A Gentle Morning Mist
By Renee Friedman, from Chicken Soup for the Adopted Soul
When an adoptive mother and her child visit Vietnam to immerse themselves in Vietnamese culture, they also discover a deepened connection as a family.
After years of unsuccessful adoption attempts, I came upon an ad in an adoption magazine stating that parents were needed for Vietnamese children. I called and said, “I’m old, I’m poor, and I’m Jewish. My husband is even older, has no religion, but he does have four children from a previous marriage, which means he is also divorced. We live at the end of a four-wheel-drive road in Canada I have an outhouse and a nose ring. Can I adopt?”
The woman at the other end of the line seemed undaunted. None of it mattered as long as we had a valid home study.
Late one Thursday afternoon a year later, another voice at the end of a phone line said, “Congratulations, Ms. Friedman. You’ll be going to get your daughter on Saturday.”
All the quest like fairy-tale waiting and proving ourselves was over. Now panic set in. I work, sitting bolt upright that midnight, saying “Dear God, what have I done? I’ll be removing a child from a country that has already had so much taken from it and transplanting her.”
Three days later, on December 6, 1998, we arose in Hanoi at 4:00 AM and drove over potholes for five-and-a –half jolting hours to Halong Bay, the region of our daughter’s birth.
The next morning, I walked up the stairs of the orphanage, along with other waiting parents, and saw my four-month-old daughter sleeping in her nounou’s (foster mother’s) arms. “Thuy Yen?” I tentatively asked, mispronouncing my daughter’s Vietnamese name. The nounou nodded, and with tear-filled eyes – mine happy, hers sad – we waited for my daughter to wake up.
After an afternoon of paperwork and shifting the children from the nounous to their new parents, we began on the long bumpy road to Hanoi and parenthood. When I got her to smile for the first time, my heart grew larger than I’d ever known possible.
Once settled back home on our west coast island, I called my local multicultural association to learn more about the culture, food, and holidays of Vietnam. We left home often so Shaina could grow up knowing other Jews, adoptees, and Vietnamese people. Bu ton our little island, Shaina remained unique – the only Jewish Vietnamese rural adoptee. When she began speaking, one of the earliest greetings she learned was not, “How are you?” or “What’s your name?” but, “Where are you from?”
When she entered kindergarten, the fairies decorated all of Shaina’s classroom walls were uniformly Anglo-Saxon and white-skinned. When I pointed this out to the teacher, she said, “I’ve never thought of it before, and no one ever brought the issue up” This exchange was one of my first inklings that Shaina would need something more if I wanted her to have a strong sense of identity. I wondered what she saw when she looked in the mirror, and the face reflected back was so unlike any around her. She began turning to me and saying, “You’re just my fake mother, you know. I don’t have to obey you.”
I’d given her rituals from my Jewish background and exposure to hers. We celebrated Chanukah and Tet. She had an idyllic Canadian setting to grown in, but I felt Shaina required a return to Vietnam where she could absorb the language, culture, mores and morals, sights and smells of her heritage. And where I could allay some of the guilty feelings I had about taking her from her “roots.”
When our child was eight years old, we returned to live in Hanoi in a primarily Vietnamese neighborhood where a Western face was rare. Shaina turned to me at one point and said, “Mom, dye your hair black. It’s embarrassing to be seen with a westerner.”
A translator took us for our visit to Shaina’s foster mother. A part of me dreaded seeing her again. She was young and beautiful, and I’d half convinced myself that my daughter would view here as the fairy godmother foil to my wicked witch! But I believed it would answer many questions for my daughter, and I was very excited about the reunion.
Not so for my daughter. An excruciating slice of reality TV occurred when her foster mother tearfully knelt and attempted to gather Shaina in her arms. Shaina, terrified, grabbed at me, saying, “Get me away from her” This behavior only heightened as we all bored a boat for a day-long tour of Halong Baby Our visit, while not in vain, was not the happy reunion I had envisioned.
Shaina did grow adept with chopsticks, absolutely loved the food, learned some of the language, mingled in the pandemonium on the streets, and became conversant with several aspects of cultural behavior. But in a school where she now looked like everyone else, her body language, sense of entitlement, and outgoing behavior bespoke of a life that was not Vietnamese, but Canadian.
My daughter, Shaina Thuy Yen Friedman, looked at me one day and said, pointing to her face, “Mom, this part of me is Vietnamese.” She pointed to her heart. “This part of me is Canadian,” and as an afterthought, she said, “and part is Jewish.” In so doing, she resolved many of my fears that I wasn’t providing enough access to all that I’d removed her from or that she wasn’t feeling integrated enough in all that I’d placed her in.
Near the end of our stay in Vietnam, I suggested to Shaina that we put an ad in the newspaper searching for her unknown birth mother. This touched off feelings of fear in me, but I was convinced that I had to give her all the opportunities I could to know her past even if it meant her becoming discontent with her present.
“You do that if you want to, but don’t involve me,” she said.
“But you might be curious to know what your birth family is like.”
“Mom, think about it. They would be noting but strangers to me. You’re my mother now.”
Consumed with tender and warm feelings, I recalled the meaning I’d been given for her Vietnamese name Thuy Yen – gentle morning mist.
Finally, worried I’d entertained that she was harboring some subterranean desire for or fantasies of her magical perfect birth family were put to rest. Like dew on leaves, they might re-emerge in a new morning, but for now they had evaporated in the strong bright sun of my daughter’s love.