Pain, poignance and perspective

`Babylift' adoptees have first reunion since leaving Saigon

May 01, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

A line of sobbing young adults walked along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial yesterday, clutching hands and searching for missing pieces in the puzzles of their lives. Twenty-five years ago, as the United States lost the war in Vietnam, these young people lost their homes.

At the wall, their search for identity was palpable.

Grown orphans of the Saigon "babylift," rescued as the city fell to the Communists in 1975, gathered at the memorial to conclude a weekend reunion held in Baltimore. They had shared their stories, and now they shared this moment in the nation's capital, confronting the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in the war.

Some adoptees pressed their cheeks against the black granite, aching for intimacy with men they believed to be their biological fathers. Others were left to wonder if their fathers' names were etched on the wall. Perhaps the clues to their heritage were in the faraway country where they were born.

For 28-year-old Tuy Buckner, who rolled alongside the memorial in his wheelchair, the moment was not full of mystery, as it was for many others. Through a series of surreal coincidences, Buckner had already found answers so painful and powerful that the wall held no significance.

Adopted a year before the war ended, Buckner shared his story over the weekend with 200 adoptees, family members and rescue workers at the reunion.

"When I heard his story I got chills," said Nancy Fox, who adopted a Vietnamese daughter and is director of Americans For International Aid and Adoption in Troy, Mich.

At the memorial, Buckner took photos of friends, and of his own reflection in the wall. The jewelry maker from Berkeley, Calif., wears what he calls "a modern-day Ho Chi Minh" mustache and beard, with his upper lip shaved except at the corners, where long whiskers droop to his chin.

A tattoo of a water dragon and mythical creatures sprawls across his left arm and chest. A giant silver hoop hangs from his left ear, and his dark hair spills down to his shoulders.

"I'm here out of respect for others," he said. "I understand what people have lost."

He knows the emptiness. He was once there, too.

He was Nguyen Quoc Tuy. He became Gentry Win Buckner. But that was just a formality, a family name bestowed by his adoptive parents when he arrived in America in 1974.

They called him Tuy, pronounced "too-ey." He was born, they were told, on Nov. 18, 1971. He had contracted polio in the orphanage and lost the use of his legs.

He grew up in Berkeley, Calif., one of six children, five of them adopted from around the world. His mother was a lawyer; his father a musician.

"Growing up, I knew I was Vietnamese but it was just a word attached to my label. I was going along in life like I was a white guy," he says.

"It's so easy in America to get caught up in the life and suppress the other part of us."

But in the Buckner household, questions about identity were encouraged -- and embraced. Eventually, all of the children would search for their birth parents. In 1991 when Tuy was 19, his politically active mother, Kris Seeman, convinced him to go to Vietnam with her to protest the American embargo on trade with the country.

He wanted to search then for his birth mother and father, but the country had just opened to American tourists and the timing wasn't right.

Still, he felt a positive response from his countrymen. "They understood I didn't grow up Vietnamese, but Vietnam was important to me."

When he returned to California, he enrolled in design school, but by 1993, he felt drawn back to his birth country.

"I can remember a million times I cried myself to sleep wondering about my parents. Why did my mother give me up? Was she a hooker? Why? Why? Why?"

He wanted to return, to look for information about his heritage.

"I just wanted to see my reflection through the people living there. I wanted to make peace with my life," Buckner says. "I was prepared to go home and never find my family."

He traveled around the country before visiting the church orphanage in the village of Sa Dec. A nun told him there was a record of him being there, but no trace of a mother or father.

There was one clue: Nguyen Thi Be, the name of a village woman who had dropped him off at the orphanage.

A local woman visiting the church happened to know Nguyen Thi Be and went to fetch her in a town an hour away. During the two-hour wait, the townspeople gathered, surrounding Buckner in the church.

Through an interpreter, he learned that they believed the woman on her way was his mother.

"I was scared, but I wanted to believe so badly. I didn't know what to do. I was afraid to be led down, that she wasn't going to be my mother.".

Finally, the crowd parted and Nguyen Thi Be, a tiny, toothless woman wearing a bun and purple silk "pajamas," was thrust toward him.

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