Ali Blumenthal for rd.com
Out the window to my left, palm trees bent in the breeze from the South China Sea; to my right, green fields stretched in the distance. As our tour van headed south on a bumpy road near Nha Trang, I kept reminding myself, This is Vietnam. I even tried superimposing scenes from Platoon and Full Metal Jacket on the landscape, but they wouldn’t stick. Everything was too peaceful.
I had come to Vietnam to solve a mystery: What had happened to my father here? My father, Sgt. Jimmy Godwin of the U.S. Army Special Forces, married my mother in 1968, just before he’d shipped out for Vietnam. When he’d returned, he was “messed up”—that’s what my mother said, though I’d never understood what that meant. She and Jimmy divorced when I was a baby.
After my mom remarried, Jimmy signed papers so that my stepfather—the man I call Dad—could adopt me. I grew up in a loving house, but we never talked much about Jimmy; we didn’t know how.
That left me curious, confused, and even angry at my parents—all three of them—because I wanted the truth about the man who had once been my father and why he had chosen not to be. But at age 23, I needed more than a handful of facts; I felt like I had to have the context to understand them. That’s why I went to Vietnam.
In 1994, I joined a group of volunteers on a goodwill project that was organized by the Friendship Foundation of American Vietnamese, a nonprofit based in Ohio. As our group of twentysomethings explored Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and the coastal city of Nha Trang, I felt a little like a detective returning to the scene of a crime, only I wasn’t finding any clues. The country seemed to have moved on in the 25 years since my father’s time. My trip there felt like a vacation, complete with lush scenery, amazing food, and friendly people.
The foundation had arranged for us to build a playground in Nha Trang, but soon after we’d arrived, the government withdrew its consent, which was a painful disappointment. As a plan B, our tour organizers set up a visit to a nearby orphanage. I almost stayed at our hotel that day because I worried it would be depressing. Plus, what did I have to offer Vietnamese orphans?
[pullquote] The country seemed to have moved on in the 25 years since my father’s time. My trip there felt like a vacation, complete with lush scenery, amazing food, and friendly people. [/pullquote]
About a dozen of us piled into a van to go to the orphanage. On the way there, I thought about Jimmy. By then, he and I had met face-to-face, and we were still trying to figure out what our relationship was or would be. Jimmy hadn’t said much about his time in Vietnam, though I knew he’d come to Nha Trang once between battles and spent an afternoon on the beach.
Our van eventually pulled up to a cinder block building. A middle-aged Catholic priest emerged and greeted us in English. He summoned the children and assigned each of us our own pint-size tour guide.
Mine was a little boy named Duy, who looked about six. I’m six foot three, and when Duy came up to me, he had to arch his neck like he was looking at a skyscraper. He said something to me in Vietnamese. I smiled awkwardly; I was embarrassed that I didn’t even know how to say “Hi, what’s your name?” I asked the priest to translate.
“He says you are very big.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. I crouched until my eyes were just below the level of Duy’s. “Very small.”
The little boy chuckled. Duy took my hand and led me inside to a large room filled with bunk beds. He pointed to his own, a top bunk with an inch-thick layer of woven straw as a mattress, no blanket or pillow. He seemed to like showing it to me, as if he were proud of it.
“Nice,” I said. I picked Duy up and I sat him on his bed to equalize our heights. I tried to think of what to say or to ask. Would Duy have some sort of bedtime ritual? I wondered. It’s a Catholic orphanage, so would he say prayers? And what would he pray for?
I asked the priest to translate this. As they spoke, I listened for a tone that suggested the priest might be coaching Duy, but I didn’t hear any.
“He does pray,” the priest said, “but in the morning.”
“What do you pray for?”
I looked at Duy as I spoke. “What do you ask God to do for you or to give you?”
Duy smiled a little when the question was translated. He paused; it seemed like he was answering this question for the first time.
“He says he prays for his parents who are in heaven. He prays for his sister because he doesn’t know where she is and hopes she will be OK. He prays for God to help him be good that day.” And here the priest said something to Duy that sounded like a slight admonition. “And sometimes he prays for a toy or something like that.”
“Really? Is that all?”
“That’s all he said.”
“He doesn’t pray to be adopted? To go home with a family?”
The priest asked Duy, who answered in a bored-kid voice, as if this weren’t a very interesting subject.
“He said he, of course, would like to have a family to live with, but he knows that most children his age don’t get chosen for a family. And if they do get chosen, often it’s a family that needs someone to work. So he says he likes his life here. ‘This is my family now,’ he said.”
This is my family now.
I glanced around the room. This place was spare but clean. Most of the kids were smiling. They looked thin, but healthy. Their clothes weren’t new, but they weren’t rags. Two of the boys who weren’t hosting foreigners were goofing around with a ball.
Duy studied me. His expression seemed to say, What do you think, Big Foreign Fella?
I smiled at him as if I had a secret.
He made a face and looked playful. I grabbed him around the waist and planted his belly on my shoulder. Then I wrapped a hand around his calf so he’d know that I wouldn’t let him fall. I carried him outside and spun him around until he laughed.
[pullquote] “He says he prays for his parents who are in heaven. He prays for his sister because he doesn’t know where she is and hopes she will be OK. He prays for God to help him be good that day.” [/pullquote]
This is my family now.
I knew that I wasn’t getting a complete picture of Duy’s thoughts or experience. I knew his feelings about his life, his fate, and his place in the world likely were—or might one day be—complicated.
I hoped that he would never wonder if it was his own fault that he’d lost his parents. I hoped he’d never think he was flawed in some mysterious, fundamental way and that their absence was the evidence. And yet, Duy shamed me.
This little boy had gone through so much by the age of six, but he’d just declared that the people at the orphanage were his family. I had questions about my own family that I wanted answered, and someday, I might get those answers, but what right did I have to self-pity? After all, I had been, as the priest had put it, chosen for a family.
The other kids made a circle around us, and they clamored for me to lift them too. I gave each of them a ride on Foreigner Mountain, spinning and spinning until I almost fell over.
I wished that I had a toy to give Duy. Or that I could build him a playground. Instead I offered him turn after turn on my shoulders, more than anyone else, and I also spun him longer than anyone else.
I wanted Duy, in this one little way, to feel chosen.