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I was born in wartime Saigon, and my name was Phan Kim Phuong. But growing up, I never thought much about Vietnam or that little girl with the strange name. In April 1975, four days before the city fell to the North Vietnamese, my brother, three cousins and I fled, along with thousands of others. An American friend of my mother’s, a man we know only as Jim Smith, somehow arranged for us to get on one of the last flights out – five kids leaving behind everything and everyone they’d ever known. I was not quite three years old.
After a refugee camp in Guam, we made it to the U.S. and another camp in the Florida Panhandle. Catholic Social Services found us foster families, and because my brother Lam and I were the youngest of the five, we were placed together. In 1981, when we learned our birth mother had died in a Malaysian refugee camp after escaping Vietnam by boat, our foster parents adopted us; five years later, I was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, and I remember being embarrassed by the cheers of my eighth-grade classmates.
I didn’t want to be different from those other kids. I didn’t remember Vietnam, didn’t know the language and, frankly, didn’t want to learn about it. I just wanted to fit in. And Lam – well, his memories were painful, and he never talked about them. He took up football, I became a cheerleader, and we lived the All-American life.
It wasn’t until my junior year in college that I started to feel something missing. During a trip to New York, I went to a performance of “Miss Saigon,” the Broadway musical about the fall of South Vietnam. The story line eerily mirrored my own life: A young Vietnamese mother sends her child to a new life in America, knowing they’ll never see each other again. The mother’s name, like mine, is Kim.
The play’s second act opens with a song about the thousands of Vietnamese children in refugee camps in the 1970s. As the music plays, a screen behind the actors shows videos of children in those camps. I was in tears; it felt like I was watching myself on the screen.
That Christmas, I went to visit my cousins. They brought treasures from Vietnam: the baby clothes I’d worn when we fled, a list of our ancestors’ names. For the first time, I saw a picture of my birth mother, taken on the day we kids had left Saigon. We were standing on a balcony, big brother Lam’s hand on my shoulder as I rode a rocking horse, our mom behind us wearing a brave smile. It was the last time we would be together.
A few months later, after watching a TV news story about a woman who’d returned to Vietnam and been reunited with family, I knew I had to find my roots. I didn’t expect to find anyone alive, but I felt it was important to know where I came from – both for myself and so that I could someday tell my children.
So two weeks after graduating college, I flew to Hanoi. When the plane broke through the cloud cover, I wept; I was flying over my country. And even though I didn’t remember it, I felt so strangely relieved.
My boyfriend and I spent a month backpacking the length of the country by bus, train, boat and car. We walked the ruins of the Imperial City in Hue, leveled during the Tet Offensive, and the reality of the war angered me. We picnicked in Saigon’s Cong Vien Van Hoa park, and I wondered if I’d played there as a baby.
Our last weekend in-country, we hired a driver to take us to Soc Trang, the Mekong Delta town where my mother’s family had lived. On the six-hour drive south, we passed through lush rice paddies and saw fishing villages where life seemed barely to have changed in centuries. I’d given the driver an old address where my cousins had lived as children, and we finally found the house after searching the narrow, winding back streets. The plan was to take a picture and head back to America.
But then something happened that forever changed my life: I knocked on the door.
The man of the house read a note my cousins had written in Vietnamese, then got dressed and led us down the unpaved street. I looked at my boyfriend, uncertain; our driver’s translation skills left a lot to be desired. When we reached a house of corrugated tin, the local man spoke to a woman standing in the door. She looked at me and softly said, “Phuong” – the name I had gone by as a child. Tears filled her eyes. She waved us into the house and we followed, still confused. In a back room, the woman gently woke an old man sleeping on a couch.
I saw a face from a faded black and white photo my cousins had shown me back in the States. It was Uncle Sam. Or more specifically, my mother’s older brother, Phan Thanh Sam, a man we’d all assumed had been dead for years.
Chaos broke out, with my uncle and me in tears and my dazed boyfriend saying over and over, “I can’t believe this is happening.” The house filled with neighbors as word spread that one of Mr. Sam’s long-lost relatives had returned from America. It was just like the special I’d seen on TV; like I’d dreamed it would happen but never thought really could.
I took out the picture of my mother that I’d been given, as though I needed to prove to Uncle Sam who I was. He held up a hand, went to a cabinet and pulled out a stack of faded photographs. I saw a baby whose eyes and round face looked like mine; saw my mother, young and smiling, in a Saigon flower market; and saw a little boy who was unquestionably my brother. That’s when it really clicked: that was Lam. This was home.
There were more miracles in Uncle Sam’s cabinet. Bringing out a weathered journal, he pointed to a page of names and birth dates, marked down in careful script. When Lam, my cousins and I arrived in Guam, we’d brought no birth certificates; so to satisfy immigration red tape, our oldest cousin had quickly invented birthdays for us all. For most of my life, I’d celebrated mine on Oct. 20. My uncle’s book had preserved the truth for almost two decades: my real date of birth was June 28. I ruefully told my boyfriend, “I’m older than I thought!”
Uncle Sam then gently passed me a worn envelope – a letter from one of my mother’s friends at the Malaysian refugee camp. A young cousin labored to translate, but we pieced together the key point, and it was tragic: she had died of a heart attack the day before she’d been due to leave for the U.S. She was about to be reunited with my brother and me, and her broken heart couldn’t take it.
Two days later, my boyfriend and I were on a plane heading back to America. And in a cosmic bit of luck, or perhaps a message from my mother, it was June 28 – my new, original birthday. Since then, we’ve been back to Vietnam four times. We’ve gotten to know and love four generations of Uncle Sam’s family, those in Vietnam and those here in America who escaped on rickety boats and remade their lives as refugees. We had a Vietnamese Buddhist wedding ceremony, and I wore a ring that had belonged to my mom.
What we hadn’t been able to for most of those years was share our stories with Lam. He understood why I’d gone searching for our past, and he supported me. But he also remembered the bodies outside his school, the sounds of gunfire and our mother’s panicked voice, and he had locked those things away. He can’t speak a word of Vietnamese, every scrap of it gone after a lifetime of disuse. Vietnam, to him, was a closed book.
Until 2005, which was a milestone year in many ways. The 30th anniversary of our escape and of South Vietnam’s fall. His 40th birthday. He had gotten married, was talking about children, and he looked inside himself and decided the time had come.
Lam wasn’t the only one who accompanied us this time – we also brought our cousin Hiep, Uncle Sam’s son. It was Hiep who’d taken my mother back to the house in the balcony photograph after her children flew away. He told me for the first time that mom had had a ticket for the plane, too, but she’d made a last dash to Soc Trang to say goodbye to Uncle Sam. The road back to Saigon had been choked with people streaming south, running from the Communist army. And by the time she and Hiep reached Saigon, the plane had flown and the city’s time was up.
I’d always believed that, like
Kim in “Miss Saigon,” my mother had somehow found the courage to send us off to a new country, that she’d promised to find us when she could escape. As painful as that scene was in my imagination, the reality was even more cruel: She never got to say goodbye.
Even after so many years, Hiep remembered the way to the house in the photo. The few times Lam had talked about it, he’d told me there was a movie theater on one side and a temple on the other. And on my trips back to Saigon, I had looked for that theater and temple, wondering where in the sprawling city they might be, whether I somehow might have walked passed them without knowing.
It was three decades after Saigon fell, almost to the day. And finally we were walking past that same movie house, down a narrow alleyway with a courtyard at the end.
My husband panned the scene with a video camera, narrating: “This is the courtyard where Kim and Lam used to live. This is the house where the balcony was…” Then he stopped short.
“Oh my God,” he said. “There’s the balcony.”
Understand – I had stared at that photo hundreds of times, knowing it was there that my mother last held and kissed me. And when I suddenly looked up see that same wrought-iron balcony, it was like something from a dream. A place that seemed to exist only in two dimensions, almost a myth, was there in front of us.
The people who live there now kindly invited us up to the balcony, and my husband photographed Lam and me standing almost in the exact spot where we’d stood that day as children. Lam gazed quietly at the temple he’d remembered, miraculously unchanged in a city that’s undergone constant facelifts since the war. I was smiling and tearful all at once, trying so hard to remember her, to hear her calling my name.
“Finding it touched me right to the core,” I told my husband later. “In a way, it was more powerful for me than when I first found my family. Because I knew that little girl in the picture – she was me.”
My homecomings to Vietnam have been filled with miracles, with reunions I never dreamed I could have. And if I have one left, it would be to somehow find Jim Smith, the mysterious American who saved our lives by getting us on that plane. I remember seeing him only a couple of times as a child in Florida, when he would briefly check up on Lam and me. Almost like he was fulfilling a promise. Maybe he was with the CIA, which might explain why we’ve hit so many dead ends trying to track him down. What I want more than anything is to thank him, to let him know how much he did for us. And to tell him that my son, James Phan Delevett, shares his name. Without Jim Smith, my James would not have been born.
Kim Delevett lives in San Jose, California. Her Web site is www.findingjimsmith.com.
UPDATE: We’re happy to add that in 2013, after years of searching, Kim was able to find out more about Jim Smith’s life and pay her respects to him. Visit Southwest Airlines’ blog to find out more.
Photos provided by Kim Delevett
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