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Vietnam to America: A long journey home

By Giang Nguyen, CNN
  • After South Vietnam fell to communism in 1975, hundreds of thousands fled the country
  • Amerasians, like Faithe Chu, were often discriminated against and abandoned by their fathers
  • In 1988, Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act, which allowed Amerasians to immigrate to the United States

(CNN) -- Faithe Chu's world fell apart when she was 18.

As an Amerasian child, she was accustomed to living as a hated outcast on the fringes of postwar Vietnam.

But nothing prepared her for the devastation of learning that the woman she had thought of as her adoptive mother, the guardian who had kindly taken her off the streets, was her birth mother -- too ashamed to admit to her own mixed-race daughter.

"How could she, all this time, every time someone asked, she kept telling them she had only one biological child, my other sister," Chu remembers thinking. Even now, at 39, she chokes up at the memory.

Chu lay in bed sick when she overheard her half-sister, a full-bred Vietnamese, reveal the shameful secret to a cousin.

She turned to the wall, tears streaming down her face, and kept the knowledge to herself.

Life had become hard for everyone in South Vietnam after the country fell to communism in 1975. The North Vietnamese enacted a policy of revenge against anyone allied with the American forces. iReporters recounted tales of nighttime arrests, years of re-education camps for officers of the South and an environment so oppressive that hundreds of thousands fled the country by whatever means they could.

Amerasians, with their visible likeness to the enemy, fared the worst. They were abused, discriminated against, spat on.

Chu never knew her father, an American serviceman, who left Vietnam when she was too young to remember.

Video: Vietnam's lasting legacy

She only inherited his brown hair and light skin.

"My mother dyed my hair black to have me blend in and to stay under the radar of the Vietnamese government. ... [She] burned my birth certificate and everything that related to my father," Chu wrote on CNN iReport.

Children like her were abandoned by their fathers and oftentimes also by their mothers, who could not bear the disgrace.

It was such a group of downtrodden, vagrant Amerasians that iReporter Brian Hjort encountered on his first trip to Vietnam in 1992.

"I was in the middle of Saigon, and there were all these kids with blue eyes, some tall, some fat. Nobody looked like a Vietnamese. It was kind of strange," he said.

Americans traveling to Vietnam when it first opened its doors after a period of isolation soon took note of these "forgotten" sons and daughters, and their plight rose to the surface of the American conscience.

In 1988, Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act, which allowed those with distinctive Amerasian features to immigrate to the United States.

The program has brought about 25,000 Amerasians and their families to America. But it was never intended as a way to reunite children with their fathers.

When Hjort returned to his native Denmark, he began a lifelong mission to help the Amerasians.

He says he has fielded 2,000 inquiries from Amerasians looking for their fathers. He has found about 200 matches. Many of the soldiers are dead. Maybe 50 to 60 want to be reunited or talk.

"That doesn't mean anything happens," Hjort says. There are language barriers and cultural differences. "They talk on the phone, and they don't have anything to talk to about."

My mother dyed my hair black to have me blend in and to stay under the radar of the Vietnamese government.
--Faithe Chu

Chu did not try to find her father.

The first two years she and her mother settled in Denver, Colorado, adjusting to life in America was enough of a struggle.

Arriving in the U.S. in the middle of winter was bewildering, like shock treatment, she said.

Chu and her mother squeezed in with another Vietnamese family in a low-income housing unit.

The man of the family took her to school the next day and without any further explanation signed her up for high school. He did, however, stop at the stadium where the honor students' names were displayed. "Try to get yourself on this list," he mocked her.

Chu barely spoke a lick of English at the time, but she persevered.

With lots of English as a Second Language classes and a straight-A report card, she even managed to persuade welfare officials to extend cash and food stamps to her and her mother for a second year when they threatened to cut it off.

That extra year was enough for Chu to graduate from high school -- with honors.

Thoughts of her father did find their way to the forefront of her mind in rare but angry outbursts.

She confronted her mother again three years after arriving in the States. Her mother did not understand. "Aren't you happy?" she asked. "Have I done something wrong? Why do you keep asking for your father?"

That was the last time Chu asked about him.

"During the college years, that's when I gave up," Chu said.

"I was happy. I had a job. I was on my way to get my degree. My future was bright," she remembered. She figured it was time to close that chapter: the search for her lost father.

A small number of Amerasians are left in Vietnam, their hopes for resettlement dim. Hjort says has interviewed 70 new cases this year of Amerasians still looking for their fathers.

"Today, the Amerasians [in Vietnam] feel like giving up," Hjort said. "They are disappointed at being forgotten."

House in Georgia, heart in Vietnam

Chu says she doesn't know whether the act was righting a wrong for Amerasians.

But this she knows: "The Homecoming Act is the best thing that has ever happened to me."

"I'm happy," she said again, confidently, as if she has indeed come home.