Amerasians struggle with similar strains of racism in Vietnam and this country alike. But according to Thomas A. Bass’ Vietnamerica: The War Comes Home, the best place for the troubled sons and daughters of U.S. servicemen is American soil. Bass contends that offspring of U.S. servicemen should be brought “home” immediately and reunited with their fathers.
Bass visits and researches Amerasian communities in upstate New York, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and he expects his readers to fully empathize with the half-American, half-Vietnamese people he meets. Although his grass-roots lobbying on Amerasians’ behalf won’t necessarily be welcome in a climate hostile to immigration and to memories of the Vietnam War, Bass’ depiction of the racial problems faced by Amerasians in Vietnam does persuade the reader to accept his solutions. Even if the United States government cannot completely protect Amerasians from racism, it should provide them with the skills to survive in their fathers’ country.
Bass runs into trouble when he attacks the government red tape, here and abroad, that has prevented Amerasians’ arrival in this country. The author is far from objective when he writes that only pressure from the media, human rights groups, and activists such as himself can convince the U.S. to begin transporting Amerasians; his personal agenda gets in the way of the facts. He provides no quotes from State Department officials despite his strong criticism of the department’s policies, and he portrays immigration officers as universally uncaring. This one-sided approach weakens Vietnamerica.
But Bass does give ample evidence of discrimination and human rights violations against Amerasians, and his compassionate recounting of individual stories is Vietnamerica’s strongest suit. In Vietnam, he explains, people of mixed race are known as bui doi, or “the dust of life,” because they are considered tainted. Kyle Hörst, Bass’ friend and a United Nations repatriations officer, explains the stigma attached to miscegenation in Vietnam: “The Vietnamese call themselves chinh goc [true race]….A Vietnamese betrays her goc when she marries an American.” His Vietnamese wife, Khanh Hörst, affirms his statement, remarking that her marriage to a foreigner makes her a “prostitute” by her country’s standards.
Actual prostitution is another trap for Amerasians in Vietnam. Although generally shunned because of their mixed blood, some Amerasians lure foreigners with their otherness. Mai Lai, an Amerasian prostitute, earns $50 a night, while most prostitutes in Saigon make just 50 cents. Bass argues that “like other Amerasian prostitutes in Saigon, she is a sought-after exotic whose very existence portends broken taboos.” But hers can hardly be considered a success story; the real question, unasked by Bass, is whether Mai Lai would be better off in the fetishistic culture of the U.S.
Bass also shows how the passage of the Amerasian Homecoming Act in 1988 turned Amerasians into an exploitable resource for Vietnamese who sought passage to the United States. Because the Homecoming Act allowed both natural children of U.S. servicemen and their immediate families entry to America, many Vietnamese paid Amerasians to declare them as relatives. Bass observes many “fakes” at the Philippine Refugee Processing Center, where Amerasians are held for six months before coming to the U.S. Some Vietnamese go so far as to inject their eyelids with silicone to appear more American, Bass reports, and certain “pure” Vietnamese rape or beat the Amerasians who are their ticket out of their homeland. Bass’ negative depiction of these poseurs garners further support for his contention that Amerasians are an exploited people. His tone suggests pity for the non-Amerasians and an urgent need to help those with a legitimate claim to citizenship.
Bass suggests that Amerasians would better their situation by coming to the U.S. if only because of this country’s more stringent civil rights legislation. Yet he is not blind to the fact that immigration often means exchanging one racist environment for another. In fact, Vietnamese and American attitudes toward skin color and interracial couples are remarkably similar; some Vietnamese ideas about racial purity are derived from American views. “The Vietnamese know enough about racism in America to know that my father was ‘lower class,’” says Anh Dung, a black Amerasian in Utica, N.Y., who feels more comfortable associating with Vietnamese immigrants than with African-Americans. “I am more Vietnamese than black, but the longer I live in America, the less Vietnamese I become. Amerasians don’t really fit in anywhere.”
Vietnamerica juxtaposes personal accounts of would-be Americans with examples of cold bureaucratic indifference—a powerful mix, provided readers keep in mind the author’s own biases. In the book’s best passages, Bass presents a close analysis of the subtleties of racism here and abroad, and calls for a recognition of the people who “remind us of the bad blood between their parents [and] reopen wounds that have yet to heal, for either side [but] are also a bridge between cultures, a mirror held to our unsuspecting faces.”CP