Mommy Dearest: A shoebox baby searches for a happy ending

It was April 1975, the final month of the American War, and US President Gerald Ford had a plan, codenamed Operation Babylift. Ahead of approaching North Vietnamese soldiers, displaced Vietnamese infants and children, in particular, mixed race children, were to be evacuated to adoptive families waiting in the US, Canada, Europe and Australia. Eventually, more than 3,300 left, plucked from their homeland, culture and community in a swirl of controversy. Some felt the last- minute, badly organized operation was nothing more than a move to generate sympathy for the war, a photo op for an unpopular president greeting a planeload of children in need of saving. Others saw it as a gesture motivated by guilt. Some claimed that not all the children were actually orphans and were evacuated without the consent of their families. Whatever the case, upon arrival at their respective countries, all received new names and without the benefit of any documentation, fell into an identity abyss with little hope of knowing where they came from or who they really belonged to.

One of those was an infant with a round face and arched eyebrows, accompanied by a birth certificate proclaiming her name to be Le Thi Ha. However, since her birth certificate was simply a piece of paper bought somewhere to facilitate her leaving the country, Ha is almost certainly not the name her mother gave her. Now 40 years old and living in Australia, Ha (now Chantal Doecke) sports a shock of purple hair and tattoo sleeves to go along with those distinctive arched eyebrows, the same ones from the photo that is the only tangible link to her past. This year, marking the 40th anniversary of Operation Babylift, Chantal has come back to Vietnam in search of answers. This is her story.

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I was born at the Tu Du Hospital in District 1. There was no paperwork, or if there was, it was destroyed. I was told my mother had me and then she left. It could’ve been hours, it could’ve been days… I don’t know. But she didn’t leave anything with me. When they had the evacuation, someone called the hospital to ask if anyone wanted to get rid of any babies, and I was one of them. I was taken to the airport, put in a shoe box and shipped to Australia where my adopted parents had seen an advertisement for anyone wanting to adopt an overseas child from Vietnam. My mother answered the ad and asked for a baby girl.

Even though I had a really loving, close family, growing up was hard. I had nasty things said to me. You get looks from your neighbors, people at the local supermarket, pointing and thinking: “White. White. White. White. Oh! And an Asian child.” There are a lot of Australians who don’t like Asian people. Even though I was too young to understand, but you’ve got these Vietnamese children you’re plucking from their culture and putting them into a Western one and you’re expecting them to assimilate, grow up the “Western” way and that’s really hard. Myself, I’m covered in tattoos, I constantly dye my hair… Part of that growing up helped me live “Western.” Not that I was afraid; I’m proud of being Vietnamese. But that was my way of fitting into my family, trying to blend in.

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I remember one day asking Mom: “Why do I look different? Where’s my mother and my father?” And she answered it in her own way. But it wasn’t until I was in my teens that I started to hear stories from people. Mom tried to protect me from knowing the real horrible stories. So I’ve had to pick up those up along the way myself.

My first time back to Vietnam was in 2004. I must have been 29 years old then. At that stage, I came back purely for a holiday. I didn’t think about doing any searching for my birth family. I didn’t have any friends who were adoptees at the time. We had always been told that it would be practically impossible to find our families. There was DNA back then, but the tests were so expensive. We just lived the life we had and forgot our old lives, pretty much. A lot of the adoptees find it very hard when they do return to Vietnam and we’re surrounded by our people, our culture, and it’s almost… not scary… but it’s quite upsetting because we’ve lived in the West but feel we should know something about Vietnamese culture.

It was only when I had my first child (she’s 20 now) that I started to think about my birth family. I make a certain facial expression or my kids make a certain expression that I don’t, or my husband doesn’t, and that’s got to come from somewhere. So back then, it was more of an identity issue for me. It’s been maybe in the last ten years that I started to get very curious and started connecting with so many other adoptees through Facebook, talking to them, listening to their stories. It’s really hard for me to explain the connection we have with each other. I mean, we’re all adoptees; we really don’t know each other, but we still call each other “brother” and “sister.” It’s like when you have an old friend you haven’t seen for years, but when you do see them again, you just pick up where you left off. The reunion was like that, even though we didn’t know each other.

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So Many Questions

The trip back this year was also for searching. I don’t know if there was any paperwork, but when Saigon fell, things were destroyed. The only thing I might have to go on is someone’s memory, hoping to find someone at the hospital who worked there 40 years ago and who might remember something. The day I went to the hospital was confronting. I had my youngest son with me and when I was told it was the weekend and that there was nothing to find out, I went out to the courtyard and thought: “I don’t know what to do. Do I keep going? Or do I leave it alone? Maybe I’m not supposed to find anything. I keep hitting these brick walls. It feels like there’s always going to be something stopping me.” So I sat there and thought: “Mom was here 40 years ago when she had me. How long did she stay on the grounds for? Did she hide behind a tree? Did she stand in this exact spot? Did she watch me leave?” I had never, ever thought of those things before. I could’ve stayed there all night. But people were looking at me and I felt like a complete outsider, even though I felt like telling them: “Stop looking at me! I was born here!” That was the biggest, biggest low.

All I want to do is find a family member. I don’t care if it’s my mother or father, and go on from there. There are things I need to know and it’s not: “Why did you give me away?” That’s ridiculous. I don’t hold any grudges against my mother or my father. It was wartime. What other choice did they have? I might walk down the street in Vietnam and see an older woman with tattoos and bleached blonde hair and go: “She’s got to be my mother!”

But I never see my birth mother in my dreams. I don’t have an idea of what she looks like. That would be one of the questions I’d ask her. “Do I look like you? Do I look like my father? Have you been looking for me?” There are so many questions. I need answers. There are these little things that I need to find out.

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I’ve heard there might be a doctor at Tu Du Hospital who is still working there. Her name is Loan. I’ve messaged her but haven’t had a reply. I just want to find out if she has any memories of the time that I was there. I also had a DNA test done and found that my closest cousin (second cousin) actually lives in Saigon. He’s adopted, too. His mother is Vietnamese and his father was obviously a Black American soldier. I only discovered him four weeks ago. He doesn’t speak English, so it’s very hard. He does know that I exist. I’m hoping to go back in the next couple of months, so I’d love to have a reunion with him because we are related. The DNA test also revealed that I’m actually related to some of the overseas adoptees that I know. When I saw the results and this list of names, I burst out crying. I never thought I would have this, ever, in front of me. Some are fourth or fifth cousins. Nevertheless, they are who I’m related to. As far as I’m concerned, blood is blood.

My older kids are teenagers, so they don’t really ask me too many questions. But I decided to take my youngest son back to Vietnam with me because I thought that it was something he’d be old enough to appreciate. It really gave him an insight into how my life could’ve been and looking at his mother’s culture and essentially part of his culture as well. He thought Vietnam was absolutely beautiful and we mention at least every day. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Vietnam. I see myself settling there one day. Australia is where I live, but Vietnam is home.

Chantal is hoping to return to Vietnam in a few months and welcomes suggestions on how she can reunite with her birth family. If you can help, email: editorial@oivietnam.com

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