Table of Contents
by Heather Kim Degenhardt
I have been asked this question for as long as I can remember.
In college, I was asked so many times if I was from China that I finally just accepted this presumption to avoid the conversation about why I was not from the country people assumed I should be from. My nickname even became China, but still, I was not well-received at the Asian Club. You see, I was born in Danang, Vietnam, and was adopted by American parents. My biological mother was Vietnamese and my biological father was an African American soldier.
But no, I wasn’t well-received at the Black Student Union either. I joined the Wine Club instead.
Growing up wasn’t any easier. I was raised in the small New England town of Houlton, Maine, and other than the church sponsored Laotian family in town Houlton didn’t provide me with any Asian or black role models.
People always had a tendency to focus on my black features — my hair, my lips, the color of my skin. The only thing that was clear to me at an early age was that I was different. Not different because I was half Asian, but because I was not white. Thankfully, growing up in family that includes sisters from Seoul and Hanoi, brothers from Saigon and Bombay, and a Sioux sister, helped me to be comfortable in my own skin. I have eight siblings who are adopted. Our family is the role model for universal and unconditional acceptance no matter the shape of your eyes or the color your skin. And my role model growing up was my father, Edwin R. Degenhardt.
I knew early on that I was from a special place called Vietnam. During childhood, when adults asked me about the half-Asian part of my heritage and learned that I was Vietnamese, the reaction was not positive. I didn’t initially understand the negative connotation and the relationship of Vietnam to America, but I learned very quickly to avoid deep discussions about my origin. Regardless of one’s opinion about the Vietnam War, however, I always have in my mind that if it were not for the war, people like me would’ve never been born.
In 1971, I was left at Sacred Heart Orphanage in Danang and cared for by nuns until my parents adopted me in 1972. I recently returned to the orphanage with my adoptive mother, Dawn, and sister, Joy Mylien. Joy was able to translate in Vietnamese to the nuns who I was and that I had returned to Danang to see where I was born. Remarkably, one of the nuns, Sister Mary, remembered the nun who processed me into the orphanage. She passed away a month before I arrived. Sister Mary shared valuable information, in particular about the Viet Cong who confiscated all the records of the orphaned children at Sacred Heart. One of the nuns went to retrieve the documents. They only allowed her to copy the records by hand, which she did. There were more than 1,600 entries, mine included. I was able to see the entry of when I arrived to the Sacred Heart Orphanage. I learned that my birth date of November 24th is actually November 22nd. Unfortunately the name of my birth mother was not recorded.
While in Vietnam, I was prepared for inquiries and curiosity from the Vietnamese people that I came in contact with. When I shared that I was born in Danang, they wanted to learn more about me. It was a genuine interest that I was not prepared for but I felt that they wanted to share their country with me. I felt a sense of pride from them. And today, I am extremely proud to be half Vietnamese and half black. Half this and half that, but I am 100 percent human and 100 percent American first.
Heather Kim lives in New York City. She is the service training and education manager for the Grand Hyatt New York. She may be reached at email@example.com. Heather Kim is an advocate for acceptance, inclusion and understanding of all individuals no matter their beginnings.
This article was published in East West Magazine, summer 2006.
|The Other Maine on Facebook
Send check or money order to:
Aid for Kids
18 Market Square
Houlton ME 04730
or Donate online using PayPal.
Visit our Donation page.
Vietnam Photo Journal
by Don Funk