A Saigon orphan finds her home in Iowa
The Vietnam War lasted ten years and with it came almost 1 million orphans — including me, now a resident of West Des Moines and an almost lifelong Iowan.
The displaced children included unwanted and unexpected babies and impoverished children living in a war-torn land without enough resources.
There were babies born out of wedlock due to relations with foreign soldiers sent to Vietnam to provide aid. Parents and single mothers had to make the choice whether to raise a child in a desperate situation, give up the child for adoption or look for a way to leave behind their homeland.
At the time, families fled in the middle of the night on a nearby boat and hoped their young children and grandparents could survive the long journey.
I was fortunate to be one of those orphans. Orphan and fortunate in the same sentence? Yes, in my case, that’s how it worked, in large part because of the opportunities given to me by family in Iowa.
Today, I am launching The Asian Iowan column on Substack. I will be writing about a myriad of topics including the path to discovering my identity as an Asian-American raised in Iowa, businesses owned by refugees and immigrants, and telling the stories of refugees and immigrants.
I grew up in the Carroll, Iowa Burns-Wilson newspaper family. I attended the University of Iowa and wrote for the North Liberty Leader as an undergrad. I studied Journalism and Mass Communications, Elementary Education and Studio Art. I earned my Master’s degree in TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) from the University of Northern Iowa and have taught English as a Second language for Des Moines Public Schools for 24 years. I have met thousands of refugee and immigrant Iowans and I am one of them. I intend to tell their inspiring stories and share the connections I have made.
Back to the beginning …
My birth parents chose a life for me that avoided the aftermath of a war and a country ruled by a new, Communist regime. I was left at a hospital in Saigon and then sent to live with a foster family. My foster mother was married to a man in the Vietnamese military and had children of her own. She cared for me to provide extra income for the family. I lived with my foster family until I was almost 6 months old when I was evacuated on a huge cargo jet with hundreds of other babies to the United States to live with my new family.
My new family was anxiously waiting for me in Indianola, Iowa. They had already adopted two boys as newborns from Iowa. At the time, Iowa only allowed a family to adopt two healthy babies per family, so they turned to international adoption. They had applied almost two years earlier to adopt a baby girl from Korea. However, my father was over the age of 40 and Korea had strict laws about the age of adoptive parents. Vietnam was their next choice. It took many long months, but they received word I was assigned to them and would be flown to meet them in a matter of months. My family received photos of me posed in a baby seat holding a sign with my name – Nguyen Thi Van. In Vietnam, the family name was listed first. They learned Van (pronounced Vun) was my first name. My mom and dad made all the necessary preparations including gathering cloth diapers and clothes for a baby girl, and putting together my nursery.
The Fall of Saigon happened in April of 1975. There was a huge rush to evacuate American and South Vietnamese from Vietnam before the Fall. Adults, children, and babies were loaded onto airplanes, helicopters and boats, and fled in a frenzied state, afraid for their lives. They left behind prized possessions, necessities and even family members. Sadly many families were separated due to circumstances beyond their control.
My mom and I attended a 25 year reunion of Vietnamese adoptees in April of 2000 in Baltimore, Maryland sponsored by Holt, the agency that arranged my adoption. During one of the question-and-answer sessions, I learned I was most likely made my way here in a jumbo cargo jet, not a cushy passenger plane like some of the other babies. There was a such state of panic to leave the country evacuation was offered to any American wanting to return to the US. This included nurses, missionaries and volunteers.
The only catch was they needed to help care for the over 2,500 orphans part of Operation Babylift on the very long trip to America. Car seats and bassinets were not available, so most likely I was placed in a Styrofoam cooler where I slept and rested on my journey to my new life.
I arrived in Chicago at O’Hare Airport at noon wrapped in a Red Cross blanket wearing only a diaper and a t-shirt. I was placed in the arms of my family waiting to greet me. Not all anxious families received such good news. On April 4, 1975, the first airplane carrying orphans crashed in a rice paddy upon takeoff in Vietnam and almost half of those on board died.
My family settled into their life that now included me. I had two big brothers, ages 3 and 6, to help take care of me. My mother said when I arrived, I reeked of garlic for days. No one knows why, but most likely food was scarce, and I was fed whatever was available.
I have been told on my first night in my new bedroom, my oldest brother, Doug, came into my room to check on me. He was heard speaking softly to me in my crib. He said, “If you need anything, I’m just down the hall.”
Pleased to meet you. And a belated welcome to America and Iowa!
As a Vietnam veteran (U.S. Army '69-'70) and uncle to six adopted nieces (four from Cambodia; one from Brazil and one from Ethiopia) I look forward to future installments.
Some nurses from Iowa were involved with the babylift. Wonder if you were part of that flight? One nurse was LeAnn Thieman. Keep writing.