Guest post: Orphanage at the end of the universe

by Jeff Eckert from Deconstructing Myths.

My name is Jeffrey Nguyen Eckert and I was born in Vietnam in 1973 and FedExed to America in 1975. My Vietnamese name was Vu Tien Nguyen, which basically indicated to the baggage handlers (volunteer nurses, aid workers and army staff) that I was Vietnamese and male.  I have no concrete memories of Vietnam; the official story was that I was left with no return address at the An Lac orphanage in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) when I was a day old. There were no birth certificates to verify who my parents were and during the hectic days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army, U.S. officials scrambled to verify (forge) records of the babies being airlifted to the U.S. in an operation termed, wait for it…Operation Babylift.

I have been told that An Lac means happy place in Vietnamese but since I don’t speak the language and currently have no Vietnamese friends, I cannot verify this translation. For all I know, An Lac could mean the orphanage at the end of the universe.  I wouldn’t necessarily describe my stay at An Lac as happy, more like ambivalent; the orphanage was run by Madame Ngai, a wealthy woman who fled the North and stayed in Saigon to take care of the orphans during the war.

Little did my new German-American family know that even though I arrived strapped into a C-130 cargo plane at Ft. Benning, GA, with nothing but the clothes on my back, I had a lifetime of emotional baggage stowed away in the overhead compartment.  For most of my younger life, I avoided thinking or talking about my Vietnamese past.  For me, it was a source of blind alleys and dead end streets.  But my internal struggles were really a crisis of identity, because I did not understand where I came from, I did not know who I was and I certainly had no clue where I was going. This was a recipe for alienation and angst that few in my life at the time could comprehend or relate to.

I remember going out to eat with my mother, sister and grandparents and seeing the host clearly baffled as to how I fit in to the Eckert-Behmer party of five.  The look on people’s faces when my blue eyed, blonde haired sister introduced me as her brother: priceless.  But it was my own insecurities that led to me deny who I was for a long time. I instinctively knew that the Vietnam War was still an open wound for many Americans, and I could feel the cold stares and silent blame from some.  “But I lost family in the war too!” my rational self wanted to cry out to my perceived accusers but instead I withdrew and detached from the part of me filled with tension and stress so I could be more like my fellow Americans.

To this end, I got good grades and was the stereotypical, good Asian student at least until high school.  If people asked my background or nationality, I began to make it up; my go-to identity was Native American, specifically Seminole, since I knew a little about the tribe from living in Florida. When I met a Cherokee girl in PA, I was Cherokee and when I met other people, sometimes I was Hawaiian.  If people told me what they thought I was first, I sometimes would just go along and agree with them.  My wife was convinced I was Eskimo when we met.  Underlying this deception was an acute case of self-loathing.  As I traversed the stages of grief for being abandoned as a child, I spent many long nights at the denial terminal.

I learned that one of the first Babylift flights crashed in a rice paddy after takeoff and 134 people died.  This added another layer to my damaged psyche. I now was not only angry about being left by my birth parents, but also felt guilty for surviving it.  I could not hear the people who tried to tell me that my birth mother gave me up out of love and concern for my future well being. I could not feel grateful that I survived when others did not.  Most of all, time was not healing all wounds and my spirit was curled up in the proverbial fetal position, not wanting to give up completely but afraid to live.

There were a series of fortunate events that helped me to finally begin the healing process, which is still ongoing.  Perhaps, I’m getting closer to the final draft of me. In 2000, I attended a reunion of Vietnamese adoptees who were mostly in their twenties, like myself, and heard their stories and related to their struggles.  Like an addict who’d found his support group, I felt like I was finally finding my way home.  I met other adoptees from An Lac and other Vietnamese orphanages as well as many mixed race adoptees that were clearly not pure Vietnamese; some were black, white, brown, it was a veritable rainbow convention.  Part of the government narrative told to me was that orphans and especially mixed race babies were considered outcasts in Vietnamese society.  At 5’ 10” and 199.99 pounds, I’m fairly certain I won’t be mistaken for a Vietnamese thoroughbred anytime soon.

Another important milestone was having kids of my own. It was no longer just about  coming to grips with my past but also about giving them their past. I became determined to tell them what little I could about their Vietnamese heritage and to instill a sense of pride in their Vietnameseness, that I had lacked.  I will leave others to debate the political facets of the war; readers of my blog know that I’m especially fond of Monsanto’s contribution to the war efforts.  Here, I’ve tried to avoid steering the discourse in that direction in hopes that others reading this with similar experiences may find some measure of solace or kinship.  In the end, I think we can agree the war brought few victors and left many holding the short end of the fairness stick.

Finally, I offer my sincerest appreciation and props to my new BFF and fellow blogger at “O hi, Asia!” for inviting me to be a guest blogger and share my story with her readers.  She is a remarkable  writer who I’ve come to admire and respect.  Best wishes and happy blogging to all readers from Jeffrey Vu Tien Nguyen Eckert.

32 thoughts on “Guest post: Orphanage at the end of the universe

  1. Pingback: The orphanage at the end of the universe… « Deconstructing Myths

  2. It was not too long ago, I asked this young man to write his story. I found him blogging just as myself. I am so proud to see he has put into words his unique voice so others can hear and read it. I am going to share this story with my friends.

  3. Great read, Jeff. It speaks for many of us adoptees no matter what path life took us to get to where we are today! What I have learned is that like the ole simple saying “What’s done is done” is that we cannot do anything about our past ’cause no indivdual gets to choose how they start out in life, but we can do something about where we are now and how we live today and tomorrow. You have a great family now and I was honored to meet them. Keep blogging because it helps in the healing process for all of us who lack the ability to express in words the way you so naturally are able to! Proud to know you!

  4. Jeff, this is wonderful. I, too, have found that having my own child has some how connected me to a past that I myself seemed disconnected from. He is very young, but to see parts of me in him is the most beautiful reflection I’ve ever seen. It some how validates my existence, strange as it may seem.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story!

    • I have heard from others with similar experiences. Your son will be lucky to have someone with your understanding of the importance of identity in his life.

  5. beautiful post. I am writing this from the Hing Kong airport, on my way back from Vietnam with my 11 year old daughter who was born in Hanoi and adopted at 6 months. This was her first visit back to Vietnam since she left in my arms, and it has been absolutely wonderful for me to be back and to watch her get to kn ow her native country, I want to thank you Jeff, and all the other Babylift adopters, for so generously sharing your stories so that my generation of adoptive parents can learn and be the best parents we can to our kids! Thank you for a lovely post. Maureen Kelly, Chicago

    • It’s a good thing that you get her need to stay connected to her roots as much as possible. She’ll thank you for it some day.

  6. I love this post, so moving and so heartfelt. I am an adoptee from South Korea in my 40’s now in the land of the Vikings, Norway:) love reading other blogs too:) Would love to link blogs if you are interested..

  7. Thank you to all who took the time to read and share your sincere comments. Also, thank you again to Susan for sharing her corner of the blogosphere with me.

    • Trieu Tran tweeted me this evening and said your story was “beautiful. Thanks for sharing!” You can find me on twitter as alesiablogs. I do not know how to use it very good, but he is a follower to me. I belong to the ACT theatre where he performed his amazing true story as a play. I will never forget this experience. So know your story is powerful! May God Bless you. I am just an ordinary gal that looks at life events and see extraordinary clarity in them. Keep up the good work! Alesia

  8. It is a heart-breaking story although I was born in Vietnam (1989) and heard so many ones like this. My dad used to say the more grown-up you are, the more forgiving you’ll be. I’m glad in the end, you come back to your root. It may feel miserable, but it’s still the root. Just like a VNese saying “Lá rụng về cội” (The falling leaves return to their roots).

    • Thank you Nhung for your kind words, I really like the Vietnamese saying you shared. I agree that part of growing up is practicing forgiveness.

  9. Dear Jeff, I can remember you as a two year old, crying pitifully just after arrival because you were suffering from a painful ear infection and also were undoubtably frightened out of your wits. I remember many years later, how worried your Mom was when she thought you might be “lost” to her forever. Now, I see you with your own children and your wife and give thanks that you’ve been given another new start in life as a loving husband and father. Though we all have pasts that define us, perhaps it is our willingness to embrace the positive in life at this moment that will help us navigate the future. You are a wonderful writer. As always, Good Luck to you!
    Aunt Barb

  10. Jeff, thanks for sharing this in the comments on my blog post. To tell your story requires great courage and compassion. Thank you!

  11. Pingback: Martin Luther King, Jr Day « alesiablogs

  12. Jeff, you liked one of my posts & I’m LOVING this one! So touching, heartfelt, and so real. Strange thing: I came to Florida in ’93 from Lancaster, PA! In 1975 when it seemed liked churches all across America were supporting Vietnamese refugees, our Catholic church in the Philadelphia Diocese “adopted” the Tran family. Xiun Tran was added to our 7th grade class. I remember her & her family to be strong, filled with faith and love, and as eager to welcome us into their home as we were eager to make them feel at home in their new country. I believe that experience helped to shape my activist heart; that and many other things my parents took part in. Our family friends adopted all of their children (one from Vietnam), and my sister is adopted! Thanks for having the courage to share your story!

    • That’s crazy, I moved to FL in ’86 from Lancaster. It’s fascinating to hear about the events that lead people to trust their instincts in life. I appreciate your words, your blog is outstanding.

  13. Pingback: Guest post: Orphanage at the end of the universe | OhmMG…

  14. I can relate to your pain in a way..i am searching for my brother who was born in an loc and was put up for adoption…i do not know his name or birthday maybe 1971 im not sure his moms name was Tran Thi Lan and our dads name was Brian Pawul…growing up knowing i had a brother but did know who or where he was left me feeling lost…

    • I’m sorry for your loss, I can’t imagine what it must be like to have a sibling and not be able to find him. This is the side to international adoption that is rarely discussed.

  15. Pingback: Pre-lunar new year link round-up « The Plaid Bag Connection

  16. Dear Jeff: I am not proficient on the computer – for blogs, etc. But I do remember meeting you and then you left and I had no address. You were special then and are now. I would love to comunicate more – I probably was the one who evacuated you to Ft. Benning and then to your adoption. Please reply — I remember how special you were – and then you were in Florida. I know you remember me…Betty Tisdale

    • Hello Betty, I remember meeting you in Baltimore at the reunion and once after that. You can contact me through my website, just click on my name and go to “Connect” and I will send you my address and phone number. I know you’ve been working in Afghanistan with HALO. I’d love to catch up with you.

  17. Can you please email me….im looking for my half brother….my father was a US soldier who had a son with a local woman…he never met his son and has always searched and i have been helping search for the past 20 years…all i have are my dads name and my brothers mothers name and a few pictures…please and thank you

    • Charlene, I emailed you but in case you didn’t get it, you can contact me directly at http://deconstructingmyths.com/contact-3/. If there’s anything I can do to help I will but, unfortunately, I don’t know much about my own history either. I know a few people who might be able to help, I just need a little more information. Hope to talk to you soon!

      • Hi Charlene and Jeff,
        I’m one of Ina Balin’s daughters, and I just found a treasure trove of photos, letters, and diary entries from her time in Vietnam and at An Lac. I’m sifting through everything now, and will hopefully have most of the stuff uploaded to a site sooner rather than later. In the meantime, here are some pictures that I found https://oldanlacphotos.shutterfly.com/
        I’m assuming Betty has shown the flight manifest to everyone, but if not I have duplicates I can share with you. Also, if you haven’t contacted Nguyet (my sister), you may want to contact her and see if she remembers anything.
        Charlene, I don’t know if your brother was at An Lac Orphanage or born in the city of An Loc, but if it is the former, maybe Nguyet or something in my mother’s documents could help you. Also, I came across this Operation Babylift report from the Agency of International Development (AID), which may be of some help in contacting all the agencies involved with Operation Babylift poundpuplegacy.org/files/PDAAQ604.pdf‎
        You can contact me at kbalin@hotmail.com if I can be of any help.
        All the best, Kim

  18. Pingback: The orphanage at the end of the universe | Deconstructing Myths

  19. Jason Robertson shared a post today from 4 years ago and it was your message. We were stationed at Clark AB, Philippines in 1975 and I volunteered to help take care of the children/babies during their first stop from Vietnam. We just had them overnight as the plane refueled and arrangements were made. It meant so much to me. I had a 6 mo old boy and all he had was an arm band. There was a set of boy twins in blue striped pajamas. I believe it was the first airplane of Operation Babylift-after the one that unfortunately didn’t make it. I have thought about and prayed for all the children through the years and was so happy to hear through Jason’s earlier post that you had a reunion.

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