Vietnamese Amerasians: Background information when reading On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

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On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong X
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2019, 256 pages
    Jun 2021, 256 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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Vietnamese Amerasians

This article relates to On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

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Amerasians Without Borders logoWhen U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, the 1.3 million lives lost would prove to be only the beginning of the war's lasting impact on both countries, especially for many of the children born in Vietnam amid the bloodshed.

Initially coined by Pearl S. Buck and later legitimized by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the term Amerasian refers to any child born in Asia to an Asian mother and an American father. Aside from Vietnam, other countries with significant Amerasian populations are Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia and South Korea. According to the organization Amerasians Without Borders, an estimated 25,000-30,000 Vietnamese Amerasians were born between 1965 and 1975.

In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, neither the U.S. nor the Vietnamese government would take responsibility for these individuals who faced significant challenges in their home country. Struggling against racial and social discrimination, Amerasian children were often refused jobs and education, and frequently ended up in juvenile street gangs and prison. Many of them were even abandoned by their mothers and, in 1975, the Communist government closed many orphanages, sending orphans to reeducation camps. These were effectively prison camps in which anyone known to have supported the American-backed government of South Vietnam was imprisoned and forced to perform grueling manual labor. Because the authorities would also destroy the homes of these individuals, many Vietnamese women with Amerasian children severed all connections to the U.S. by burning letters and photographs.

This later proved problematic for Amerasian children attempting to immigrate to the U.S. In 1987 the Amerasian Homecoming Act was signed by President Ronald Reagan, which granted immigration rights, rather than refugee status to Amerasians and their families who wished to relocate to the U.S. Though the Amerasian Homecoming Act was initially lax in its procedures – mixed-race status was often verified through appearance alone – regulations eventually became much stricter, with Amerasians needing to be able to prove their fathers' identity and military details for a visa to be granted. Because of the mass destruction of records by frightened Vietnamese women in the 1970s, these accounts were often impossible to obtain, with many children not even knowing their fathers' names.

For those who did succeed in immigrating to the U.S. (In 2013, the New York Times estimated that over 21,000 Amerasians, accompanied by more than 55,000 relatives, had emigrated to America since the enactment of the Amerasian Homecoming Act), their new life was not necessarily an improvement on the one they left behind. Although the U.S. government had aided their immigration, very little support was provided to help them assimilate to their new culture, or to reconnect with their American fathers. Having spent their childhoods rejected by their government and society for not being wholly Vietnamese, they found themselves meeting the same challenge in the U.S., rejected by their peers for not being wholly American. According to a 1991-1992 survey reported by the Smithsonian, only 33% of Amerasians living in the U.S. knew their father's names. One researcher who specialized in dealing with refugees noted that Vietnamese Amerasians had some of the worst deep-rooted depression of any refugee group he had encountered, with 14% having attempted suicide in the past. (While the individuals in the study were technically immigrants and not refugees, the distinction is relatively arbitrary given the circumstances from which they fled.)

In 2015, Vietnamese American Jimmy Miller founded Amerasians Without Borders, the nonprofit organization that uses DNA testing to locate American fathers, and supports Vietnamese Amerasians once they have relocated to the U.S. According to Miller, Amerasians Without Borders has identified 400 Amerasians still living in Vietnam today.

Ocean Vuong's debut novel On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous explores the lasting trauma of the Vietnam War on the protagonist's immigrant family, dwelling less on the details of the war and more on the deep psychological scarring that it caused to those who were born amid its violence.

Amerasians Without Borders logo, courtesy of AWB

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Rachel Hullett

This "beyond the book article" relates to On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. It originally ran in June 2019 and has been updated for the June 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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