HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Vo Van Dang is not Vietnamese.
That, at least, is his contention. Though he has never left Vietnam, speaks no English and lives in a Ho Chi Minh City slum house, where 20 people share an open-air toilet, Dang insists he is American through and through.
“I don’t belong here,” said Dang, born in 1971 during a brief love affair between a nightclub prostitute and a dark-skinned American GI. “I belong in America.”
If only he can prove it.
Dang is among tens of thousands of children fathered in Vietnam by U.S. troops during the 1965-1973 war. Most were born to absent fathers and mothers who risked Viet Cong wrath by working as housekeepers, vendors or bar girls around U.S. bases.
There was once great hope for men and women like Dang: an obscure U.S. visa for Vietnamese nationals fathered by GIs. But the allowance for “Vietnam AmerAsians,” a clunky State Department term for mixed-race children of the war, appears to be fizzling at last.
According to State Department data provided to GlobalPost, the number of approved AmerAsian visas has dwindled to an average of 240 per year in the last decade. Last year, the figure slipped to a new low: 23 admissions.
“My life has been miserable,” said Dang, who spent part of his childhood in a communist labor camp. “Life will still be hard after I move. But I have an American family and we belong in the states.”
The AmerAsian visa was created in 1987, when Congress relented to the outcry over urchins with American faces abandoned in the Vietnamese slums. No one knows exactly how many AmerAsians were born in Vietnam, but the U.S. has vetted and resettled nearly 30,000 children of U.S. troops and employees along with nearly 80,000 Vietnamese relatives.
Still, an estimated 1,000-plus AmerAsians remain in Vietnam. Most live in cramped tenements. They are often poorer than the average Vietnamese, their poverty entrenched by discrimination, their faces bearing the freckles and pastel eyes of men from the world’s most powerful nation yet none of the privileges.
The AmerAsian visa, however, is not dwindling for lack of applicants. Charities devoted to assisting the adult children of GIs insist there is a hundreds-deep backlog of applications. But U.S. consular officers have been hardened by scam artists who see an illiterate half-American as their family’s ticket to America.
Children of the enemy
Much has changed since Ho Chi Minh’s forces captured Saigon in 1975 and renamed it after their communist revolutionary hero. Having ditched purist Marxism in the 1980s, Vietnam’s communist rulers now embrace China-style capitalism. Ho Chi Minh City has the buzz of a nation on the make and a taste for iPhones and KFC.
But while the world has moved beyond the war, AmerAsians remain its bitter relic. The childhood torment exacted on half-American kids still defines them. Most remember being thrashed with sticks by kids or sneered at by adult neighbors who called them “children of the enemy.”
All can recall a signature insult: “Americans with 12 assholes.” The slur rhymes in Vietnamese.
“They loved to chant that at us,” said Nguyen Thi Phan, born in 1968 to a base security officer and the woman who washed his clothes. “The kids would say, ‘Your mom’s a whore. Your dad’s black. Why don’t you get the hell out of Vietnam?” Children of black GIs were doubly mistreated, she said.
“Even now, people look at me and say I’m dirty. It’s hard to get a job because they don’t want a dirty-looking person cleaning houses or dishes,” she said. “They say it’s bad for business.”
Like many AmerAsians, Phan insists she is not Vietnamese. In fact, each of the six Vietnamese children of former U.S. troops interviewed by GlobalPost described themselves as either American or AmerAsian. All bristled at being labelled Vietnamese.
“All my life, everyone told me I wasn’t Vietnamese. So fine,” Phan said. “I’m not.”
To the Vietnamese, AmerAsians are assumed to be the outcome of a paid fling between imperialist grunts and loose, traitorous women.
But according to AmerAsian mothers, many children were born from passionate couplings. The father of Cao Thi My Kieu was so smitten with her mom, a bar girl, that he swept her into a rented apartment and promised she’d never need to sell her body again.
“She was really pretty during the war,” said Kieu, born in 1967 outside a former U.S. air base in coastal Nha Trang. “And he was very kind. He took in her three kids from a previous guy. Americans are strange in that way. They will actually raise someone else’s kid.”
Such domestic arrangements were common, according to Robert McKelvey, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran turned psychiatrist who has studied AmerAsian orphans. “Many fell in love,” he wrote in a 1998 paper, “and lived as de facto spouses for months or years.”
These love affairs were doomed. By 1973, almost all U.S. troops had been deployed home.
And by 1975, South Vietnam had fallen and the Viet Cong emerged from the shadows.
Vietnamese who had fought, colluded or slept with the enemy braced for forced labor or death. Children like Dang, along with their mothers, were sent to communist labor camps to live off a meager vegetable plot and what jungle mice they could capture.
Another AmerAsian interviewed by GlobalPost claimed her pregnant mother escaped punishment by fleeing to the jungle, where she was born in the wild.
Hoarding photos or love letters from an American mate was a fatal liability. “My mom had all these details about my father,” Kieu said. “His U.S. address, letters, everything. She wanted to bury it in a hole before the Viet Cong showed up. My auntie said, ‘Are you stupid? If they find it, you’re dead.’”
So, like many other paranoid mothers of half-American babies, she burned the letters, Kieu said. The evidence she would later need to emigrate turned to cinders in the wind.
“My father’s name is James. James Alexander,” said Kieu, sitting on the floor of her $40-per-month rented shanty. Her husband, also AmerAsian, and three kids live in a single closet-sized room.
“My mom told me, ‘When you finally make it to America, look for a man with a birthmark on his face,’” said Kieu, her eyes running hot with tears. She paused to fumble through a closet and produced a faded U.S. consular rejection letter. In blue ink, a bureaucrat had written: “YOU HAVE FAILED TO ESTABLISH YOU ARE THE CHILD OF A U.S. CITIZEN.”
Though Kieu cannot read the words, she knows the meaning very well. “I am so disappointed in my life,” she said. “All I can do is try to make life bearable for my kids.”
In the late 1980s, Vietnamese opportunists realized the value of a good sob story and a half-American face.
The 1987 Congressional “Homecoming Act” led the U.S. to fund a nearly $500,000 Ho Chi Minh City residential center for AmerAsians, many of them homeless. Consular officers, flying in from U.S. ally Thailand, began offering them U.S. visas by the tens of thousands. Mixed-race features alone could secure free resettlement to the States.
The outcome was inevitable. Barefoot and broke, AmerAsians were easy prey for traffickers. Many kids were paid or coerced to apply with fake relatives, rich Vietnamese who wanted a new life in the U.S. In return, the con rings promised connections inside the consulate that would guarantee approval.
But by the mid-1990s, consular officers were tired of getting duped. They started investigating applicants closely and demanding harder evidence.
“My traffickers put me with a fake husband but let me list my real daughter,” said Phan Anh Nhung, 39, the daughter of a GI and a prostitute. “The consular officers figured it out. They asked my daughter, ‘Who’s your dad?’ She accidentally said her real father’s name instead of the fake guy.”
Another AmerAsian applicant, now a street noodle vendor, confessed that a trafficking syndicate offered her $1,000 to claim 12 bogus relatives.
“It didn’t work,” she said. “Neighbors ratted us out.”
Though the flow of AmerAsian visas is down to a trickle, it technically lives on. Only an act of Congress could end the program for good, said Rebecca Dodds with the Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington D.C.
“With time, immigration through the program is decreasing, but we are not aware of any current legislation to discontinue the program,” Dodds said. Despite rumors to the contrary, she said, new applicants are still accepted.
Consular officers have no ironclad criteria expected of applicants. But these days, they typically request parents’ residential certificates or birth records. Many of these documents were never issued in wartime Vietnam or destroyed after reunification.
Most AmerAsians with proof that solid have long since emigrated to the U.S. The remaining AmerAsians’ best hope is finding their actual father via the internet and persuading him to compare DNA samples. Illiterate day laborers, however, are unlikely to access Google, punch in hazy details and sift through the results.
That chore is instead assumed by an unlikely AmerAsian ally: a working-class Danish furniture painter named Brian Hjort. Though lacking any personal connection to America’s war in Vietnam, he is obsessed with tracking down veterans who left kids behind.
Hjort, 40, has stayed in touch with AmerAsians since the early 1990s, when he stumbled upon war orphans while backpacking in Ho Chi Minh City. “Even though they had nothing, they took me in. I knew I had to help them out,” he said. Hjort went on to devote his spare time and money to connecting AmerAsians with their fathers. He has completed dozens of “closed cases,” he said.
“I’m just Googling and Facebooking guys’ names, units, veterans’ groups, uploading photos,” said Hjort, who maintains a database of AmerAsians’ photos and personal details at his website, FatherFounded.com. “Working on just one case leaves you brain dead. You’re trying to go 40 years back in time.”
Cases often go cold, he said, when he runs out of cash for DNA tests or father-finding expeditions in the United States. “You don’t have to be the Red Cross to help,” he said. “But I’m damn poor myself. I need help with this.”
Even when Hjort is lucky enough to locate a father online, men and their families are not always receptive to a European stranger with revelations about offspring in a far-off land.
“They can be pretty rude. Two times, guys tried to put me in court for harassment,” Hjort said. “I’m like, come on, do you want to do a DNA test? Who’s going to draw the gun first?”
Those who accept the truth often pay a heavy price.
Army veteran James Copeland, 65, kept his half-Vietnamese daughter’s existence secret until this year. “It had been a long and worrisome 40 years,” said Copeland, who lives in northern Mississippi.
When his 14-month deployment ended in 1970, he was forced to leave behind a pregnant Vietnamese girlfriend who worked as a housekeeper at Bien Hoa Air Base. “We just lost contact. The people I knew that were left over there, they rolled out and I had no way to get in touch.”
Through Hjort, he found his daughter living in Pennsylvania. With her mother, the housekeeper, she had relocated to the States after securing an AmerAsian visa in the 1990s.
“I felt like a big weight was taken off of me,” he said. His wife, however, felt the exact opposite sensation.
“It’s a bad situation at home. I still don’t know what the outcome will be with my wife and children,” said Copeland, his voice trembling. “All these years, I had tried to block out a segment of my life. But you can’t do that.”
“In a combat zone, you adjust to your surroundings or you don’t make it. I think we all made mistakes,” he said. “I have friends who think they might have left a child there too. But they don’t want to search. They don’t want to know. They just want to forget.”
Over the years, Hjort said, the AmerAsian cause has lost its allure.
AmerAsians are no longer the doe-eyed, pitiful kids that provoked Connecticut House Representative Stewart McKinney to label them America’s “national embarrassment” in the 1980s.
They are older, broken down and sometimes sick. So are may of the former GIs. “The U.S. did just enough to say, ‘Hey, we did something’ and left the others behind,” Hjort said. “Now they’ve got wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s no money. Almost no one is interested.”
Almost no one except AmerAsians like Dang, who fears his father is dead and has pursued DNA links with far-flung relatives in America.
“My mom tells me she stopped dad from grabbing me as a baby and putting me on a plane before he deployed home,” Dang said. “I almost made it out then. I will never stop trying.”