A documentary about a woman, Heidi, who was sent from Vietnam to America for adoption when she was seven, and who returns to her homeland 22 years later to be reunited with her birth mother. The filmmakers Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco follow Heidi - born Hiep - back to Danang, where she and her mother, Mai Thi Kim, find their hopes and dreams of a loving reunion dashed as they struggle with a cultural gulf more profound than either had imagined. This poignant film about identity, love, family, and culture won the 2002 Sundance Grand Jury Prize and received an Oscar nomination in 2003.
Women's Work in Wartime
Kim was a mother with three small children when the Vietnam War began. One day her husband left, telling her he was going to join the army. Instead, he joined the Viet Cong; he recalls he felt it was his duty to defend his country against invaders. Defend his country he may have done, but he endangered his family: security forces found Kim and demanded to know where her husband was. "I'd like to know myself," she retorted. She was left on her own with three young children to support.
Kim did what many Asian women did during wartime: she went to an army base to work for an American serviceman. She was afraid of Americans, but overcame her fear when her employer told her that if she became his girlfriend he would support her and her children. When she was four months pregnant, though, he left, and they had no contact after that. She named their daughter Hiep.
Life wasn't easy for the family. Though Kim's choice of livelihood was hardly uncommon in wartime Vietnam, and though thousands of Amerasian children were born during that time, people still looked down on her. Her son recalls that kids teased him at school because of his mother and sister, though he doesn't blame his mother at all for doing what she had to do to take care of him and his sisters. He also remembers with pain the many years he spent without a father. As a boy he felt envious of the happy two-parent families he saw, and even now, decades later, chokes up as he recalls his feelings of loss and sadness. He also had responsibilities: while his mother went off to work, he cared for his sisters, particularly the youngest, Hiep.
In 1975 the war was ending. As panicked Americans fled Vietnam, thousands of refugees were evacuated; about 100,000 Southeast Asians had emigrated to the US by the end of 1975.
A good number of them were abandoned children, including thousands of children airlifted out of Vietnam in Operation Babylift. Overseen by humanitarian groups like the Red Cross and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, most were flown to the US, Canada, and Australia and put up for adoption. Though the children were said to be orphans or abandoned, this was not always the case. Many, like Hiep, were given by their mothers to orphanages run by American adoption agencies, whose workers urged the women to "do the right thing" and allow their children to have a better life in America. Kim wept as she handed over her baby to the Holt Adoption Agency, but she was terrified of what would happen to her daughter if she kept her. People were saying the Viet Cong would take all the Amerasian babies, pour gasoline on them, and burn them. Through her tears she asked the workers at the orphanage how she would be able to find her daughter later; she was told that they would contact her after and let her know where her child was. They did not.
Hiep was six when she entered the orphanage, seven when she flew to America. She didn't understand what was happening to her. She didn't speak any English. She was used to being with her mother and her siblings - two sisters and a brother who looked after her - and she cried and cried for them, to no avail. She and hundreds of other children were packed onto a plane and flown to America.
Hiep was adopted by Ann Neville, who had been denied adoption of an American baby because she wasn't married. She named her new child Heidi, and the two lived in Columbia, South Carolina for a year before settling in Pulaski, Tennessee. Heidi began intensive English classes and soon became a good student in classes with kids her own age. She joined the Girl Scouts, learned to swim and play softball, and was baptized a Methodist. She attended church services regularly.
Heidi was unusual in her town - Pulaski had whites and blacks, but there was "no one like Heidi," recalls a family friend. Until she grew up, Heidi never met other Vietnamese or Asian people. Though Pulaski was an integrated community and Heidi had friends of both races, the Ku Klux Klan originated in Pulaski and still holds commemorative parades every year, so we can surmise that there was racism there, even if largely hidden.
Heidi's mother impressed upon her that she must "never ever" tell people about her past: if they asked, she should just say that she was born in Columbia, SC. People wouldn't understand about being born out of wedlock, Ann said, and they wouldn't accept her if they knew she was from Vietnam. Heidi did as her mother instructed. When people asked if she was Indian or Spanish, she just said no; she told only a few close friends that she was from Vietnam. Ann raised her to be 101% American, Heidi says, and she succeeded: Heidi became a good Southern girl.
Ann worked as a dean at Pulaski's Martin Methodist College; she had no real social life, and spent her energy on Heidi. She took Heidi places, good places and bad places. They spent vacations in Hawaii, New York and Las Vegas, exotic locales to most of Heidi's classmates. But Ann was also very strict and harsh with her daughter; Heidi was once grounded for the entire summer for getting a "C" in geometry. Heidi says she can only remember Ann telling her she loved her once; she didn't hug Heidi or show her affection, and used to beat her with "whatever was handy" when she was angry.
Heidi went to college, but returned in the summer to live with Ann and work as a lifeguard. One day she returned home ten minutes late from a date, and found the door locked; Ann had put a sign up that said "This house closes at 11." Heidi had to spend the night at a friend's. The next day, she went home, and Ann said she had to live by the house rules or leave. When Heidi questioned her, Ann said, "Leave, you don't live here any more." The next day Heidi returned to find her bags packed; Ann said she didn't have a daughter any more. Heidi tells of feeling devastated and thinking maybe she wasn't good enough to have a mother, since she'd been abandoned by two of them. She fell into depression.
Looking for Love
Heidi married her childhood sweetheart, John Bub, and had two daughters, but continued to wonder about her birth mother. She didn't know much about her past - her memories of Vietnam were dim and impressionistic - but she finally tracked down the Holt Adoption Agency in 1997. There, she was stunned to find a letter from her birth mother, sent in 1991, in among her adoption papers. When she demanded to know why the agency hadn't contacted her with the letter, she learned that they had tried, but Ann had refused tell them where she was.
Four months after discovering that her mother was still alive and looking for her, Heidi flew to Vietnam with a film crew and Tran Tuong Nhu, a journalist who also interpreted for Heidi. Nhu was the first Vietnamese person Heidi had met since leaving Vietnam. Heidi knew next to nothing about the land of her birth, and didn't really bother to learn: she was focused on the thought of seeing her mother.
Heidi and her mother had both built up huge expectations that this visit would allow them to regain something they had lost decades before, and the film beautifully documents the unravelling of that heavy load of dreams. Heidi is at first impressed with the close affection that exists between family members in Vietnam - "I feel kind of envious", says this woman raised by a cold undemonstrative mother - but she soon comes to feel smothered, particularly by Kim, who is by her side all the time, sleeping with her, holding her hand, kissing her, telling her she loves her. In the dramatic final scene, Heidi breaks downs when faced with the weight of family expectations as they ask her to take on the responsibility of helping and supporting them. Heidi, homesick and overwhelmed by emotion and heat and culture shock, dissolves into tears; she feels the burden of their hopes too heavy to bear, and wishes she could return to a time when all her memories were happy ones.
I too have lived in Asia. As an anthropologist I was much better prepared than Heidi for the experience, and I didn't have the added drama of family connections to complicate things. Still, I identified with Heidi strongly as I watched this documentary. In Asia I too often longed to step away from the crowds of people speaking languages I understood imperfectly or not at all, to be truly alone for a few minutes or hours. I too felt the wrenching dissonance of people I cared for asking me for money, but I realized, as Heidi did not, that many third world people make no clear distinction between love and lucre. Heidi couldn't understand how her family could degrade their expressions of love with requests for money, while her family couldn't fathom how she deny her love for them by withholding financial support. The epilogue states that Heidi still cannot face the emotional turmoil of contacting her family.
I saw this film last night on PBS, and as usual they have an excellent online accompaniment at www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/daughter/