When the last of the American servicemen in Vietnam left 30 years ago, they left behind thousands of children whom they had fathered with Vietnamese women. As the United States recovered from the bitterness of that war, the public began to call on the nation to take care of America's so-called "forgotten sons and daughters."
It took several years, but in 1987, the U.S. Congress passed the Vietnamese Amerasian Homecoming Act, allowing these children - by then, teenagers and young adults - to immigrate to the United States. Most remained in Vietnam. But some 25,000 Vietnamese Amerasians took advantage of the new law.
Their experience in the United States has been quite different from that of Vietnamese immigrants. When the large wave of bi-racial children and young adults arrived in the United States in the late 1980s, they spread out across the country. The youngest of them was 12. Some were as old as 25.
Sandy Dang, executive director of a Washington, D.C. support organization, says they chose to leave Vietnam because life there was extremely difficult.
"Many of them were orphans and were living on the street," she says. "So when this news came that they can go to America and America is ready for them, they were extremely excited. They wanted to leave for economic reasons as well as for the discrimination and the fact that they were called "children of the dust" or in Vietnamese it was called gon lai, which means mixed race. And they wanted to escape that and find better lives for themselves."
Even though many of them were orphans, and they scattered across the United States, they managed to build a new life.
"Many of them were married. And so when they got the news that they could come to this country, they were able to bring their families with them," she says. "Some were able to bring their mothers and half sisters, half brothers. Others came with their wives and children."
But many Vietnamese Amerasians who arrived in the United States after 1987 were young and not married.
"If you talk to the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, you will see that they have a program called Unaccompanied Minors," Ms. Dang says. "And many of them are Vietnamese Amerasian. Some of them came and when they went to the camps, some of them were able to be friends with some families and sort of adopt that as part of their family. Some of them came here and started to get married and have some children and start their lives. But their lives in this country is also very difficult. Partly because as children in Vietnam, they were not allowed to go to school and most of them had to work on the farm, some had to sell lottery tickets in the cities, so their lives were very difficult. They did not have the foundation to succeed in this country like many other Vietnamese refugees. So their past is still very much affecting the present of their lives right now. The percent that make it out of poverty is very small."
Ms. Dang says while bi-racial children were discriminated against back in Vietnam, the situation is different in the United States.
"I think the larger society basically has no knowledge of this population," she says. "They are invisible. If you are half black, half Vietnamese, when you're walking on the street, people may think you are African American. And if you're half white and half Vietnamese and you're walking around, people think that maybe you're just another white person. Or if you're half Vietnamese and half … you know, at the time, some Asian Americans also joined the Armed Forces to fight in the Vietnam War … then you look Asian. So in a way, the larger society has no knowledge, very little knowledge, of this population."
A few Vietnamese Amerasians have tried to locate their fathers once they arrived in the United States.
"In my work in this community, I work with hundreds of Amerasians, I have one woman who found her father. Her father now lives in Seattle. Her father actually met up with her. It was a very emotional meeting, but she feels very proud that she found her father," Ms. Dang says. "I work exclusively with this one family and the mother had four children by this one military man. And the son really wanted to know who the father is and to meet the father. But it was very difficult to find that person. And not only that, he said to me and his mother that a lot of times he just wonders, he looks at people on the street and he wonders if that person is his father. His mom still has the picture of his father when he was in Vietnam."
Sandy Dang, a Vietnamese immigrant herself, says her community in the United States has very little to do with Vietnamese Amerasians. As Executive Director of Asian American LEADS, she is trying to bring the two communities together. Her group works with the children of Amerasian immigrants to help them escape the cycle of poverty through education.