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'My Parents Met in the Vietnam War, Dad Couldn't Accept That I'm Biracial'

Newsweek 3/29/2023 William Lee Adams

It's a sunny afternoon in April and I'm sitting in the backseat of my sister's car as she pulls into a McDonald's drive-thru in Forest Park, Georgia.

My Vietnamese mother, riding shotgun, is deliberating what to order for my American father—Coke or Sprite, cheeseburger or hamburger, fries or fruit cup.

I tell her, as gently as I can, that Dad won't object to her choices. He's been dead for seven years.

When we arrive at the veterans' cemetery, Mom hobbles down the hill. As always, the click of her metal walker and the rustle of plastic bags draped from her arm announce her arrival.

In Vietnam, she'd offered her deceased parents mangos and paper money on ornate porcelain dishes. But here, on the rougher outskirts of Atlanta, she puts fast-food and caramel ganache brownies on white paper plates for her husband of 42 years.

"Daddy, I give you chocolate cake," she says of the offering. "Happy birthday Daddy. Hope you like."

Fifty years ago this week, the last American troops withdrew from Vietnam. It brought an end to direct U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War. More than three million people ultimately died during the conflict, including around 58,000 Americans—just over 2 percent of the 2.7 million who served there.

My mother arrived in Atlanta two months after the military withdrawal. She was among the final wave of the 8,040 "war brides" to leave Vietnam between 1964 and 1975, when Saigon finally fell to the communists.

My parents' union was unlikely. They grew up twelve time zones apart, literally on the other side of the world from each other. Mom left school at nine and carried buckets of water and food door-to-door through Saigon's labyrinthine streets.

She had to help support the family, including six siblings, since her dad regularly gambled away their bananas at the dog races. She later had a son—my half-brother John—in an arranged marriage. Her first husband, a Vietnamese sailor, died at sea when John was still a toddler.

Robert Jack Adams holding a gun in Vietnam. William Lee Adams © William Lee Adams Robert Jack Adams holding a gun in Vietnam. William Lee Adams

My Dad, a medic with the American Air Force, arrived in Saigon ten days later. He would visit my mother at her family's market stall in the day, and sit with John on rooftops at night. They'd watch helicopters whizz past the distant horizon.

Beyond those details, though, neither of my parents were particularly forthcoming about their pasts or how they fell in love. Their shared secrecy, whether born of shame or unspoken traumas, blocked any line of inquiry.

My cousin was born to an unknown American G.I., and I'd always wondered if John, who shared my fair skin, might have a similar story. Whenever I asked Dad how he courted Mom without sharing a common language, he'd start singing the lyrics to songs by Elvis Presley or Fats Domino.

My mother, with her more limited vocabulary, shot down questions without any of the pleasantries.

"Willy, why you so nosy?" she would ask. "You shut up."

In that silence they tucked away so many memories I wondered if they'd lived their own lives at all. Perhaps forgetting who they once were made it easier for them to accept who they'd ultimately become.

My father sometimes hung a Confederate flag outside of our house. He would rail against immigrants despite being married to one, and rejected the idea that I was mixed race.

"Have you looked in the mirror?" he'd often say, referencing the genetic fallout that had left me with his round eyes and freckles, and dark brown hair with reddish highlights. "You're as white as I am."

Once in elementary school he was horrified to see that I'd ticked "biracial" on a school census form, and used a pen to—in his words—"correct" my race to Caucasian.

Mom, conflating ethnicity and nationality, laughed it off. She'd often say: "Honey, you not Asian. You American."

William Lee Adams and his mother Tuyết at a Vietnamese restaurant. William Lee Adams © William Lee Adams William Lee Adams and his mother Tuyết at a Vietnamese restaurant. William Lee Adams

For so much of my childhood, Vietnam remained a mystery—and one associated with violence and sadness.

During the war, Dad had pulled bullets from bones and stitched up horrific gashes. This we knew from small projector slides he kept in a box, apparent teaching tools he'd swiped on his way out of the Air Force. My brother Bobby Lee and I used to press them against a window and decipher the gore. Our escalating "ewws" and "ughs" conveyed the severity of the injuries.

Dad had gone to war as a nurse, but we had photos, actual three-by-five photographs, of him holding machine guns instead of syringes, sometimes in a field, sometimes in a jeep, sometimes resting against a wall with ammo strapped across his chest.

"Things got out of hand over there," he told me in a rare moment of honesty. "Nobody knew what they were supposed to be doing, so folks just did what they wanted."

He once boasted of the violence he'd inflicted on Viet Cong guerrillas. I never knew if it was just manly bluster, something he thought his effeminate, openly gay son should aspire to.

My mother carried her own dark memories. When she moved to the U.S. to marry Dad, she left John, then a toddler, with her sisters in Vietnam. She wanted to learn English and assess whether my dad was actually a good man.

In 1975, after the communists overran the South, the U.S. embargoed Vietnam. Medicine fell into short supply. John developed a bad fever, but the family didn't have Tylenol. His brain swelled, ultimately leaving him quadriplegic and with the mental capacity of a three-year-old.

Tuyết, who came to the U.S. from Vietnam as a "war bride". William Lee Adams © William Lee Adams Tuyết, who came to the U.S. from Vietnam as a "war bride". William Lee Adams

Mom always said that family in Vietnam had kept her in the dark and that she wasn't aware of the gravity of John's condition until she saw him at the Atlanta airport, when he and a cousin landed in 1982. He arrived at the gate, arms around my cousin's neck, having endured the journey from Vietnam via London without a wheelchair. He didn't remember who our mother was.

When I was growing up, Mom spoke Vietnamese almost exclusively to John. She struggled to take care of him. I didn't have the language to describe it, but I knew she was overwhelmed by her own isolation, language barriers, struggles with mental health and casual racism, much of it born from enmity over America's dead sons.

Owing to her violent mood swings, I came to experience Vietnamese mostly as a language of threat. Mom would bark and scream in her native language if John refused to swallow his food or if he wet the floor, which happened regularly.

Popular culture reinforced the idea that being Vietnamese was somehow bad and shameful—and its people cursed. Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, The Deer Hunter—Vietnamese people were either barbarians killing Americans, or, based on that one-sided portrayal, enemies worthy of being killed by the Americans. These films were celebrated; most of them won Oscars. In the romantic musical Miss Saigon—set between Vietnam and Atlanta—the titular heroine shoots herself in the head.

I understood that my siblings and I were born of conflict and shame. I saw it play out regularly at home, like we were trapped in a cycle of dysfunction, cursed to be at war with each other. It was only when I got to university that I fully appreciated America's national shame—how it never got over a war it shouldn't have been involved in in the first place.

When I started learning Vietnamese in college, and later in grad school, my mother dismissed it as a waste of time. She couldn't understand my desperate need to feel close to her, nor could she fathom why I'd want to spend time in a country she'd left behind.

But I craved a sense of connection to and understanding of the country, and the conflict, that brought my parents together. I wanted to live where they fell in love and walk the streets where John once ran and played freely, and glimpse my mother's life before her depression and anger ripened and enveloped us in a suffocating fog.

Robert Jack Adams and Tuyết on their wedding day. William Lee Adams © William Lee Adams Robert Jack Adams and Tuyết on their wedding day. William Lee Adams

I'll never know the exact circumstances that led my parents to each other. But following my Dad's passing I became more comfortable with the rough outline.

As he died of Alzheimer's, more than four decades after they'd met, Mom was still by his side, making sure he was fed and keeping him clean when he no longer seemed to care. Their relationship, and indeed our family, had endured.

At his funeral, Mom chose to play a recording of "I Walk the Line," by Johnny Cash, in lieu of a hymn. She told me Dad had played it for her on an old cassette player during the war and left it with her when he returned to the States after his tour.

The moment Cash hummed in his deep baritone, Mom started to pant, as if her heart might explode. Her reaction to those rockabilly chords filled some of the gaps and ellipses in their story.

I could picture them dancing on those Saigon rooftops as Cash spoke, his words and the boom-chicka rhythm of the snare drum giving them a common language and the gumption to upend both of their worlds.

William Lee Adams is an author and broadcaster in London. His memoir "Wild Dances: My Queer and Curious Journey to Eurovision" will be published by Astra House on May 9, 2023.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Adapted from William Lee Adams' forthcoming memoir Wild Dances.

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Correction, 4/6/2023, 10:50 a.m. ET: An incorrect reference to the 58,000 American deaths in the Vietnam War as being one in every ten who served was removed from the article. The correct figure is just over 2 percent, or 58,000 out of 2.7 million.

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