A poignant story about hardships and perseverance of one incredible person during the aftermath of the American War
Nobody in the family told me why I had to live apart from my parents until I finally figured out the reason,” I was half-American”. It was the outsiders calling me “Half ” that made me question myself. Even though I was just a young girl at the time, I knew there was more to my life story, there had to be.
I lived in Can Tho with my Aunt at the time. Her family was nice and kind to me and I had a normal childhood. After reunification, our lives suddenly turned chaotic. My guardian, Aunt Hai lost everything including her house, forcing me to move back home to my parents in Saigon. I was happy to reunite with my mom, but sad to learn the new life I was immersed in was nothing but hardship. Like Aunt Hai, my parents lost everything too, they were now dirtpoor. It was almost impossible for them to raise nine children with no jobs. My stepfather was a wounded soldier, he lost one of his legs in the war. He became an alcoholic and often turned angry toward us if things didn’t go his way. My mother, a tiny 4’10” woman had to work so hard to provide for us. The situation forced me grow up quickly to help my mother raise the large family.
Eventually my mother revealed the family secret and I learned more about myself than I could handle. For years I dreamed to unite with my biological American father, but after the story my mother told me I just crawled into a ball and cried, I was devastated. Thank goodness for the Amerasian program. My family and I were able to immigrate to the US.
We struggled in beginning like most refugees, but in the end all my siblings are doing well in America. They are business-owners, homeowners and we are proud to be Vietnamese-Americans. Over time my inner wounds healed. I now have two beautiful children and a wonderful husband who gave me (and still does) tremendous support and love. I decided it was time to share my story and wrote a memoir called Journey of the Half hoping the readers would understand more what it’s like to be Half-American. It’s a story of survival and forgiveness and in the end love will always win.
The following are excerpts from the book
Part 1, Chapter 1, 1972, Can Tho, Vietnam
This was the day I had been waiting for, the day Aunt Hai promised would happen. I didn’t know how or why I had been separated from my parents, but finally we were going to meet for the first time. At that point I didn’t know what my parents really looked like. Aunt Hai had some blurry black-and-white pictures of Ba taken in front of an airplane, but she had no pictures of Ma to show me.
Neighbors often asked, “Where are your parents?”
Friends would question, “Do you miss them?”
I didn’t know how to answer those difficult questions. How could I miss someone I had never met? But I had created an image of my mother in my head.
“She has long black hair, delicate skin. My ma is beautiful,” I told my classmate at school.
“Do you miss her?”
“Of course,” I lied.
My cousins and I went to the same privileged Catholic French school where Aunt Hai used to teach before she got married. Naturally, she always made sure we worked hard at school and at home. Aunt Hai was a good parent, but she wasn’t my mother. It was true Aunt Hai was really nice to me, but in my mind she saved true tenderness for her own children. I was always longing for that kind of affection and dreamt a lot about Ma.
I was told my parents lived in Saigon. It as a mystery to me why I didn’t live with them. Every time I tried to ask questions about them, my aunt either changed the subject or made up some excuse.
“How far is Saigon from here?” I asked Aunt Hai. “How come my parents don’t visit me? Do they miss me?”
“Of course they do. They are just very busy running their business.”
“What kind of business?”
“They manage a gas station. Do you know how hard that is for your ma? Remember, your ba is handicapped, and all of your siblings are younger than you. Nannies and maids can help only so much. I’m sure when they have time, they will come to visit.”
“How did Ba become handicapped?”
“He was an officer in the Air Force,” Aunt Hai said. “He was injured in an offduty accident by driving over a land mine while he was on leave. He lost his right leg but is very lucky to be alive. It was hard for him to find a job after that, so Uncle Su and I decided to set up a gas station for them. Your uncle knows how it works and helped your parents become successful business owners.”
Aunt Hai’s husband indeed knew how the gasoline business worked. He was the president of ESSO. He was smart—he spoke four languages—and a kind man. My grandparents loved him like he was their own son. This was another reason I envied my cousins: they had perfect parents.
Amy on the left at her uncle’s wedding
Aunt Hai kissed her husband goodbye, helped my cousins get in the car, and waved as the driver took them to school.
Watching her do that this morning, it made me wonder if my parents did the same for my siblings.
“Are you going to eat your breakfast, Lien?” She pointed at my now cold breakfast that the cook had prepared.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Too excited to eat?”
I nodded. Yes, I was excited and nervous at the same time. What should I do when they got there? How should I act? Should I be polite but distant, or should I cry for all the years we had been apart? I had so many questions in my head, but which one should I ask first?
They arrived at the Mekong River port in the afternoon, and the driver went to pick them up. I was pacing nervously back and forth, checking myself in the mirror. I ran to the front door when I saw the car entering through the gate. Aunt Hai was by my side. There they were finally; this was the moment I had been waiting for.
The driver opened the car door and helped my ba to get out. He took tiny steps and limped slowly past me into the house. I wondered if he even saw me. A few steps behind him came a tired-looking woman. She stared at me and gave me a little sad smile, and I knew it was her. My ma looked sad; she didn’t have the long black hair like I had imagined. She was not at all like I had dreamt her to be, but somehow I felt the love, and I couldn’t wait to talk to her.
Everyone surrounded Ba, asking him many questions. “How was your journey? Have you gotten used to the artificial leg? How is the business?”
He said he hated traveling, business was good, and that was the reason for this visit. He just wanted to talk to Aunt Hai about renovating the gas station. He wanted to build a house in the back of it but needed Aunt Hai’s signature. He said he could buy another house somewhere else, but it would be easier for him to watch over the business by living next to it. Aunt Hai gave him the approval, of course, as she always did, but Grandma didn’t like the idea. She thought living next to the business was dangerous, especially a gas station. Ba said it was none of Grandma’s business, and her opinion didn’t matter. Grandma and Ba ended up arguing, and Aunt Hai told the maid to take me upstairs.
Ma came up about an hour later, sat down next to me, and said she was sorry Grandma and Ba didn’t get along. That was why it was hard for them to visit.
“Am I going home with you?” I asked.
She looked at me with her sad eyes and said, “I think it’s best for you to stay here.”
“Why can’t I live with you, Ma? I’m seven years old. I can take care of myself.”
She said, “It’s complicated. One day you’ll understand.”
I had so many questions to ask and things to say, but the maid came in the room and told Ma that Ba wanted her downstairs.
That night at dinner, Ba wanted a drink, but Ma had forgotten to pack his favorite liquor. He grabbed Ma’s wrist and twisted it.
“I asked you to pack one thing, and you forgot. You’re so useless.” He was loud and angry, “Can’t you do anything right?”
She was holding back tears. “I’m sorry. I was busy with the children.”
“What do I pay the nannies for?” he shouted.
“There were so many things I had to do before we left. It won’t happen again. Please let go of my hand. You’re hurting me.”
I could tell she was in pain, and I was terrified. Aunt Hai asked him to stop, handing him a bottle of brown liquid, and he let go of Ma’s hand. He was still angry and started to drink heavily. He yelled at Ma some more while my aunt took me upstairs.
I was so disappointed with the way the day turned out. I was really afraid of Ba now. I didn’t have a chance to talk to Ma again that night and felt so bad for her.
The next morning I got up early and went downstairs hoping to catch Ma alone before I went to school. Everyone was still asleep except for the servants, who were just getting up. I went into the kitchen and found my favorite maid, Sen, helping the cook with breakfast.
“I’m sorry about yesterday, Lien. Are you OK?” Sen asked.
I shrugged, wanting to say I was not all right. I wanted to start over; I wanted a peaceful visit from my parents, not a terrifying one.
“Do you want something to eat, child?” the cook asked.
“Can I have some coffee?” I felt grown up all of a sudden.
“You know coffee is not for children. How about some hot milk?”
Aunt Hai entered the kitchen, and when she saw me she let out a sigh and sat down next to me.
“You’re up early today.” She put her arm around my shoulders. “You don’t have to go to school today, Lien. Why don’t you sleep some more?”
“Can I go to school? Please. I don’t want to stay home.”
She looked at my sad face. “All right, if that’s what you want.”
Amy’s family the day before they left Vietnam
Later, when I came home from school, my parents had already left. Ma and I hadn’t had a chance to talk, and my questions for her were left unanswered. I felt a little guilty that I hadn’t stayed home to say good-bye to Ma. I just didn’t like what Ba had done and felt very uncomfortable around him. When I told Aunt Hai about how afraid I was of him, she asked me to forgive him and pray for him. She told me that now that Ba was handicapped, everything was more difficult for him, and that was why he had acted that way. I thought, ‘I would rather pray for Ma.’
Chapter 30, Saigon 2016
We took a seven-seat taxi to our old neighborhood. I sat next to Anh so I could talk to her, making up for lost time. It was Sunday, but the traffic didn’t seem any better. Thao and her boyfriend were fascinated with all the scooters snaking through traffic with ease. Some of them carried huge amounts of merchandise on the backseats. We saw people on the scooters carrying boxes, plants, chairs, and mirrors. It looked so dangerous, but this was normal everyday life to the Vietnamese. Things needed to be delivered, and this was the only way they knew how.
Amy’s mom and her in Hoi An 2016
“At least everyone is wearing helmets, though, so that’s good,” Thao said while she was taking pictures.
“Are there a lot of scooters in America?” my nephew asked.
“Mostly cars. We have winter, and it’s really cold, so cars are more practical,” Thao said.
I was so proud of her speaking Vietnamese to her cousin. She spoke with a thick American accent, but they understood her, and Thao understood even more Vietnamese than she could speak.
Dinner at Chi Hoa restaurant Saigon 2016
We got closer to my old neighborhood, but I didn’t recognize it at all. The area used to be so green, with houses and big properties. It had become busy blocks of businesses, and houses were built more narrow and tall, as land was so expensive. None of the houses had yards anymore. Anh pointed out our old school when we passed by; it looked so different now. It used to be more spread out, like a California campus. Now it was one tall building with a tiny little front yard. Ma pointed out a couple of houses where our old neighbors’ still lived. The rest had moved away.
The taxi dropped us right in front of Di Hue’s house. We got out, and Ma started to get emotional as we stood there staring across the street. Our old house was gone. Six new houses had been built on our old property. The water spinach pond was gone too, replaced by a couple more houses. My sister had made a mistake in listening to her ex, and she’d sold the house when real estate prices were low. Right after she sold it, the government opened the door to doing business with foreigners. That was when the prices of houses and land shot up dramatically. Ma was still bitter about it sometimes, saying Anh could be so rich if she hadn’t listened to her ex-husband.
2016 return to the old neighborhood in Saigon, Amy’s mom, Di Hue, Amy, daughter Lisa, sister Anh, Anh’s sons and Amy’s husband Don
I understood Ma’s feelings; it was the house she had risked her life for, fighting with those soldiers. To me it was a sad house of darkness, and I was glad it was gone. Maybe my sister felt the same way and didn’t hesitate to sell it.
“Ma, let’s go inside. Di Hue is waiting,” I said, pulling her away from staring across the street.
Family photos provided by Amy Lien Sperbeck
For a physical copy of Journey of the Half order online at: