Back to the Future

The past is catching up with the Vietnamese son of a black American soldier

After the U.S. left Vietnam, Amerasian children weren't allowed to attend school, and were subjected to frequent beatings by other kids. Even worse, their own mothers often shunned them in favor of their "full-blooded" siblings.

Dung Chau says he remembers walking the streets of Ho Chi Minh City as a youth, ever alert to the possibility that a gang of kids might jump him or throw rocks at him just because of the way he looked.

"Not fun," he says. "I didn't learn many things, but Chinese people let me clean fish for [pennies]. Grandma nice always. My aunt was nice, too. Mom nice sometimes. Not a lot of friends, 'cause no one look like me."

In July 1980, Mai Chau gave birth to a second son, named Thuan. (He's called Joe these days, and works for a Tempe computer company.) Immigration records indicate that Thuan's father was a Vietnamese man who later died.

By then, stories about the plight of Amerasian children living on the streets of Vietnam had disturbed many Americans. In 1982, two U.S. congressmen proposed a law they hoped would improve matters.

Congressman Stewart McKinney of Connecticut, one of the Amerasian Children Act's sponsors, said during hearings, "The effort will not be to identify the actual father. The effort will be to establish only that the young person is the offspring of a U.S. citizen."

Tellingly, the bill never did say an Amerasian child specifically had to name his or her father, an impossible task for most immigrants. For example, no one knew if Dung Chau's alleged father, "Nick," was still alive, or had been one of the 7,241 black Americans killed in action during the Vietnam War. And if he were alive, how could anyone find him?

In fact, according to an Ohio State University study published in 1999, of the 25,000 Vietnamese-Amerasian children who eventually entered the U.S. under immigration-incentive laws that ended in the early 1990s, only 3 percent succeeded in meeting their biological fathers. That contrasted with the 76 percent in the study who said they'd wanted to meet their dads.

The heal-the-wounds bill sailed through Congress in late 1982, and President Ronald Reagan signed it into law that October 22. Reagan said that day, "Americans have always opened their hearts to those coming from distant lands to make a new life here, to live in freedom, and to improve their lot. In this case I think we should go a step further. Instead of saying welcome to these children, we should say welcome home.

"This good and humane law -- and it is that -- recognizes the rightful claim of Amerasian children to American citizenship and permits their entry into our country after arrangements have been made for their care with the families or with private organizations."

In a way, it was the biggest paternity settlement in history. Specifically, it was designed to allow Amerasian children born between 1950 and 1982 (that covered both the Korean and Vietnam wars) to come to America as top-priority immigrants. Once they got here, the Amerasians and their immediate families were to be helped financially, socially and otherwise in integrating into their new lives.

John Richardson, a Vietnam veteran then working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C., personally carried the Amerasian Children Act to the government printing office. Years later, Richardson presided as the immigration judge at Dung Chau's deportation case in Phoenix, during which the interpretation of the 1982 act was a central topic.

In Vietnam, word quickly spread about the Americans' new law. The scorned Amerasians suddenly became the golden children, the means to a one-way ticket for thousands of mothers and siblings from unceasingly harsh lives into the supposed land of plenty.

In December 1983, shortly after Dung Chau's 12th birthday, his mother took him to an office for an interview with Vietnamese and American officials. Chau recalled at his 1998 deportation hearing that a black American soldier had questioned his mother through an interpreter.

"I thought it was my father," he testified, in the hearing's most poignant moment.

On Memorial Day 1984, Dung, Mai and Thuan Chau flew on a U.S. government plane to an orientation camp for Amerasians in Bangkok, Thailand. It was the first leg of their journey to the States. They took with them little more than a few personal mementos and a few suitcases.

The Chaus then spent months at a camp in the Philippines. Finally, in December 1984, they landed in Los Angeles. They were among the first of the Vietnamese Amerasian families -- about 77,000 people in all -- who immigrated here under the 1982 law and subsequent laws.

The Chau family's sponsor was the Tolstoy Foundation, a nonprofit agency based in New York City. The agency placed the trio in a comfortable apartment in Phoenix's Sunnyslope neighborhood, and provided immediate support by helping them secure the basics -- food, medical treatment, clothes, furniture and enough money to get by.

Caseworkers also introduced Mai Chau to other Viets, and she found work as a manicurist in the fast-growing Asian community in west Phoenix.

For 13-year-old Dung Chau, those first days in the States were overwhelming. "I remember it was cold, cold, cold, it was Christmastime," he says. "It was like being in a whole different world. I didn't know English but one word -- hi.' I said that word a lot."

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