My birth name is Mai Thi Hiep and I was born in Danang, Vietnam in 1968. My mother is a Vietnamese woman and my father an American soldier. At the age of 6, I left Vietnam in 1975 during the United State's Operation Stork Lift. I was later adopted that year and lived in Columbia, South Carolina with my adoptive mom who was a single parent. Not aware of what was really going on and why I was in this strange land and in this strange woman's house, I was very withdrawn and constantly longing for my family. My adoptive mom sent me to school to learn the English language and later to a private school where I enrolled in kindergarten. Later we moved to Pulaski, Tennessee, a rural little town in middle Tennessee. She would later drill me as to what I could and could not say to people. She told me that my birth family perished in the war and that I was not to tell people that I was from Vietnam, but rather that my birthplace was Columbia, South Carolina and that I was not supposed to talk about my past. She continued by telling me that people would not accept me if they knew that I was born out of wedlock. This confused me, but I did not ask questions and did as I was told.
Through most of my grade school I uttered not a word of my past to anyone. In high school, (by now I had developed some really close friendships), I began to open up to a couple of my very close girl friends as to my past and they were amazed. You see, in Pulaski, there wasn't much of a diversity...you were mostly black or white and they knew that I didn't exactly belong in either group. I told them about me in the strictest of confidence and they understood. My adoptive mom, as I grew older, became stricter with me and tried to keep me from my friends. She used to follow me if I was out with my girlfriends or even if I was out on dates. I can't begin to tell you how embarrassed I was to be out and turn the corner and there she was watching me.
When I entered college, things really became worse for my adoptive mom and I. She lost interest in me and slowly began to fade in her communication with me. It was the summer after my sophomore year at college that things ended between us. I was working as the pool manager and lifeguard at the city municipal pool. I came home from a date after work one night and she came to my room and she told me that she was very unhappy and she thought I should leave her house. She said that she had given up a lot for me and now it was time that I owed her for the life she has given me all of these years. She wanted me to stop dating and going out with my friends and just be with her always. She said that I have two choices; live with her and her conditions or leave. She gave me until the next day to make up my mind. When I came home from work the next day, she already had my bags packed and said that she decided not to give me the choice, but that she would make the decision for me. I was, to say the least, devastated.
I spent the rest of my summer living with friends until I returned to college that fall. I wrote her a letter stating how I wish we could talk and work this out, and in reply she refused. She said that she has never been happier as she is now and that she should have thrown me out years ago. She also closed by saying that as far as she was concerned, she never had a daughter.
At this point, I was at my lowest and was contemplating suicide. And once again, my friends from Pulaski and college pulled me through. I worked three jobs and took out loans to finish my last two years at college. When I graduated, I left for Texas and later got married to my high school sweetheart who had joined the Navy and was stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Two years later we had a beautiful baby girl and feeling overwhelmed with love and joy, I called my adoptive mom to see if she would like to see my baby. Her only reply was that if she didn't have a daughter, she couldn't have a granddaughter. That was my last straw. I decided then and there that I was not going to subject myself to anymore of her cruel words...so we haven't spoken since.
When I got married in 1992, Brenda, a mom of one of my good friends, decided to help me look for my birth family. My adoptive mother told me that I was a twin. So that's where Brenda's search began. For months we wrote letters and made numerous phone calls as to how and where we could find information on my alleged twin. You see, I never remembered having a twin so it was so confusing to me. Anyway, it wasn't until 1996 that Unsolved Mysteries contacted Brenda to let her know that they were interested in helping me find my twin sister. So through them we got some leads. I told them the adoption agency I went through hoping maybe she went through the same one. So Unsolved Mysteries tracked down the agency in Oregon and they would not release information to the company, but only to me.
I called the agency and to my surprise, they had a file on me and also a letter from my birth mom from 1991. I asked why they hadn't tried to find me and they said that they did through my adoptive mother, but she would not help them. I was away in North Carolina at college at the time and did not know that they were trying to reach me. I was furious when I found this out. How dare my adoptive mother keep something so important from me! When I received the letter from the adoption agency, I was so nervous about reading it. Of course, tears streamed down my face as I slowly glanced at each word. It was just too amazing that this was happening. To put it lightly, I was in shock. Attached to my Mom's letter, was a business card from a lady in San Francisco, California named T.T. Nhu. So I called the number on the card and come to find out, she had a good friend that interviewed my Mom in 1991 to try to come to the U.S. under the humanitarian agreement (in which stated that if you have relatives that are citizens of the U.S., they could try to come here and live if they could locate the relative living in America). Nhu remembered her connection with my Mom and she was very intrigued with my story and decided she would help me. Nhu is a full-blooded Vietnamese lady herself and has a remarkable history of her life as well. It was just my luck that Nhu had already set up a trip to go to Vietnam the first of the year (1997) to visit her relatives. She offered to go to Danang while she is in Vietnam and try to locate my birth Mom.
I got news in late January that she had found my Mom and that I have a really incredible family. Not long after she returned home from her trip, I got a collect call from Vietnam...it was my Mom! Neither one of us could say very much...we just cried. It was a miracle that after 22 years of separation and not knowing if either one of us was alive or not, that we would be talking on the phone to each other. My Mom speaks a little English.... broken English, so we could communicate...I was glad of that because I surely did not remember any Vietnamese.
The first of March, Nhu called me and said for me to pack my bags that I was going "home". I was in disbelief. So, on March 23, 1997, me, Nhu, and a camera crew that was interested in my story and wanted to do a documentary on all of this, flew to Vietnam. It was a very long and tiring flight, but after about 18 hours in the air, we finally landed in Vietnam. As we circled to land in Danang, tears filled my eyes and my heart began to race. I can't begin to express to you in words what my feelings were when I first laid eyes on my Mom. It was like time stood still for me and nothing else mattered. I didn't notice that the film crew was there; that people were standing around looking at us wondering why we were so emotional; nor did I realize that there was a crowd of my family that I have yet to meet consisting of my brother, two sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces, and in laws. I don't believe I have hugged, kissed or cried so much in my entire life.
Things were pretty amazing the first few days from all of the new excitement of the reunion. As we settled down and had a few talks with the family and tried to catch up twenty-two years worth of time, I began to feel uneasy. The core of the conversation turned from telling stories about me when I was little and me telling them about my life in America to questions of money.
I was not aware of the conditions my family was exposed to living in this poor country and it broke my heart to hear stories of their heartaches. I began to feel guilty for the wonderful life I have with my husband and two girls. My Mom kept repeating her wishes that she would like to come to America and live out the remainder of her years. My brother, who is now the head of the family, expressed to me that I have been away a long time and during this time they have taken care of my Mom and how they have all gone through suffering and now it is time for me to take responsibility for my family. To say the least, this was the very last thing that I had ever expected to happen or to hear them tell me. I was under a lot of pressure and no longer felt that I was there because this was the long awaited reunion I had always dreamed about and how happy I would be to find my family again. No, now it became a situation of okay, now you are back, what-are-you-going-to-do-for-us type of deal. This bothered me greatly. I did not feel like I had any responsibilities to them. After all, I did not realize that they even existed all this time.
I am by no means as wealthy as they perceived me to be just because I live in the United States. I admit, I may have more money than they do and I have a better life than they do, but it's all relative according to what you are accustomed to. I can't begin to say I understand their customs or way of life, because I don't and I know they couldn't begin to fathom my way of life with credit bills, college loans, and everyday needs of my husband and two girls. I don't know.
I was so glad to get back home and see my husband and two little girls again, that I just didn't want to deal with what happened over there. The topic of the trip is still off limits between my husband and I, because I am not ready to let all of the mixed emotions surface yet, and I just don't know how to explain it to him so that he could know what really went on. I still haven't contacted my Mom since I returned and it's been over a month now. It is still too fresh and hurtful. I don't know how long it will take for me to be able to sort all of it out, but I know it will take a lot of time and patience on my part.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have gone and meet my family.... especially my birth Mom. I am not sure I am comfortable about the film crew exposing my vulnerability to the whole world...it's still under consideration. I will give this one advise to anyone who is looking for their birth family.... make sure it is absolutely, without a doubt what you want and educate yourself on their customs and way of life before the reunion so that you will possibly void yourself from this kind of disappointment and pain. Looking back, I wish that I had taken all of this in stride and done this slowly instead of jumping from finding her to meeting her in 3 months time. I went to my Mom's world blind and I believe that that is one, if not the source, of our misunderstanding and feelings of resentment.
© Heidi Bub 1997
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