicago, one of a number of cities where refugees can find agencies that will help them resettle. They landed in Chicago on April 7, 1989.
Hung didn’t leave Vietnam until March 6, 1989, nearly a year after his interview. He was given his airline ticket two weeks before he was to leave, and he took the bus out to see his godfather for the last time. Hung was in the Philippines for six months. He followed Riem and his mother to Chicago and arrived on September 3.
Late in 1986 the State Department had finally agreed to bilateral discussions with the Vietnamese on Amerasians. But negotiations moved slowly, and each side accused the other of obstructing the process.
In mid-1987 Representative Robert Mrazek of New York had introduced in Congress the Amerasian Homecoming Act, which was designed to meet the main objections Vietnam had been voicing over the years. The act would make the release of Amerasians a clear bilateral issue, and it would separate them from ODP emigrants, though they would be processed by the same people. And they would no longer be called refugees, though they would receive the same services as refugees once they arrived in the U.S. “Any further delays,” said Mrazek, “will only make it increasingly difficult for these children and young adults to adapt to life in their new country. Because of the lack of education and occupational opportunities in Vietnam for Amerasians, time is literally running out for them to reach their full potential.”
In September 1987 the State Department finally reached an oral understanding with the Vietnamese, having agreed, among other things, to streamline its processing of Amerasians. In October, U.S. officials, no longer under UNHCR cover, went to Saigon to interview the first new Amerasian cases in nearly two years. But Mrazek, worried about the tentativeness of the State Department’s agreement, pushed ahead on his bill, which set March 1990 as the date by which all Amerasians who wanted to leave Vietnam were to depart. It was passed in December–over official State Department opposition–and implemented in March 1988, one month before Hung would finally be interviewed by the Americans at Tan Son Nhut.
In the nearly 13 years after the war ended, fewer than 4,000 Amerasians had come to the U.S. After the Mrazek bill was passed, the numbers arriving went up steadily: 3,737 Amerasians and relatives came in 1988, 13,505 in 1989; 15,000 were to arrive this year. Vietnamese officials estimate that the number of Amerasians and their relatives who still want to leave Vietnam is between 40,000 and 60,000.
A number of people from voluntary agencies who have worked with Amerasians over the years say that powerful State Department officials continued to fight the Vietnam war long after it was over, with humanitarian issues as the battleground. They say that if the department had been less stubborn about political appearances it could have gotten the same deal on Amerasians it now has in 1982 or earlier. State Department officials insist that they don’t know what else they could have done.
“I hope the first thing when I come to America I find my father,” says Hung. “And the second thing, I hope I go to school every day. I hope when I come to United States I am a good person, so I can go to school and learn, learn, learn and have a high education.”
Not knowing where else to go, he moved in with Riem and his mother, who were living in a small one-bedroom apartment in Uptown–where most of Chicago’s 400 Amerasians and their relatives now live. Hung wanted to go straight to work or to school full-time. But he had to wait nearly two months for the green card and social security number he needed to get a job, and his English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Truman College were held only at night. The long days with nothing to do were depressing. “This make me homesick, you know. Because I miss my godfather. Because when I come to United States, it strange for me–everything strange for me. So I just stay home, and I thinking about Vietnam.”
Hung wanted to work so he could start fitting in here, and he didn’t like being on public aid, having quickly picked up that it carried a stigma. As soon as he had his green card, he went to the Vietnamese Association of Illinois, which found him a full-time job at the same west-side furniture factory where Riem worked.
But Hung was desperate to attend classes more than just three hours a night. Early last January he sat in the living room of his apartment almost pleading with his ESL teacher to tell him how he could go to school full-time. He said he had to learn English faster, and the most important reason he gave was that he had to be able to talk with his father when he found him.
A couple weeks before, the teacher had helped him write down the few details that he knew about his father on a questionnaire put together by a veterans’ organization in California that tries to help Amerasians find their fathers. “In Vietnam I never see him, but I always have him in my mind,” Hung said. “When I was a little boy, I always say, ‘Who is my father? What did he do?’ I just want know who is my father.”
Less than five months after Hung arrived in Chicago, he and Riem’s mother had a falling out, and he moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, which has a well-established Vietnamese community and a number of Amerasians, some of whom he knew from the Philippines. He had been told that if he needed help after he arrived, he could call Lois Pearlman, who worked as a volunteer with Southeast Asian refugees in Chicago until she moved to Lincoln. She laughs when she remembers how he called her on a Sunday to ask for her help registering for ESL classes at the local community college, and then called her the next day to say he had already registered by himself but was upset that they wouldn’t let him start GED classes. He wanted to know if she could help him get in. Two days later he had found himself a job in a water bed factory. Pearlman took him to a bank and helped him open a savings account, and to the library to get a library card–neither of which anyone in Chicago had showed him how to do.
Pearlman also continued the search for Hung’s father. She called the local Veterans Administration office and talked with the person assigned to help those trying to contact former soldiers. At first the man insisted that he needed more identifying information, that strict bureaucratic regulations had to be followed. But after she told him Hung’s story, he agreed to send to Washington for Hung’s father’s file. There was only one file with his father’s name, and the man forwarded the letter Pearlman had written to the last known address.
In mid-June, two and a half months later, Pearlman got a call from a man who explained that he didn’t want to say he was Hung’s father until he knew for sure who Hung’s mother was. Pearlman suggested that she send him copies of the pictures Hung had.
Pearlman tried to call Hung, but he had disappeared. His roommate, who was also Amerasian, had finished his ESL classes and had decided to move to Seattle, where his girlfriend was. Hung went with him because his own girlfriend–the Vietnamese sister of an Amerasian friend he had met in the Philippines–also lived there. Hung arrived on May 4 and promptly found himself a job setting up food trays for the airlines.
A friend of Pearlman’s finally traced him to Seattle and told him a man who might be his father was alive and that he should send his pictures to Pearlman. Hung knew enough English to understand that his father might be alive, but he didn’t understand what the friend had said about his pictures. One week later, at the end of June, he left Seattle. He had realized that he wasn’t going to be able to go to school at night there because he didn’t have a car and the buses don’t run late. He bought a one-way ticket to Chicago and moved back in with Riem and his mother.
Pearlman had also asked another friend to write Hung a letter in Vietnamese, explaining that the man who might be his father wanted better proof who Hung’s mother was. That letter caught up with Hung in early July in Chicago, and he immediately mailed the pictures. “I think that’s right he want make sure who is his son,” he said. “But I think he is my father. Because he say long time he gets just one letter from my mom.” Hung had been warned that some fathers of Amerasians don’t want to see their children, and when asked if he wanted to visit his father he said, “If he wants, I can come see him. If he don’t want, I don’t want.” He was quiet for a moment. “It would make me sad. I just want know who is my father. And I really miss him. But if he don’t want I come visit him, that’s OK. I think he might have trouble with his family.” He paused again. “Right now I have a job, and I know a lot about thinking in America. So I think, what should I do, what should I not? So if my dad want I live with him, that’s OK. I can take care of him when he’s too old. But he no want, that’s OK. If my father he know I am his son, and he want I come back to his city and live with him, I looking for a job, and I go to work, and after work I take care of him–cooking for him or take care of house, clean the house, something, whatever I can do for him. And another thing, if I always speaking with him, it make me learn more English. And when I live with him, I feel happy–because this is my father, you know, this is my dad. And I am his son, and I have a family. I’m not lonely.” What if his father turned out to be less than nice? “I don’t care about that. I just know he’s my dad.”
Hung had long been convinced his father was a kind man, though he had little to go on. “I saw him in my pictures. I know him–I have a feeling by what I see in the picture.” But he could see the humor in the conclusions he’d had to draw from so little, and laughed when he said, “I think him very good person, very nice person, because he always has the short haircut and he always wears a T-shirt.”
Pearlman waited until early September without hearing from Hung’s father and then called him. He told her that the woman in Hung’s pictures was the woman he had lived with and that Hung was his son. He said he hadn’t known she was pregnant when he left, but he also said that the one letter she had written him was all in Vietnamese with the exception of the word “baby.” He said he was 60 years old, that he had three other sons, that he lived alone in a small town in Mississippi. He asked her to ask Hung to write him. Then he said that one of the reasons he had finally answered her first letter was that he had never known his own father.
Pearlman called Hung on a Sunday. Hung had a letter in the mail on Monday. “I write, ‘My name is Hung Nguyen.’ I say I got his address from Lois, who help me looking for him. I say I really happy when I got his address. Yeah. And I ask him, ‘How you doing now, Dad?’ And ‘I hope you are as fine as me.’ That’s OK?” He carefully wrote out the last sentence, and each word was perfectly spelled. “I say, ‘How are your family? Let me send my love to them.’ I ask him, ‘Do you know how much I miss you?’ Because I feel I miss him very much. And I ask him, ‘Can I call you soon?’ I say, ‘I still live with my cousin, and he is American–he is Amerasian too. And his mom and my mom were friends a long time in Vietnam.’ And I say, ‘Can I stop right here, because I don’t know very much English. I hope you understand me.’ I write at last I hope God will be blessing his family all the time, and I say I hope I hear from him soon. And after that I sign my name, and I say, ‘Your son.'” He paused. “I send him my picture, and I write on the picture, ‘I hope I will be able to meet you soon.’ That’s OK?” Then he laughed. “I don’t know how to write very much.”
Two weeks later, on September 18, Hung had a letter and a photograph from his father, who said he was proud of Hung and asked him to write again or to call. Hung wanted to call but was afraid his father wouldn’t understand his English. Five days later he did, and they talked for 15 minutes. Hung discarded the list of questions he had written out. He asked his father to give him an American name. His father asked if the bus lines came all the way into Chicago.
So far only 1 to 2 percent of the Amerasians who have come to this country have found their fathers. They rarely have more than a few clues to go on, as most of their mothers destroyed identifying papers when the North Vietnamese took over. “No information for me,” says Riem, shaking his head. “Nothing. He was doctor for American Seventh Corps Army and Navy. So unhappy my life because I cannot see my father. I only hope so, but I don’t know when. Always I thinking of him. I hope that I will see him, find him, and talk to him a lot–my story. And I want him to say me his story.” His mother may remember more than she has told him, but she is reluctant to talk about his father, and he doesn’t want to upset her by pressing her.
Hung says that occasionally when he walked down the street after he first arrived here, he would see a man he thought looked like his father might with 20 years added to the face in his pictures. “I think, ‘Maybe, maybe this man is my father.’ Sometimes Amerasians think that way. And not just Amerasians. Their mothers sometimes they go on the street and they see a man like her husband before. They think about that, but not talk with the person.”
Most Amerasians will probably never find their fathers, and even those with more than a little information are likely to spend a long time looking. And if they find their fathers, they might not be welcomed. Some Amerasians who have located their fathers have sent letters that have gone unanswered or have called and been hung up on. Only about 500 veterans who had children in Vietnam have contacted the few agencies that try to trace Amerasian children.
Hung, who is now 24, calls his father nearly every Sunday afternoon. His father has said that he wants to come north but can’t until after winter. Hung wanted to drive down to Mississippi, but he doesn’t have any vacation time. Yet a meeting isn’t likely to have much of an effect on Hung’s impatient but sometimes still bewildered pursuit of a plan for his life.
Riem’s mother, who is 61, seems to have been tolerating him well since he moved back in. Hung, Riem, and the two Vietnamese men who now live with them in their cramped and cockroach-infested apartment split most of the bills. Only the rent and the food, which Riem’s mother cooks, are split five ways.
Hung now works full-time at the gasket company where Riem has worked since he quit the furniture factory in early summer. The factory owner had liked Riem and the suggestions he made for improving the furniture, but his supervisor had complained about him–partly out of jealousy, Riem thinks. “He say me no good. He say ‘Lazy.’ I say to him, ‘When I little boy to now, I working–and nobody say me lazy. Right now you say me lazy. OK. I don’t care.’ So after that I told the boss. He told me, ‘Still stay over there. Keep the job and working until you find another job.’ He said about how his father come to United States, how he made his business, and how he want to keep me. But I said to him, ‘I quit.'” He’s now making $6.90 an hour as a machine operator. Hung is making $5.80.
Hung signed up for a nine-month machine-shop course shortly after he came back to Chicago. He had been intrigued as a child by the work of a local machinist and thought having such a skill would give him a little security and a bit more money. “If I got a license, I easy got a job if the company lay me off. If I have no license, too hard to get a job. I just worry about that.” But the classes were at night on the southwest side, an hour’s bus ride each way, which would have meant five hours of school and travel after each full day’s work. Hung had hoped Riem would want to take the classes with him, so they could drive together in the used car Riem had bought. But Riem wasn’t interested, and Hung gave up that idea.
Riem pushed himself hard through his ESL classes and will soon take the test that, if he passes it, will start him in a GED program. Hung, who knows he’s behind because he has moved around so much, started ESL classes again in September. But he missed three days in the first week, twice because he had to work overtime and once because he got sick. On the nights he went, he was tired from work, and he and his teacher, who was Hispanic, had trouble understanding each other. He stopped going.
He then decided he’d study on his own for a while, looking up words he didn’t understand in his English-Vietnamese dictionary. He spent his nights and weekends listening intently to the radio or television and regularly went to the nearby branch library to check out books. The only books he’s interested in at the moment are in the U.S. history aisle. Ironically, Abraham Lincoln has become a hero, and Hung can recite all the significant dates of Lincoln’s life.
By late September Hung had decided he needed the help he could get in school after all, and he started going to class again. He had an added incentive to learn faster after one of his Vietnamese roommates, who was well educated in Vietnam, taunted him for using less than perfect English in a letter Hung was sending to the American interviewer who had befriended him in Saigon. Yet Hung is often asked to work overtime and has to miss class.
He calls his girlfriend in Seattle every Saturday night, but he worries that it will be a long time before he can marry her. One afternoon while sitting in a park with Riem he says, “A lot of Vietnamese girls when they have a boyfriend, and if they see the boyfriend have no money, have no car–they don’t want to get married with that guy. And they looking for somebody lived in United States a long time, who have a good job and a nice car.” Riem, who doesn’t have a girlfriend at the moment, agrees. They say that many traditional Vietnamese women still expect to be well supported by their husbands, a responsibility both are beginning to wonder if they want to bear. They assert that young Amerasian women don’t tend to care much about money, and then say they know a number of Amerasians who have married other Amerasians. “If Amerasian get married with Amerasian and they have a child,” Hung suddenly says, “it looks like an American.” The two break out laughing. “Never look Vietnamese,” says Riem. And then, still laughing, they both say at the same time, “100 percent American!”
There are a number of things about this country that make the two friends nearly giddy. One Sunday after mass–they both still go nearly every week, to Saint Thomas’s on North Kenmore, where the 1 PM service is in Vietnamese–they and four friends made a rare excursion to a restaurant on Argyle Street, the center of Chicago’s Southeast Asian community. Riem, who’s teased for always being hungry, relished every mouthful of the large platter of food he ordered, then his orange juice, and then the orange slice draped over the edge of the glass, peel and all. Never in his life in Vietnam, he said, laughing, did he eat so well. Most of Riem and Hung’s friends are Amerasian. Riem has helped organize a group of them, and they meet almost every week to talk about problems they’re having; ten of them, including Riem and Hung, recently wrote stories for a newsletter that will be out soon. On weekends some of them may party together, and the outings are probably wilder than Riem and Hung let on. Riem usually goes, Hung rarely does. Riem drinks, Hung doesn’t. Riem smokes, Hung won’t.
The two are also quite amazed by their new clothes, by Riem’s car, and by the simple fact that they have jobs. “In Vietnam the people they don’t let me get a job, they don’t hire me,” says Hung. “That make me sad. But right now I’ve got a job. See? I can do. And speak English and place to live and going to school.” He laughs. “That makes me high.”
There is of course also the opposite emotion, and Hung and Riem can slide quickly from one to the other. Amerasians often have a harder time adjusting to life here than other Southeast Asian refugees and immigrants, though the fact that many of them have had to be such adept survivors may help them in the long run. The reasons for their problems seem to vary–all the evidence is anecdotal, as no study of Illinois Amerasians has yet been done. Some are rejected by stepfathers. Some are abandoned by their mothers. Sometimes they abandon their mothers. The youngest are now 16, and the average age is 20, so they have all the added pressures of being teenagers and young adults.
They are often not sure how to define themselves. Having been told for so many years that they didn’t fit in Vietnam because they were American, they have found that they don’t fit here because their culture is thoroughly Vietnamese. Asked if they ever want to go back to Vietnam, Hung and Riem both say no–immediately, unhesitatingly. Riem insists he doesn’t miss it at all, but Hung will admit that he still gets homesick and misses his godfather, whom he often writes and occasionally sends money to. But neither of them sees himself as American. “I am Amerasian,” says Hung. “Always. Because I not look like American.”
They also sense that it’s going to be difficult to find their way into the American mainstream. The people they work with are also recent immigrants with similarly limited English, and they have no American friends their own age–and don’t know how to make any. “If we make friends with Americans, that make me learn more English,” says Hung. “We like to, but we can’t.” He wants to practice English around home, but everyone prefers to speak Vietnamese.
Amerasians sometimes run into the same prejudice here that was directed against them in Vietnam. “I don’t say too much about that,” says Riem. “But usually when I walk around on Argyle Street, I see some people look at me like I’m a robber or like something not good–because they are thinking Amerasians no good.” Hung says some Amerasians believe that one of the reasons they’re pushed straight into working full-time at low-paid, low-skill jobs is that the Vietnamese community doesn’t want them to better themselves by getting a good education. He shrugs and says that at the moment he’s content with the job he has. “Right now my English not enough, and I don’t have the experience. If I can speak English well, I can get a good job.” His dream now is to someday work for the post office.
The subtle disdain Riem senses the Vietnamese feel only makes him more determined. “I want to make I’m a good person and I have a good future, so they will see what Amerasians can do. If somebody teach me, I can do anything. I plan to get a lot of money. After that I borrow from a bank, so I make up a small store–my business. And sell things, anything. I don’t want to work in the company like this. I want work for myself.” He laughs. “And boss myself.”
The greatest extra burden many Amerasians seem to carry is their disillusionment. They expected far more of the U.S. than other immigrants and refugees. This was their father’s country, the country where they’d been told they belonged. They thought America would welcome them home, would do all it could to make up for all the years of deprivation their American blood had caused them.
More than anything, Riem and Hung wanted the education they had missed. “When I come United States, I thinking Amerasians should have Amerasian school teach all Amerasians,” says Riem. “I hope so. That’s nice. But I come United States, I didn’t see something like that.”
“I’d really like to study in the high school–study American history or study mathematics,” says Hung. “But I don’t have time. I can’t study all night. If I study, who gives me money? Every month I must pay $400 or $500 for rent, for transportation, for clothing, for telephone, electric bill. So I must go to work, and I’m just studying a little. I want study everything.” Both of them know people who manage to stay on public aid and go to school full-time in the day, but they refuse to do that. “I don’t want people thinking I am a bad person, that I got money from government long time,” says Hung.
They both seem overwhelmed by what they assume they would have learned in high school, though they greatly overestimate what the average graduate knows. Riem sometimes calls himself stupid, even though he did well in school as a child and has raced through his ESL classes here. “If I smart right now, I sit on the big chair and I say ‘You should do this. You should do that,'” he says, gesturing imperiously. He says he can’t see himself as a teacher, a doctor, a computer programmer. “If I was born in United States, that’s no problem. But I was born in Vietnam. If I had come to United States in 1980 or 1982, that would be nice for me.” He pauses. “I don’t know about my future. I don’t think about being doctor or engineer. I just thinking, maybe I get married, and I have children. And maybe my child . . . ”
Hung can’t see himself in any of those professions either. “We never think about that,” he says, his voice rising. “We don’t want to think about that. Because we can’t do that. All of the Amerasians never think that way. They just know how to get money for rent and to pay everything. If we been in United States when we little boy, we can do that. If we be younger, or if we have a school for Amerasians and all Amerasians study together, that’s good for them. But right now we too old. Right now it’s too late. Too late for Amerasians.”
On a Saturday morning in late September, Riem, Hung, and one of their Vietnamese roommates, Dien, go on a trip to the Field Museum. It is only the second museum they have ever seen; they have been to the Vietnam Museum on North Broadway a few times.
They start with the Egyptian tomb, lingering nowhere for very long, but crisscrossing the rooms to stare into almost every case. They show the usual mix of fascination and disgust when they come to the mummies. They climb the stairs to the top of the stone tomb and then, laughing, spiral down to the basement. When they come to the exhibit showing how the pyramids were built, Hung describes a movie about Egypt that he once saw in Vietnam. When he sees a pharaoh’s boat, he wants to know if the Egyptians ever fought the U.S. Navy.
They head upstairs and into the long halls of Native American Indian displays. Hung stands for a long time in front of the case of Indians from southern Mississippi. They move on to the room with Eskimo artifacts, where they peer down at the model of a hunter on pack ice. They shake their heads and say they can’t imagine so much cold. Occasionally as they move from room to room, Riem gently touches things that aren’t behind glass–the fake snow on a roof, the bronze chin of a sculpture that’s bright from many fingers. Hung wants to know why Arkansas and Kansas are pronounced differently. “So many things to know,” he says softly to himself.
Dien, whose family were fishermen in Vietnam, sits in the huge chair in the room that reminds adults of how small they once were, his feet dangling far above the floor. They all laugh, and Hung, who has brought his camera, snaps his picture.
They wander into the rooms of stuffed Asian mammals, and Hung seems hurt that the range maps are labeled “Indochina” instead of “Vietnam,” and wants to know why the labels haven’t been changed. They clamber upstairs and into the dinosaur room. Every skeleton is looked over, and the remoteness of the eras in which these animals lived registers. Hung stands for a moment, listening to a mother ask questions of her small daughter, who’s holding a pen and a pad of paper.
Riem says he’s hungry, and they head out through the South Pacific exhibit. Hung stands in front of a brightly lit beach scene, puts on his sunglasses, and asks to have his picture taken. Outside the exhibit is a huge ceramic-tile map of the Pacific and the surrounding continents. Hung stands on Chicago and Riem on Vietnam. Dien squats down and tries to trace the route the boat he escaped on took from Vietnam to Malaysia. Hung moves his hands along the grout lines between the tiles that mark longitude and latitude and asks for the English words.
They meander downstairs and out to the parking lot. Hung pulls a large bag out of the car, and at a break in the traffic they all sprint across Lake Shore Drive to the grassy hill next to Shedd Aquarium. Riem sits down and smooths out the museum maps they’ve been carrying. Hung piles on top of them a box of lemon cookies, two large bags of corn chips, a bag of plums, two packs of chewing gum, a can of peanuts, a huge bottle of Coke, and a four-inch stack of paper napkins.
After they’ve eaten, they head back to the museum. In the basement they shout in surprise at the peculiar stuffed narwhals, then laugh at a little girl who shows even less restraint. They climb back to the second floor, where more pictures are taken in front of cases of gemstones and carved jade. Hung wants to know why measurements are metric in the earth-science exhibit and English elsewhere. In the plant hall he shows how he once grasped and cut rice at harvest and how he would pull the yellowed leaves from the bottom of tobacco plants so they could be dried. Riem points out his favorite spice pepper, a long, tight string of tiny corns.
By the time they finally leave, they have spent nearly six hours in the museum and have gone through nearly every room. As they walk across the huge hallway toward the exit, Hung runs ahead of the others, pushes hard through the revolving door, and heads down the outside steps. He stops a few stairs down and turns to take a picture of his friends just as they walk through the door.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.