Friday, July 29, 2011

Amerasians: 'Dust of Life'

Korea, 1979, 1981
'Amerasians' refers to the offspring of foreigners and women in Asia. 'Dust of life' refers to someone of no importance. Generally, the word 'Amerasians' speaks to the illegitimate children of soldiers - US soldiers - who've been stationed or experienced their "R & R" in Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations. Often without citizenship in their native lands, ignored by the country of their fathers, theirs is a tragic story with debates political, personal and cultural that continue to the present (see clip below from the documentary, "Left By Ship").

We all know that traveling is an education sometimes better than college. Not having gone to university after high school, I took many short-term clerical jobs before getting hired by now defunct Eastern Airlines in 1975. Living in Miami, feeling at loose ends and looking for a 'greater purpose in life' (whatever!), I learned about a volunteer organization called Americans for International Aid that used airline employees traveling on free humanitarian passes to bring back to the US kids adopted by Americans. I was so excited, I telephoned the founder, Jodie Darragh, immediately and within weeks I was on my way to Seoul with three other volunteers courtesy of Korean Airlines. Here was a sense of purpose, using my travel passes to help new parents save money by bringing their children back for them and at the same time bring needed supplies to those still waiting. It was the start of what one might call a compulsion that continues till this day.

With Fr. Keane in Bupyeong, Korea, 1979
Back then, often on trips to Korea, I delivered clothing and other donations to orphanages in the countryside. On several trips I took a bus up to Father Keane's St. Vincent's Home for Amerasian Children (see photos left) in Bu-Pyung, just outside of Inchon, sometimes staying over at the orphanage. What's an Amerasian? In the US we are so used to people coming in all colors and sizes that often differences go unnoticed. In Korea, sometimes people would stop ME to take a photo because I have blond hair and blue eyes in a country where everyone has brown hair and brown eyes. That's OK for me, I'm a foreigner, but not for someone who lives in Korea.

These Amerasian children were born to Korean mothers and most often American soldiers. Poor girls from the villages sometimes became 'wives,' cooking and cleaning for soldiers during their post, using the money to take care of not just themselves but their families. When the GIs were transferred they often left illegitimate children behind. Not recognized as "Korean," stigmatized socially, educationally and economically, especially if their father's were African American, these children were essentially stateless. Like most Asian societies, in Korea your father's lineage plays a key role in mapping out your life opportunities. Abandoned by their fathers, the future for these children was bleak. As a mother now myself, I cannot imagine how the mothers of these children must have agonized over leaving them at St. Vincents, hoping that in Fr. Keane's care they would have a better opportunities in the future.

Many Amerasians were adopted by families in the US - an option but not a solution in and of itself. Along with Jodie Darragh - a mother, airline employee and adoptive parent - Fr. Keane was instrumental in lobbying Congress for passage of the Amerasian Act in 1982. This Act allowed Amerasians from Vietnam, Korea, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, without their mothers or their siblings, to come to the United States to live with American sponsor families. However, as the Vietnamese government would not cooperate with this Act, thousands of Amerasian children abandoned at the end of the Vietnam War were not effected.

As a result, in 1987, Congress adopted the Amerasian Homecoming Act that focused primarily on Vietnamese Amerasian children. This new law did permit mothers and other immediate family members to relocate to America (in Vietnam, Amerasians went from pariah status to 'gold children') with the Amerasian children. Between 1987 and 1994, roughly 25,000 Vietnamese Amerasians, by then 12-25 years of age, and another 60,000 to 70,000 family members immigrated to the United States, with the majority settling in California.

Amerasians from Thailand, Korea, Vietnam and Laos who could somehow document their paternity - for some it could be simply their appearance -  were allowed now to 'come home.'  Those in the Philippines, where the US had been a military presence for 100 years, were excluded. When the US closed Clark and Subac Bay US Naval bases in the Philippines in 1992, thousands of Amerasians were left behind.

Below is a clip from Left By Ship, a newly released documentary about children left behind in the Philippines. For more information on the Amerasian Act, the Amerasian Homecoming Act and stories of resettlement in America, read:

Surviving Twice: Amerasian Children of the Vietnam War by Trin Yarborough

Dust of Life: America's Children Abandoned in Vietnam by Robert S. McKelvey

For a cultural/social view of an Amerasian daughter returning to Vietnam to meet her biological mother, an incredible look cross cultural values and the misunderstandings that can arise, view Daughter from Danang.

For a response to this film from a Vietnamese Amerasian adopted by an American family and for current information on the topic, visit the blog, 'Ethnically Incorrect Daughter' by Sumeia Williams.




6 comments:

  1. Hello!
    I am looking for the address for St. Vincent's Home for Amerasian Children. I was was adopted from there and would love to visit on my first trip back to Korea on August 13th. Can you help me? I've been trying to search online but have been having problems.
    Thank you!
    Liz

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    1. Hi Friend, I was adopted from there too. Address is : #317 Sankok 3-Dong,PUK-KU, Inchon, South Korea 403-020

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    2. I was also adopted from there in 1981. September ish

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  2. Liz, try contacting Americans for International Aid and Adoption in Minnesota. Their web site is www.aiaaadopt.org. I think they will be able to give you further information on St. Vincent's.

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  3. I applaud this nice article all everyone who is working to bring Amerasian issues to light and for the US and Asian nations to have accountability. I want to make one comment. In the interest of *Not Erasing* histories, Amerasians include people from before the Vietnam/Southeast Asia War. People like myself, who are of Japanese and American descent, as well as of Korea after the Korean War especially, and American-Chinese, born to Americans stationed via military strategy in China, yet were not military but civilian. Many of my generation have been assimilated and invisiblized in the US and Japan (and other Asian nations). Many I knew, never said they were mixed race anything and made up something else. The term 'Amerasian' was used during World War II by American politicians and it was popularized by one of the first Americans (if not THE FIRST) to care for Amerasians in Asia--Pearl Buck--who began her orphanages in China, Korea and Japan in the 1950s. The Philippines and Spanish American Wars left the first Amerasians before WWII. This doesn't include all those European descent mixed-race children in Asia during European colonization in Southeast Asia and attempts in East Asia and the South Pacific. Let us all not forget people like me. I think all of us, of the different generations of Amerasians, can work together and have powerful political force if we somehow get together, work together and support each other. First--let us not quote wrongly and encourage others who suffered before us and to not forget, first and foremost. Thank you again.

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  4. Thank you for your important comment. Yes, immigration histories of 'Amerasians' began much earlier than WWII and the Korean and Vietnam wars -thank you for making this message more 'visible.'

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