To this day, I sometimes wonder what has happened to the many Amerasian children born to Vietnamese women and American soldiers during the Vietnam War. Called bui doi (“dust of life”, “living dust”) they were born in a society that prized homogeneity and ties to a father as well as a mother. Some of the children were the result of rape, some were born due to their mothers being forced into a life of prostitution, and some were born of long-term loving relationships. Near the end of the Vietnam war, with the fall of Saigon, many women hurried to locations where children were being airlifted out of Vietnam. Some children made it out. Many did not.
The term bui doi conjures up the image of an uncared-for and abandoned child. Life like dust. Blown in the wind. No home, no family, no roots.
In Vietnam these adult children are called my lai (mixed American/Vietnamese) con lai (mixed-race child), or người lai (mixed-race person).
No longer children (many would be in their 30s, 40s and 50s, with some in their early sixties), these adult children still face a life of discrimination in Vietnam as well as numerous hurdles in claiming U.S. citizenship.
This Vietnamese Amerasian lost contact and financial support from her American father after she received a letter from his wife in the U.S. saying, “Don’t ever try to contact my husband again.” This story was told by photographer Philip Jones Griffiths.
I first became aware of the bu doi when two decades ago I saw a national news program on how life was for the children of American servicemen left behind in Vietnam. In the video, members of some NGO were fitting a little girl with a pair of shoes. She seemed to be about six-years-old, thin, and was wearing a dress.
She was also blind.
Upon putting on the first pair of shoes she had ever had in her little life, she began to dance and laugh with joy.
The scene was heartbreaking to watch.
Years later, that image still is the persistence of memory.
Under the Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1988, these children were able to obtain entrance into the United States based on appearance alone. Approximately 23,000 bui doi emigrated to America under the AHA.
Life was difficult for the bu doi since their racial ancestry stood out in a nation of Vietnamese who could lay claim to both a father and mother of Vietnamese descent. Blond hair, round, blue eyes; curly hair, dark-brown skin. These children were taunted and harassed by the Vietnamese children and abused by the adults. Life was no picnic for the white-looking bui doi. But, life for the black-looking bu doi was hell. Under a United States special visa for the children, if born between 1950 and 1982 in Kampuchea, Vietnam, Laos, Korea or Thailand, they could obtain entry to the U.S. Many were the victims of scam artist who preyed on bu doi who sought to emigrate to America under the visas. But, now looks alone are not enough to qualify. Proof to obtain a visa includes documents, letters, photos, or DNA testing:
Vietnamese Amerasians face a high level of discrimination from peers and adults. Considered “children of the enemy,” their faces constantly remind those around them of the war that ravaged their country. Sons and daughters of black soldiers face greater discrimination, often times barred from jobs for being “dirty” and “bad for business.”
After American troops left Vietnam, many Vietnamese mothers destroyed letters and pictures from their American partners fearing punishment by communist militias for enemy relationships. Without evidence of their American fathers, children of these women lost the needed proof for their US visa application.
Indeed, the United States made some strides in bringing Amerasians home since the Amerasian visa was created in 1987. Nearly 30,000 children and 80,000 family members have been resettled in America. However, the process has slowed with a mere 23 visas granted in the last year, and hundreds of backlogged claims.
Accounts of human trafficking and corruption within the application process have led to tighter eligibility requirements. Evidence of mixed-race facial features is no longer enough proof, now applicants need documents, letter, photos, or DNA testing. For Amerasians who do not have the time, funding or means to track down their father and prove paternity, obtaining a visa is difficult without the help charity organisations and Amerasian connection websites.
Today, numerous websites assist the now adult population of Amerasians looking for their fathers. Sites like Amerasian Family Finder and FatherFounded allow fathers, children and mothers to post searchable profiles to reunite lost relatives. Amerasian Family Finder allows individuals to search for one another but does not provide any further services. Initial contact, DNA testing, and visa applications are left to the two parties.
Many bui doi living in Vietnam still have hopes of one day coming to America, to the home of their fathers.
A family born to Vo Van Dang, an Amerasian, poses inside their small home, which is shared by 20 others.
The ties that bind remain constant, thousands of miles across an ocean between two continents, between two worlds.