Vietnamese and Amerasian babies aboard an Operation Babylift plane to Oakland, April 1975. Source: covvha.net
Adopted by two American parents, my identity was shaped by the family that raised me. The physical trait differences between my adopted parents and me were glaring but growing up, it didn’t phase me. I remember my parents had shared the story of how I arrived here when I was in first grade. We sat at the kitchen table with a bunch of Time magazines and old newspapers as my mom slowly read the headlines which told the story of the Operation Babylift. I listened to a letter written by the volunteer Pan Am flight attendant who had cared for me on the long flight from Vietnam to the US. That day, at the kitchen table, my story unfolded.
An orphan of war, born to a Vietnamese woman and a GI, my birth mother had left me at an orphanage with the hope that I would make it out in the three-day mass evacuation of children from South Vietnam. I had been scheduled on the first flight out but was removed because I was deemed too sick to fly. The volunteer and the eight other babies she was in charge of were all held back because of me. My birth certificate,already on-board, perished as that first flight became the doomed C-5 crash which claimed the lives of nearly 80 babies and approximately 50 adults . When the news of the crash broke, the flight attendant believed I had saved her life. She recorded my story on the journey from Vietnam to the US and tucked the letter carefully into the box I traveled in, so it would be shared with whoever adopted me.
Although curious during childhood, finding my birth parents wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. Naturally, I wondered where my traits or behaviors stemmed from. But my entire life, when asked for familial medical history I always just placed an ‘X” and wrote, “unknown.”
I was in my 30’s, when I lost both of my then-divorced adopted parents. My dad first and then five years later, my mom. Those losses crowned me with the title of “sole survivor.” It’s a very odd place to occupy; navigating life entirely alone. It’s scary, dark and lonely with no real relief. Essentially, it hollowed my identity. Suddenly, the incessant need to know who and where I came from grew larger and brighter. I’m unsure if tracing my roots will help me find bravery and strength or if the search itself is helping to occupy my gigantic void.
Experience has taught me, the roles we play in the lives of others somehow become the threads that weave our identity. Death stole more than just the people I love. Each loss took with it threads of who I am. Ultimately my identity became unwoven by my losses. Now I am searching to find myself in my past.