Canh Oxelson, Vietnamese/black adoptee
Interview by Miae Kim
1 Discs – 35-23
TRACK 1 – 35:23
MIAE: Introduce yourself.
CANH: I am Canh Oxelson. I am 33 years old and I am an adoptee from Vietnam who grew up in the United States.
MIAE: When did you come to the US?
CANH: I came to America in 1972. In September of 1972, I was 10 months old and in Vietnam I was actually taken to the orphanage the day after I was born. So I spent the first ten months of my life in Vietnam and then was adopted.
MIAE: Who adopted you?
CANH: A wonderful set of parents who lived in Minnesota at the time. They decided they should have more kids, but they thought one of the best ways to expand their family was to adopt from overseas. So I came to them when they lived in St. Paul Minnesota and I lived there for the first year of my life in the US. And then when I was about two years old our family moved to California, which is where I grew up.
MIAE: Tell me about your childhood.
CANH: Wow, there’s so much to say. I knew I was adopted because I looked so much different than my sisters and my parents, being half black and half Vietnamese but growing up in a white family was difficult at times. It could be kind of confusing and kids are always trying to find out who they are and discover who they are and that was difficult for me because I felt like I belonged to so many different cultural groups that sometimes it was difficult to find my own way. But fortunately my parents were very proactive and they tried to get me involved in lots of different things – athletics, music, all so that I could build self-esteem by being successful in different ways and that helped a lot.
MIAE: You started acting out.
CANH: Right. I think kids sometimes act out for different reasons. For me, I think I was struggling to find my place and discover my identity and I got involved in some things I shouldn’t have, just little things that a lot of kids do I think but…shoplifting and things that you shouldn’t be doing but that kids get involved in and I also think that my parents really wanted me to get involved in other things and I became a swimmer. And I started swimming competitively when I was about six years old and that helped a lot because it made me feel like I was good at something. I didn’t have to say I was black or Asian or white, I could just say I’m an athlete, I’m a swimmer. And it was a way for me to build some self-esteem, which was very helpful as a child.
MIAE: How does it connect together?
CANH: It’s hard to know for sure. I think I was probably like a lot of kids, it was my way of crying out for some attention and I think that’s probably what was happening. I’m not a psychologist so I can’t know for sure, but I get the feeling it was more about crying out for some attention than anything else.
MIAE: Have you looked for your birth parents?
CANH: I’ve thought about that a lot and I think when I graduated from college and I got my first job after college I read a newspaper story about a kid who had decided to look for his parents and it got me thinking about it a bit more and I had never really thought about it before, but I know I was no longer swimming anymore, so I couldn’t say I’m an athlete, I’m a swimmer, I had to find out who I was. And I decided to do a little investigating and I thought well, maybe I should go back to Vietnam. Maybe I should go and try and discover more about Vietnamese culture and maybe when I’m in Vietnam I’ll find some more information about my birth parents. So it took me a few years to get to that point where I actually went, and in 1998, which is about five years after I first thought about it, but in 1998 I went back to Vietnam and I actually took my adoptive parents and my two sisters with me. We found the orphanage where I’d come from and met two of the nuns who had taken care of me as a baby, which, as you might imagine was just an absolutely amazing experience. To find people who knew you as a child, who knew you as a baby, because there were no pictures. I had nothing really. It was a really truly profound experience, meeting the nuns who had taken care of me, who knew me as a baby, and walking around the orphanage where I had spent the first ten months of my life. I walked around the city of Danang as well and I remember thinking to myself, this is where my mother is from, and she’s probably walked these same streets. It’s very possible that she’s still alive and still walking these streets. So that was an amazing experience for me. It was also nice to take my parents and my family with me because I think they knew that I had lots of questions about being adopted and what it might be like to know my birth parents, but I don’t know that there was anything they could do about it. It was wonderful to have them there with me, because I was afraid I would go on this trip and come home and would have to describe it to them, and instead I wanted them to be there and see it as I was going through it. So it certainly brought my family closer together, and me closer to them. It was also helpful I think for friends of my parents. A lot of them had husbands who fought in Vietnam, so it was the first time they knew anybody who was going back to Vietnam. And that was difficult for some of them, but I think it was also cleansing for some of them, to know someone who was actually going back to take a look around. It was certainly wonderful for the nuns too because after these kids leave they don’t really know what happens to them. Sometimes they get letters but for a long time they didn’t get mail about kids and how they were doing in the US. So for them it was interesting and fun to see how these kids can turn out. And the sacrifices that these nuns made, they actually got to see the fruits of their labors. It was a special experience for almost everybody involved.
MIAE: You’re not a baby lift baby, right?
CANH: Correct. I actually left Vietnam just before the baby lift started. So I was just a few years before that.
MIAE: Do you know why you were put up for adoption?
CANH: The way it was explained to me by the nuns is that I was born on November 1st 1971 and my mother had decided she couldn’t keep me and brought me to the orphanage the day after I was born. They have very little information about her. They knew she worked in a US army camp in Danang and that she had grown up in the countryside and had come to the city looking for work, but that’s really all they knew. And as it’s been explained to me and especially as I’ve been back to Vietnam I have a better understanding of the culture and why she might have needed to give me up. She might not have wanted to but she might have felt like it was my best opportunity for survival. Being that I was half black and half Vietnamese, I don’t know that it would have been very easy growing up in Vietnam either. Probably not the same as trying to grow up in the US half black and half Vietnamese but not easy. And I believe that she had to give me up for adoption and that it was a difficult decision for her. But who knows, I don’t know what the circumstances were.
MIAE: Have you tried to find your father?
CANH: I haven’t tried to find my father. I haven’t thought about that a lot. It was interesting because my features, my facial features, my physical features, are probably, they seem like they would be more like my father’s than my mother’s. I remember one time I went on the Oprah Winfrey show and I was talking about my experience of growing up adopted in the US and a friend of mine said to me, have you ever thought that your father might have seen the show? And I hadn’t thought that, but I also realize that he might not know that I exist. It’s very possible that his relationship with my mother was very short, and he might not have known that she was pregnant. So I don’t know that he would ever look for me. I’ve thought of trying to look for him, it’s just that I don’t have any information about him. And I would have to rely on posting something on the web and hoping that he happened to see it. But the chances of that aren’t very good. I think the chances of finding my birth mother are better.
MIAE: You kept distant from your adopted family?
CANH: I think sometimes when you don’t feel that anyone you know shares the same background or experiences that you do, it’s not uncommon to keep a little bit of a distance, I think that’s part of it. But I also think that being adopted, it’s not uncommon to keep a little bit of a distance, of those close to you. I guess my feeling was if my own birth mother could give me up for adoption, that meant anyone could leave me or no longer want to be a part of my life. So to defend against that possibility I think sometimes I am, I have tended to keep people at arms distance, even people I’m supposed to be very close with, my own sisters, my parents, girlfriends, other friends. I think for a long time I would keep those people at arm’s distance. I didn’t want to give them a chance to leave me so I wouldn’t get hurt in that way. I don’t think that’s uncommon for adoptees and some adoptees get over that earlier than others. but it’s taken me a while to get over that, and I think that now, I’m 33 years old and I think I don’t have…it’s still something I think about, but I think I’ve had much better success in building relationships with all kinds of people. So it’s gotten better.
MIAE: How did you overcome that?
CANH: Part of it was returning to Vietnam and understanding the circumstances of why I was given up and why I was adopted. That was a whole chapter of my life that I didn’t know much about. I hadn’t asked a lot of questions about it, of my adopted parents, and I just didn’t know much about it. It was like an empty chapter. And once I went back to Vietnam, that started to fill in some of the empty parts of my life and I guess I just felt more comfortable about myself, or with myself, I felt more comfortable in my own skin. I felt more comfortable being Asian and being black. So once I became more whole, I think it was a lot easier for me to take the risk to build relationships with people. My self-esteem grew and I felt more comfortable in making myself more vulnerable. And I also began to realize the rewards were worth it. That having relationships with people that you really cared for and you could depend on to be there for you. Having relationships with people who would love you unconditionally, it was worth the risk of putting myself out there and it took a long time to get to that point. But happily I feel like I’m just about there.
MIAE: Explain connections to other people.
CANH: I think if there are parts about yourself that either you’re not comfortable with or you don’t know about, I think it makes it more difficult to put yourself out there because you’re not, it’s almost like you’re not a whole person yet. You’re still missing things and you don’t understand things about yourself. And so…here’s the thing: I think if you are not comfortable with yourself, then it makes it very difficult to put yourself out there, because of the possibility of being rejected. So if you don’t like or don’t understand or don’t know enough about yourself, it becomes difficult, it becomes a major risk to put yourself out there because someone could just easily say I don’t like you or you’re not enough like me that I want to spend time with you. And so going back to Vietnam helped me understand more about myself. More about how I became who I am today. I have a much better understanding of Vietnamese culture and what that means, and so I had never really acknowledged that I was half Vietnamese. When I walk down the street, people see me as a black man. They don’t really see me as a Vietnamese man. And so it was never something I really thought about. I always thought about being black and living in a white world. Whereas I’m actually black and Vietnamese and I needed to understand what it meant to me to be half Vietnamese. And so going to Vietnam opened a whole culture and world to me that I hadn’t really investigated. So not only am I Vietnamese but I’m proud of it. I celebrate it now in a way I never did before. I had been missing a huge part of myself and it was a part of myself I wasn’t comfortable with, I didn’t know anything about Vietnamese culture, and now I’m more comfortable with myself, it’s easier to build relationships with people and have successful loving relationships.
MIAE: Understanding why you were adopted.
CANH: My parents…my father was in graduate school during the Vietnam War, so he was in school and didn’t actually go to Vietnam in the service. So he and my mom were kind of children of the ‘60s and they felt it was important that if they were going to have kids they were going to have two biologically to kind of reproduce themselves, and then any more kids they were going to have they were going to adopt. That’s how they viewed building a family. And at the time there were a lot of anti-war protests going on in St. Paul, Minnesota. There were a lot of families who felt like we have to do something about this. And at this time there were also a lot of Vietnamese children coming to the US for surgeries and then they would go back to Vietnam. And my parents, about the time they were thinking of adopting, someone said to them there are a lot of kids who come to the US for surgery and then return to Vietnam but some kids it would be great if they could stay. Have you ever considered adopting? And they said yeah, we’ve definitely considered it and we would be more than interested in investigating the idea of adopting a child from Vietnam. And my mom tells some great stories about waiting and waiting and they finally heard they were going to receive a child and then they waited several months before they finally heard I was coming. And they only found out about a week before I arrived. They got a letter in the mail saying he is on the way and you can pick him up in a week at the airport. I have some special parents. They have never been concerned about me wanting to find more information about my biological parents. They have always been very supportive. When I first decided I was going to return to Vietnam, I knew it was going to be expensive and I didn’t have that kind of money at the time, and I remember my mom saying to me, we’ve been saving money since you were a baby just in case you might want to go. I was shocked, I kept thinking wow, that’s a loving family. That’s amazing that parents would have been saving money since I was a child just in case I might want to go back to Vietnam. And then I remember thinking I can’t do this by myself. This is going to be too emotional, I’m going to need some support while I do this. And I really need my family to be there while I go through all of this emotional rollercoaster of returning to Vietnam. And they said well, we have the money, we can take everybody, we’ll all go. And I was absolutely amazed. It was the most loving thing my parents had ever done for me, besides adopting me. They weren’t concerned or nervous, well they were nervous, but they weren’t jealous at all that I was thinking about trying to find or find more information about my birth parents. They were so supportive of that. And I know a lot of other adoptees whose parents, they get a little nervous about that. They think well maybe my child, what if he loves his birth parents more than he loves his adopted parents. And my parents never once said anything about that. They were so supportive and excited that I was interested in going. And then they were so surprised and touched that I wanted them to go. They’ve always known me as kind of a, not a loner, because I have plenty of friends, but that I prefer to be very independent and I do spend a lot of time on my own doing my own things. And I think they were surprised that I would want to take someone with me on such a large and huge experience, such a big trip. So I think it brought us all closer together. They got to see me in ways that they had never seen me before. Emotional in ways they had never seen before. I talked about things, about growing up half black and half Vietnamese in a white family, I talked about that in a way that they had never heard me talk before, so they learned so much about me as well. And it wasn’t just growing up half black, half Vietnamese in a white family. I grew up in the central valley of California which is heavily Hispanic. And so it was a whole other cultural experience growing up just north of Fresno, in the Fresno area. So as you can imagine, it can be often confusing at times, so it was great to have parents who paid attention to that and wanted to make sure I got what I needed to become a healthy child and a healthy young adult.
MIAE: Why was it hard for you to fit in among a Hispanic population?
CANH: It wasn’t necessarily that it was among a Hispanic population. I liked the idea of growing up in a heavily Hispanic area. I liked it. I’m the only one in my family that doesn’t speak Spanish. My mom is Irish and my dad is Swedish and yet they speak Spanish. They’ve always invited culture into our home. For years growing up we had exchange students living with us from Brazil and Sweden and Morocco and all kinds of places, so they were very into culture even when I was a child. But it was certainly very interesting growing up in the Fresno area just because the Hispanic culture was so prevalent there. But I liked it. I thought it was great.
MIAE: What do you think your mother and father were like?
CANH: I want to believe that my mother and father had a very loving relationship and that they wanted to be together. And I’ve heard stories of servicemen marrying Vietnamese women and trying to bring them back to the US and not being able to or some of them were able to. And I believe that my parents had that kind of relationship, but I also understand that it could have been a completely different kind of relationship. The more I understand about the Vietnam War and all that was going on there at the time, I realize it’s possible that their relationship was nothing like that. It’s possible that my mother worked as a prostitute. I have to understand that that’s a real possibility. I don’t know that that’s super important though, I don’t know that that’s the most important thing. I think the most important thing is that she gave me an opportunity to have what she might have considered a better life. If I was full Vietnamese, it would have been different growing up in Vietnam. But growing up half black and half Vietnamese, I’m not sure that would have been very easy. I don’t know that for sure, but I’ve talked to a number of people who grew up in Vietnam and they admit that it probably would not have been easy. I would have been a difficult reminder of the war to a lot of people there. So I also know that it’s possible my mother may have given me up because she was embarrassed that she had me, or that I was half black. But the bottom line is she gave me an opportunity to have a better life, and I prefer to think of it like that.
MIAE: How do you balance worlds here in America?
CANH: That’s a great question because as I was saying earlier, when I walk down the street people see a black man. They also think I might be mixed and people say oh, you look like you’re mixed. But most people see a black man. But I grew up in a house that has very European American culture and tradition. Swedish and Irish cultures and traditions. Hm…I think we often struggle with who we are and who other people think we are. Or who we want to be and who other people want us to be, and it’s a constant pushing and pulling. We all try to seek out an identity and I can remember – I had mostly white friends growing up. Mostly white and Hispanic friends growing up because there weren’t a lot of black kids at my school and there weren’t that many Asian kids at my school. So I had to find a way to fit in. And as it turns out I was a very, very good swimmer and I just happened to get involved in swimming. My parents had signed up both of my sisters and myself in swimming and it was really more of a thing that we did as a family so that we could go to swim-meets on the weekends together and those types of things. But it turned out that all the kids in our family were very good swimmers and I was especially good. And if I hadn’t been a very good swimmer I think my childhood would have been even more difficult. And as it was it was difficult because I can remember a lot of my black friends, some of my black friends at school would say you’re just trying to be white because swimming is what white kids do. Black kids play basketball, you’re just trying to be white. And I could remember my white friends thinking I wasn’t white enough to hang out with them and my black friends thinking I wasn’t black enough to hang out with them. And so swimming was the thing that saved me because I could say I’m not black, I’m not white, I’m not really Asian, I’m a swimmer. And I’m a good one. And I think the great success I had as a swimmer was really what saved me.
MIAE: So you’re not really connected to a community. Do you now?
CANH: That’s a good question. Because when I came back from Vietnam, that’s when I did start to make connections with the Vietnamese community. I remember when I went to college, and I went to college in San Francisco and there’s a huge Asian community there in San Francisco. But I remember I went to my first Vietnamese-American club meeting at school in college and I can remember everybody looking at me like what is he doing here? He’s not Vietnamese. And it came as a surprise to people in the room that I was half Vietnamese but they only saw me as a black man. So it was very difficult. I never felt accepted by the Vietnamese community while I was in college. Now, I feel some of that was my own doing. That I wasn’t, I didn’t know enough about Vietnamese culture to really be comfortable with the customs and the culture of Vietnam. I didn’t really understand it really well. But going to Vietnam turned that around and I began. It was a great introduction to Vietnamese culture. So when I returned, when I came back to the US, I actually went to a reunion of adoptees from Vietnam. It was in Colorado in the summer of 2000 and I remember walking into the room with hundreds of adoptees from Vietnam. Some of whom were half black and half Vietnamese just like me, and others who, and all of us were adopted from Vietnam and all of us had grown up in white families. And so you didn’t even have to say anything to anyone, you just knew that you all had similar experiences. And the pain of growing up biracial and in white families, some of the pain we had all experienced, you just knew. You could just give someone a hug and it was like a big support group. It was a great experience of finally meeting people how had the same experience that I did, both the good stuff and the bad stuff. So that really opened my eyes to a brand new community and I spend a lot of time now in southern California with other Vietnamese adoptees. And we get together a couple times a month or once a month for dinner or just to celebrate one of our birthdays or things, and just to check in with each other and see how we’re doing. And after that reunion in Colorado I got together with a bunch of other adoptees and we formed something called the Vietnamese Adoptee Network. And there’s a website now and it’s basically a support group for Vietnamese adoptees young and old. Because there are still children from Vietnam being adopted and there are a lot of families who are adopting kids who need some help understanding the issues that these adoptees will face. You can log onto this website and learn more and come to some of the different conferences we have, the different meetings that we have. So it’s been a great experience being in on the ground level of such an amazing organization that’s going to help adoptees in the future as well. Not just the adult adoptees but those who are newly adopted.
MIAE: Any words to young adoptees?
CANH: It’s interesting you mention that because I have two kids that I counsel here at this high school that are both adopted, trans-racially adopted. And the advice I give them is they don’t have to be in a rush to figure these things out. They should take their time. It took me, I was twenty-two or three years old before I first started thinking maybe I need to go back to Vietnam. And I’m thirty three now and I’m still discovering new things about having been adopted and growing up in the US. So just, not to rush it, that’s my advice to them, take their time and they’ll figure things out on their own. It’s not easy to dig down deep and understand all the different parts of you. It’s not an easy thing to do but with that great work comes great, great reward. Great benefits. Yeah, it’s been difficult work. I finally decided I can’t do this on my own, I need to talk to a counselor. And sometimes people think, oh, you only talk to a counselor when there’s something wrong or when you really need a lot of help, but I just think it’s good for everyone to have someone to talk with openly and honestly about all the deepest, darkest things that are stirring inside you. So I’d advise people to take their time and it’s okay to sit down and talk to a counselor about it. It certainly helped me.
MIAE: Anything more?
CANH: I will say, and I think I mentioned this before, I certainly feel awfully blessed. Partially because of the family that I have, but partially because of the experience that I had in going back to Vietnam. It was right out of a movie. It was so amazing. It’s still difficult to describe. This happened five or six years ago but it’s still difficult to describe because it was so profound. It was right out of a movie. It was perfect. Going with your adoptive family, returning to your homeland, finding the orphanage, meeting two people who had raised you as a baby, and then when I came back it became the catalyst for a lot of things I’d never done before. I started volunteering to work with kids. I decided to go to graduate school. I applied to Harvard to go to graduate school and ended up going there. So it became the catalyst for so many different things – for better relationships with my family and friends. I guess that’s it. But I’m still learning from that experience and I have the feeling I’m going to be learning from that experience for a long, long time.