Jared Rehberg on Vietnamese Adoption & Music
Interview (by phone) by Dmae Roberts
Date: November 21, 2005
1 CD – 52:52
TRACK 1 – 52:52
J: Okay. Oh, of course.
I’m Jared Rehberg and I grew up in Northborough, Massachusetts.
The town was a very fast-growing town. That originally was farmland. And after the boom of computers in 1979 a large portion of the country moved to the NE and Northborough was one of those towns that kept building and building.
How white? It was very white. Well, when I first moved there, I believe there was 3 other Asians in our town. Students in my school. I believe there were 4 families.
School was okay. I had a lot of comfort in the home and my parents had a good reputation in the community so it was overall pretty good. But there were times the kids would call me names, chink or gook and I didn’t understand. But I would figure it out. And they would ask the students if there was racism in our school and the kids would say no. But it was not like NYC. T here was no melting pot.
That was the term a few of my relatives used. I guess when I was younger I had a big old stomach and a little body and I looked like one of those statues you’d find in a Chinese restaurant. And one of my uncles called me little Buddha and rubbed my stomach for good luck.
I was too young to respond to that. A lot of the things that happened to me have been communicated to me in stories. As an adult I looked back and I couldn’t believe they could say something like that. But at the time I didn’t know what they were calling me. I was one, two, three years old.
Yeah, I think for new teachers they would say my name and I would say here and they would keep calling my name out. They were looking for someone who matched ‘Rehberg.’ But finally I would say it’s me and they would say okay and I would explain to them the story. And the story is I am adopted and I would tell the teacher I’m from Vietnam and my parents adopted me after the war and I’m proud to be a Rehberg.
Most of the time the teacher pulled me aside at the end of class and saved me the embarrassment of having to explain myself. It was a small town so a lot of the students I had met in preschool and elementary school and then in junior high two other schools met up. But through sports it was a close population.
I had a couple of occasions where students were jealous of me and took it out on me by pushing me around. They didn’t understand why I looked different and the only references they had was on TV or movies. I would come across kids who knew about the Vietnam War and my face was the face of the enemy. A lot of it was ignorant things being sent my way. At the time I didn’t know what to do with it. It was difficult at times going home and being different and not knowing anything about it.
Not very much. My parents tried to explain it to me but I wasn’t interested and I really ignored them, for the most part. I think they told me a little about the war. They told me how there was a woman who was my birth mother. But I was trying so hard to be white that I didn’t care about being Asian at the time. I sounded like everyone else, I acted like everyone else, and I didn’t carry a mirror in my pocket. These were my friends, I trusted a lot of them and I knew my family cared about me, but when you watch TV and see people who look like you or my parents would take me to a Chinese buffet and I’d see people who look like me and they’d look at me funny and say do you speak Chinese and I’d say no. It’s one of those experiences you can’t explain until you get older and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity through music and writing and meeting people in the adoption community to let them know there are a lot of things adoptive parents worry about that they don’t have to worry about. It takes time. In every stage of my life I learn about my heritage. But for most of my childhood I didn’t care. I had a warm meal waiting for me and a bed at night to sleep in.
I love my parents.
They are two hippies that meat at grad school in Penn state and they got the advertisement in the newspaper saying there were kids from Vietnam who needed homes. And they seeked out a social worker and a month later there I was. And they taught me their hippy believes and stressed health, good food, creativity, love, compassion, honesty, and allowed me to have my own spiritual journey and always supported me in my education and allowed me to try instrument and sent me to art classes and they wanted me to express myself the best I could.
My belief is…the hippie beliefs, anti-war and they ate, my dad was a vegetarian. And they believed in peace.
And that was a part of the hippie beliefs. Putting together the granola and making necklaces out of flowers and doing macramé in the basement. A lot of creativity and a lot of love.
Well, I think there was a part of me that knew I was different. I don’t think I called it adoption but I knew I was different. But I think adopted…
Hang on. (Phone)
The first time I knew I was adopted was when TV commercials came in the late 80s and there were some organizations that had ads on TV About adoption and I made the connection and at the time I didn’t want to deal with it so I blocked it out. And I was so involved with school plays and instruments and painting and drawing that I avoided it. But I always knew.
They tried to talk to me about it but I worked so hard to be like everyone else, I didn’t want to be different. They would share stories about how hard it was for a birth mother to give up a child. They talked about Vietnam a bit more and how much they loved me and that I had a wonderful life with opportunities. They tried to comfort me. And I appreciate that and I know my love for them today is partially because they let me know there was love and they let me know the truth.
I had one Asian friend growing up. He lived down the street a mile away. We played basketball and football and watching movies. But he was special because I had a chance to try the rice and egg rolls and pork buns and he was my connection to Asian American culture. And it definitely opened the door for me and welcomed me with open arms and I’ll forever be grateful for that. And my friend Jeff passed away in 1998 and it was sad but he inspires me every day of my life. Two of my songs are dedicated to him. ‘Beautiful life’ and another song I’m going to record this spring, ‘SF, Jeffrey’s song’ and it’ just feels good to thank him because I didn’t know how when I was younger. And I hope he can hear me sing those songs when I’m out at night.
A little. That’s why it worked so well between us because there were more people that seemed more Asian than him. So I realized that later on in life that he was the perfect match for me because he was just as much in the community of our school friends as he was with his Chinese friends.
I’m an American with Vietnamese blood. My heritage is Vietnamese but I’m American and when I see people on the street I expect them to speak English to me. I am offended when someone asks me, do you speak English. I know through the writings of Frank Wu, with his book ‘Yellow,’ he seems to believe that Asian Americans are still viewed as foreigners in this country. Because I’m working too hard to be on vacation. And there are a lot of times when I go to Chinatown in NY and tourists stop me and ask me do you speak English. And I say yeah and they ask where is this restaurant and I tell them. And I want to give a nasty look but I don’t. I know there’s someone who will but it’s not going to be me.
My first time was in 1995 at a reunion in York, Pennsylvania, and it was a reunion for my orphanage. I was in college and going through my hippie stage with long hair and I guess I really liked the opportunity to go down but I didn’t know what to expect because I met the people and they were all different from me and I thought they would be the same as me but they were not. The adoptees had similar upbringings. W e live din white towns, we were the same age, and we had thought about what it might have been like to know our past and we all had questions and were looking for answers. But at the time the majority of us weren’t ready to hear the answers and we didn’t have all the questions we wanted to ask. I think inside of me I wasn’t sure if I could emotionally handle someone telling me the truth about how life was in an orphanage and how bad it was and to hear about the lives that were lost and to hear about the struggles that many nurses went through just to get us out. It was overwhelming to hear it 5 years later. And the first experience in 95 was a practice run. We had a group picture. We got to meet Betty Tisdale who was the woman who ran the orphanage in ’75 and we went home with a glimpse of our past. Tub the biggest reunion of all was in 2000 and I met over 215 adoptees from all around the country and I was awesome. We were all a lot older and we were ready to make friends and share stories. And I have friends from the reunion right now. And it’s because they’re great people. We all had moments where we shared stories and we found comfort in our similarities and views of the world and I was an amazing experience to give somebody a hug and feel that hug was filled with the same love we had. We were American, we were Asian, we had moments of confusion, but we’re still alive.
We do. Definitely. Well, as an adoptee we don’t feel fully a part of the Asian American community. We don’t feel a part of the white community and we’ve found ourselves in almost a third space. And it’s amazing to realize that because it helps understand why there was some confusion and how so many of us tried so hard to change, to be different, when we could have just been ourselves and taken pride and celebrated who we were as adoptees. And I think with the leadership of our community today, I’m proud to be one of the leaders, when I speak and play my music. I recently launched an e-magazine called ‘in third space’ with a Korean adoptee Lisa Hansen and it gave a space for adult adoptees of all different backgrounds to talk and meet and get things out, because we felt expressing ourselves was the best medicine.
Richard Silver, great guy. I met Richard Silver on the trip to Vietnam this summer. World Airways invited a select group and I was so honored to be invited by Shirley Peck-Barnes. Unfortunately she passed away last Saturday. I was in her book, “The War Cradle.” I was proud to submit a small writing, wasn’t really a poem or essay, but it was my first opportunity to speak. It almost was the inspiration to be a singer-songwriter at the time. Richard and I share similar views on adoption. We both are so glad to be alive and be here and we are always available to talk to any adoptees adult adoptees or younger who want to talk.
It was amazing. I got to play at the Reunification Palace and very few people have played that palace. I got up on stage and hooked up that guitar and I was thinking about my birth parents and thinking this was the closest I was going to be to them. And there were a lot of press there and I announced who the song was for and I was one of the children without a name. And my picture was in the paper and someone thought I looked like somebody and wanted to claim me as their son, that’s wonderful. But I wrote that song for myself and for them and it was amazing to be in Vietnam with those 20 adoptees from all around the country and we met with the officials of the country who told us how sorry they were and welcomed us home. And I had been waiting for that for a long time but didn’t know it. And it was my home. I tried to be as non-political as possible but I think they should think about their human rights a bit more. For the Vietnamese people who were upset that I left, I told them it wasn’t my choice and for those who were upset white people were adopting babies I said you could have adopted us too. There are two sides to every story. But I’m a peaceful person. I’m glad to be alive. And I communicated that through my songs and my handshakes.
There was a media company who worked with us, I’m looking forward to seeing the documentary film. I performed on the airplanes and my friends emailed me from home and said oh, you’re on yahoo. And I searched my name and I had links to 20 newspapers around the country with quotes. It’s great to be a part of history. My brother is adopted from Korea and he doesn’t have this story. And I hope he goes back to Korea. And my sister is adopted from Philadelphia and she’s half black. And the one thing they have that I don’t is birth names. And I think some day they have the opportunity to seek out that birth family. And I’m always going to be there if they want to talk to me and if they decide to reconnect I’ll enjoy it with them. It’s been a long time for me to realize I won’t reconnect with my birth parents but I’ve made peace with that.
All three of us are very different. Our parents individually spoke with us. I’m five years older than my brother. That was a lot of social distance in age. And my sister was only one year older than me but she ran with a different crowd as well.
The reunification palace is where the north took over the south. The palace is where the South Vietnamese government controlled everything. And the stage where I performed is where the tank crashed through the gate and the leader form the north ran into the room and looked at the man from the south and said I take over. The man from the south said I give up and the north said you have no power to lose. And the north took over. History has always been a favorite of mine. God bless cable TV.
If you contact world airways, Kimberly Williams, I will send you the information that I have. Okay, definitely.
Operation Babylift, when did I learn about it? My parents told me stories about that a lot and I didn’t care but it really hit home after the 95 reunion. My thoughts started to grow. Gerald Ford signed that document and 3000 children that needed homes got homes. And there was a lot of red tape. The Vietnamese government called it the biggest kidnapping in the history of the world. There were a lot of birth mothers who were lied to. They were told their babies would be taken care of and when they came back their babies were gone. Those stories are hard to hear about but life goes on.
The orphanage was a two-story building in the middle of Saigon and now today it’s army barracks. It’s a government housing army barracks. In 2002 when I went to Vietnam for the first time I got off the tour bus and looked at the building and took a deep breath and touched the ground and symbolically told myself this was as far as I was going to get. I took some pictures and some people came out to see what was going on and our interpreter was there and he tried to explain to everybody and they smiled and waved. And I went back to the bus and we drove away and it was great to hold that memory with me and I have some pictures in my room.
The emotions were so erratic. There were moments I was so relieved it was over and there was other emotions I had of I wish the story could get better and better. Someone would tell me they knew who I was. There were fantasies about getting paperwork. But it wasn’t to be. And I took those crazy notions and I took them on the bus and started writing. They belonged to my comprehension of the moment. I have it in songs and writings. In the hotel room I pretended to speak to my birth parents. I spoke in the dark and said I’m here and I hope you’re well and I made it.
Waking Up American definitely emerged from that. Some of the lyrics. Well, one of the lyrics was when I looked out the window of the hotel I could see all those bikes going by. And a line is ‘I see you on TV rushing home from work on crowded streets’ and when I was young I would think someone there might be related to me because they look like me. And those are memories I have. Like when I go to bed at night I think about Vietnam and when I wake up in the morning ever since the reunion I’m lucky to be alive and I make it a point and I smile and it’s great to be here and being in Vietnam definitely was a closure, it was an opening, and I’m grateful I got a chance to be there. I never will meet my birth parents, no.
Because they don’t know who dropped me off and there is no birth certificate and that’s it.
Well, there’s a slight chance that the pictures that were taken during our visit, maybe somebody would see that photograph but one theory would be that my birth parents could already be dead or could be living in a distant village and not have any access to the city at all. Those are all wonderful stories. And that’s my life. And I’m living my life the bets I can. I work hard during the day, love my job, love my family, love my friends, love my music. Can’t ask for anything more.
Betty Tisdale ran my orphanage in Vietnam. She and Madame Nigh were responsible for feeding all the babies and when we came over, they saved the lives of 219 children and her story is in the first edition of Chicken Soup for the Soul. I saw her last night for a pre-thanksgiving dinner. Her daughter and I are friends and she lives in NYC. As an adult I seeked out a relation with her. She’s still doing the same thing. She travels from country to country, founding orphanages and she’s amazing. Is aid I’m following her footsteps, I’m trying to make a living being myself. With hard work and dedication I may be on my way. I’m thinking of writing a book for adoptive parents. My music is on the way. I have more songs coming, I’m looking to record another album. I was invited out to Arizona for January. And who knows. I started writing music a little while after 1995. And it was small little things that I kept to myself. It wasn’t until 2001 that I started putting my first album together that I dug in and dedicated myself. After work I would travel an hour to a small studio in Connecticut and I would lay down each track one by one. It was going to be a gift to my parents. I had friends who thought a website would be cool. So I put up some pictures and one day someone said can I buy it? So I spent some more money, created a cover for a CD and I was a musician. And every day I was connected to more people through my website. I was asked to these great events. People started crying and I didn’t understand why and I started reading my stuff and not singing it and I realized if I were hearing it for the first time I would be touched as well. It can be exhausting singing about my life for 25 minutes, having to relive the same questions every night, but I know if I can help another adoptee begin their thoughts and their search I’m proud if I can help an adoptive parent see how much work it takes to be an adoptive parent, I know I’ve done my job.
It’s amazing. When an adoptee comes up to me and tells me how courageous it was for me to share my story or tell me I have a nice voice. That’s always a plus. I think that through the mixture of entertainment and history the adoptees, they touch me in a way because that’s why I created this music.
Yes, at the 2000 reunion there was many people who grew up in different parts of the country who were faced with more teasing, harassment, and physical abuse. A hug is not going to erase those scars and I hope in the future they learn to understand that wasn’t their fault and they can surround themselves with positive people and share their experiences.
I think in the Midwest it was a lot harder for adoptees to go to school and it was definitely less diverse than in the NE. And I know there were a lot of stories of kids being beat up after school and some of them were challenged because everyone thought Asian people took karate. And I can speak from my own experiences when you are looked upon as having these stereotypes you don’t have it can be annoying when teachers ask you math questions or when you go to a restaurant people ask does this dish taste good or how do you pronounce this or have you seen this Asian movie?
Bobby Lee? I’ll have to check that out. Yes, ‘Cries of a Woman’ is a favorite song of mine. It was based on a child’s report from a high school in Connecticut. It was about an American woman who was a soldier and she met woman named Jane in the Philippines who was adopting a baby from Vietnam. But her baby was on the C5 crash airplane and the song sings about that woman’s experience. But it ends happy and she does adopt a child and takes a child home.
A song? ‘Wash over me’ was the song I wrote about going back to Vietnam for the first time and making peace with what I knew about my past and wanting to go forward and what I saw in Vietnam. It was my song of acceptance. And ‘Waking Up American’ was the song for my birth parents.
Be proud of who you are. Read books. Play music. Learn how to play instruments, it’s a lot of fun, and we can teach others. Yeah, I think a lot of people are surprised, especially through my work email. I work for an Asian company and when I send emails out and it says Jared Rehberg, sometimes I get comments about my name. Oh, how many whites are there besides you. And I say oh, I’m adopted and I give them my website and they return back and say oh, I see.
Yeah, that’s been an annoyance in my life a few times. Having to explain myself. They say oh your mom married a white guy. I say no. Adoption is not the first thing off people’s tongues. They say oh, that’s’ and interesting name. People think I’m Jewish. I’m not, Rehberg’s German. RACHHBERG. I would encourage any Asian adoptee to learn about their heritage. Get a book, watch TV specials about Asia. And take pride in being Asian. In the battle of stereotypes is in our hands. I hope they don’t feel they’re expected to be anything but themselves and I hope the adoptive parents allow them to be themselves, and I think that’s a part of the journey of life. And in some way I feel I’ve been challenged. And it took me a while to accept it but I’ve fully accepted that challenge.
I have a few songs I’m writing right now. One is called ‘Scrapbook’ and it’s for the younger generation. It sings about how I cant’ change what’s already been done but this is my life and I’m going to live it my way. You can’t change what’s already been done but you can take control of your life and make the most of it. These moments are just pages out of a large scrapbook and every day you learn something new. It can be an amazing experience or a frustrating experience. I always recommend an amazing experience.
So, basically it’s the one about I’m resolved…
Overall I’m pretty resolved about never meeting my birth parents. I’ve known for a long time there was no birth certificate. I know when we boarded the plane Betty and Madame Nigh made up names for us and gave us birthdays and we were headed for a better life. But somewhere out there in a village there is a woman and she probably has children who are grown up and maybe sometimes she thinks about the child she left. And maybe my birth parents have died and I hope they’re proud of me and know I made the most of this opportunity. They gave me life and they’ve allowed me to reach out and be a part of other people’s lives.
I’ll end on a happy note. Actually, there is one thing I might want to mention. My journey to get to NYC has been a highlight of my life. I worked my way up through the ranks of graphic designers in Connecticut from production to a publishing group and one night I was playing at an open mic in Chinatown, this was two years ago, and a gentleman came up to me and said he was the CEO of a company called Imagination TV and he wanted to start a cable network that would show anime and movies and I said oh, can I have a job? And he asked me what my qualifications wo0uld be and I said anything and I moved from Connecticut and came down tot New York and I’ve had the opportunity to work with all Asians, so many people who have welcomed me with open arms and I’m so proud to work here and they consider me Asian American.
Thank you so much. Definitely. Okay. And I’ll send you an email. Thanks. Bye.