This is one of those curious days that makes me stop and take stock of my life. It is the day when history comes back to remind me that the circumstances of one’s birth do not necessarily dictate the circumstances of one’s life. Many of my fellow adoptees post thoughtful memories of their arrival from Vietnam via Operation Babylift, the mass evacuation of children from the war at its end in 1975. Today marks that anniversary with the remembrance of the first flight which crashed in a rice field shortly after take-off. Those who survived I can count amongst my friends. Those that went out on flights just after, I can also count as friends and even family members, cousins whom I did not know I was related to until the advent of public, DNA testing.
When I am asked to attend high school English classes and speak on the book, The Things They Carried, I try to time my attendance with the chapter, “How to Tell a True War Story”. For most American students, their knowledge of the war is limited to what has been shared through family members who served or history classes devoid of perspectives that include the diaspora of refugees from Vietnam. In my hour’s time, I speak of the long-standing history of Vietnam in conflict with every country wanting to claim its coastline as their own. Their centuries-long efforts to dispel foreign aggressors from coveting their country’s resources (which namely included China, Japan, and France) led to the innovative and problematic methods of guerrilla warfare. I talk about the boat people, Operation Babylift, and the necessary reminder that U.S. forces fought alongside the South Vietnamese Army and therefore, not every Vietnamese person should or would be considered “the enemy” during that time or even after.
These are hard lessons to convey in the space of an hour and a half (the last 30 minutes reserved for questions). And, I am hardly the spokesperson for every adoptee’s or Vietnamese refugee’s experience. I am just an educator and when asked to talk about history, even as I am a part of it, I try to remain as objective as possible. I was not a part of Operation Babylift. I arrived in Denver, Colorado in 1973. I was still an infant and therefore, I lack the memories of wartime Vietnam and only the physical recovery of malnutrition and starvation that accompanied me on that plane. I survived spinal meningitis about a year after my arrival, something I learned my biological brother did not survive, having passed away about the same time although halfway around the world. I managed to thrive in a country apart from my homeland, even as I later learned that I was the only child out of approximately 20 from the family that was adopted to the United States. The reason why resides solely with my biological mother.
It is interesting to think about that lifelong search for biological connections. It is really intriguing that when we talk about that search, it rarely extends to looking for our fathers. Throughout most of my life, my search concentrated on my biological mother, and I wrote prose about her several times in my masters and doctoral work. In the end, it was my biological father with whom I reconnected, my mother still lost to speculative proddings of my curiosity when I think of her. I was told that she was pretty, that she was Khmer (Cambodian), and that she liked to gamble. She took a gamble with me. Was it her choices or mine that truly defined who I am now?
Here I am writing about this 46 years later, a window of history once again partially open for me to consider. I saw a few new, media elements on Operation Babylift. One was from Ann Curry’s 2003 segment on people she admires. She interviews a man who mortgaged his house to charter a personal flight to save twins who survived the Babylift crash and were found in a field just 2-days after, a military flight unable to return immediately for rescue. He later went on to found the nonprofit, Americares. I read a poignant primary source document regarding the pilot, Bud Traynor, about his rescue even as he was rescuing my friends from the wreckage. History has a habit of reminding us who we are and where we come from—not just physically or culturally but mentally and experientially as well.
In Ann’s segment, one of the twins alludes to the idea of not disappointing others and how her life has been one that speaks to ensuring her survival and rescue were not made in vain. I have long-held the notion that this is my fear—that I have or that I will fail in being worth the gamble. For a long time, when I did not graduate from college immediately after high school (it took me 8 years to finish my BA), I held this belief. And even now, as I work hard to redefine my existence today and in the face of history long-past, this is still my fear. That I have failed.
When I step back from that conflicting emotion, it is obvious that I have not, but with a life “saved” comes the never-ending guilt of being worthy of it. Days like today remind me of this. Days like tomorrow remind me that I will continue to push forward not necessarily with the fear of failure to boost my sails but the hope of success. Mine has not been a perfect life. I am unforgiving and still working through the consequences of history and its affect on my strange, storied experiences. In the end, however, it is history that reminds me that I am thankful I still have a story to tell.
Joie N. Lê is an educator, writer, and mother of three. She has a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction with an emphasis in Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Education Technology. She is a guest speaker on qualitative research methods, diversity in the classroom, and topics related to Vietnam's orphans of war. She geeks out on poststructural philosophy, ontology, epistemology, existentialism, and historical fiction.