Kim Lee holds the only picture she has of her biological parents. Her father was an American GI and her mother was Vietnamese.

Credit: Gabrielle Emanuel/WGBH News

An 'Amerasian' Born During The Vietnam War Reflects On America Opening Its Doors 3 Decades Ago

October 5, 2017

In Kim Lee’s living room, there are family photos hanging on the wall. But there’s one picture that’s set apart.

It sits on a table in a wooden frame. A tall man in uniform, with blond curls, sits beside a Vietnamese woman, her hair parted fashionably on the side. She’s pregnant with Kim Lee.

"I never met my dad. I never met my mom," said Lee, looking at the picture.

Lee is one of tens of thousands of children born during the Vietnam War to an American GI father and a Vietnamese mother.

Thirty years ago, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate that helped many of these “Amerasians,” as they are called, come to the U.S.

Thousands took advantage of the law. But this past year, for the first time, the number of Amerasians arriving dwindled into the single digits.

When Kim Lee was just 9 months old, her mother decided she couldn't care for her. So, Lee says, her mother went door-to-door asking if she could give her daughter up for adoption.

Many in Lee's situation were orphaned, but Lee was among the lucky few. She was taken in by a widow along with another Amerasian girl. Her adoptive mother had worked in a U.S. warehouse and was a stanch advocate for her daughters.

But, Lee says, life in Vietnam wasn’t easy.

“They called us all kind of names. It was like you were the enemy,” Lee remembered. She says the communist government “taught kids to hate you.”

She says her classmates taunted her. “‘Your father is American. Why are you here? Go home!’” she recalled.

 It wasn’t just kids, she says. The children of American soldiers were also bullied by their teachers — and everyone else.

“At some point, I hated the Vietnamese. I told myself, ‘I will never marry a Vietnamese person,’ and then I started learning Chinese,” Lee said.

As a teen, Lee was hoping to find a way out of Vietnam. And three decades ago, when a handful of American high school students lobbied for a Amerasians to come to the U.S., it started to become a real possibility.

It wasn’t long before Congress passed a bill that helped enable all Amerasians in Vietnam to come to the U.S. Overnight, Lee went from the enemy to the coveted.

In Vietnam, there was a mad rush to adopt Amerasians to get a U.S. visa by association. Lee compared it to a hunt.

“Constantly, people came to our house,” Lee said. She remembers them asking her adoptive mother, “‘Can we take one of your children, and we’ll pay you?’”

Her adoptive mother's answer: “‘No. Don't ever come back here. If we’re poor, we’re all poor together.’”

When Lee was nearly 20 years old, she left Vietnam with her Amerasian sister and adoptive mother for Boston. But as much as she hated communist Vietnam, Lee was also disappointed with the government here in the U.S.

“They worry about everywhere, except their own kids. That's how I see it,” Lee said. “They should have done more."

Lee wishes it hadn't taken them decades to let Amerasians come to the U.S. And once they arrived, life was very hard. But for Kim Lee, there was one highlight.

Through a DNA test, Lee located her father in California. He remembered sneaking vitamins from the U.S. base to Lee’s mom when she was pregnant. They had dated for three years.

“'I heard your heart beat before you were born,’” Lee remembers her father telling her. “Oh my God, it just made me cry even more.”

After he was badly injured and airlifted out of Vietnam, Lee’s father spent years trying to find Lee's mother. He even flew himself to Guam to search the faces on the boats of refugees. But, he never found her.

Now that Lee has found him and knows the faces and names in her own American lineage, she says it's helped her answer a gnawing question: is she American or Vietnamese?

"This is my country, my homeland,” Lee said. She says her family has been here in America “so many generations, so I'm American."

And Lee says, with time, she has come to feel immensely grateful for this country — her country — where she has raised her own children.  

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