Shannon Hetrick on Vietnamese adoption
Interview by Miae Kim
Date: January 12, 2005
1 Disc, 16 Tracks, 62:00
TRACK 2 – 5:01
My name is Shannon Hetrick and I was born September 10, 1972 in southern Vietnam. This was during the Vietnam War and I came over through the Operation Babylift in April of 1975. My parents who adopted me are from Georgia and it’s very interesting because a lot of us who were from operation babylift were sent around to various homes across the US and elsewhere, outside the US.
It was in April 75. I am Shannon Hetrick. I was born September 10th, 1972. This was during the Vietnam War. I was born in town called Bienwa. That’s what they tell me. I came over to the US in April of 75, that was at the fall of Saigon. And this was through operation babylift. So during that time there was a lot of chaos and I was brought here to the US via some port in California and eventually I landed in Atlanta Georgia which is where my parents picked me up at the airport. That’s the point when I felt like my life had really started. But I’d say recently I’ve started to look further beyond that and see where my life began in Vietnam.
I came where, I was two and a half years old. I was born in ’72 and it was in 75 that I came to the US.
My parents are from, my father is from West Virginia and my mother is from Kentucky. They both met in Georgia and they have a son as well. His name is jimmy. But my mother was a teacher growing up and my father was a systems engineer at Norfolk southern. But I think it was a pretty wonderful experience I guess. It’s the only experience I know so it’s hard to compare.
Well, I had a great childhood. I think my parents really tried to make it clear that I was their child no matter what, the fact that I was adopted. Obviously I look different given that my parents are white and in the south in Georgia that sticks out a little bit. And I do think my parents were told by other people you should try to expose your daughter to Vietnamese culture and they tried a little bit but they only know so much but also I was very resistant. When you’re growing up in the south the last think you want to do is draw attention to yourself and I was more interested in fitting in. My parents have always been a big part of my life, particularly in sports.
TRACK 3 – 1:13
I grew up with a little chip on my shoulder. I was always really small and there were negative stereotypes I tried to overcome or at least, with a chip on your shoulder you’re out to prove other people wrong. My goal when I was younger, I was pretty good in sports and I wanted to show people that a little Asian girl could do just as well as nay boys out there. But I think my parents did good job of instilling some confidence in me and that’s carried me through.
TRACK 4 – 5:01
I am Shannon Hetrick. I was born September 10th, 1972 in Benwa, Vietnam. I came to the US in April of 1975. And I was adopted into a family that was in Atlanta Georgia, the suburbs, called Roswell. My parents are from the Midwest. My father is from West Virginia and my mother is from Kentucky and they met in Atlanta and during the Vietnam War they were watching television coverage and heard there were a lot of orphans and there was an opportunity to adopt. Though they already had a son, his name is Jimmy, they decided they also wanted a daughter so they were put up for adoption. They were on a waiting list for awhile and when Saigon fell they had adoption babylift. So me along with a couple thousand others were brought to the US and distributed to many homes. I don’t remember any of that because I was two and a half years old but what I know of Vietnam is what I see in Vietnam War movies but I think more recently I’ve been interested in Vietnam and learning more about it. When I was adopted my parents, international adoptions weren’t common and they were told it would be a good idea to expose me to Vietnamese culture but when they did I was resistant to it. Growing up in the south the last thin g you want to do is draw attention to yourself. I wanted to fit in and my parents realized that. And they’ve been supportive of me in all of my endeavors. I had always been active in sports and I had a sense of pride in it. And I had a chip on my shoulder because I think people had perspectives about me being a small Asian female that…
Well, me being a small Asian female I felt I had to overcome any stereotypes and I wanted to show that I was just as strong as any of the boys. So it was two things, one that I was a girl playing sports and second that I was an Asian female. I do think that drove me to prove to other people I could do just as well and prove them wrong in terms of their preconceived notions. I think it’s a little bit different growing up Asian with white parents. You’re caught between two worlds, there’s the world people perceive you as and the world you’ve grown up in. And I think I’ve had a little bit of identity struggle in that sense. But I think for the most part I think perhaps when I was younger I had a denial. And I think now as an adult I’ve come to realize that obviously I can’t control what people think of me or their preconceived notions of me but what does it really matter?
TRACK 5 – 3:07
I think that when you’re growing up in the south and you’re one of three Asians you sort of feel one that you stick out quite a bit. But I would say because I was brought up culturally in a white family it was a bit easier for me. I recall knowing other Asians and but because they were culturally different I know they struggled a lot more than I did. And unfortunately this is where I look back and feel bad about I don’t know, betraying. To know that I looked like them but and I don’t know. Maybe it’s internalized racism. You feel, I think as a child for so long I always felt that I was more like my parents as opposed to what I may look like. But now I think well, why does it matter? Who cares what others think but the bottom line is I shouldn’t feel ashamed to be Asian and that was something I feel I did. In the 80s there were movies where Asians were portrayed in a negative way. I would see those movies and I would feel embarrassed. I wouldn’t know how to handle that. When you’re the only Asian in that area you don’t know who to identify with but I do think Asian adoptees go through something that are a little different in terms of identity because we identify with the mainstream culture yet there are some obvious Asian ties.
TRACK 6 – 5:01
I think my parents obviously when they adopt they want to do the best job they can and I think probably parents who adopt feel more of a pressure to do the right job or perhaps a better job. And I think for one obviously because I look different I think they were worried about potential identity issues. But I think most of all they read some various brochures about how to care for the Asian adoptee. It’s sort of funny that they would have such things but I think my parents would give me newspaper clippings about the war or a book that shows the Vietnam countryside but the problem with it is it’s so out of context.
It’s very out of context. So the world that I lived in, in the south in Georgia in the suburbs, that was all I knew. So for them to put in front of me pictures it could as well have been Taiwan or some other place that had nothing to do with me. It also seemed not very genuine. It’s like being forced upon me. And I do think that I imagine that even today parents of Asian adoptees aren’t really sure what to do about that. But I think there really isn’t one right answer. It depends on the child and whether or not they’re ready for it. And I don’t think I was ready for it partly because Asians weren’t in a very positive light in the 80s and 70s. There weren’t positive images that made me feel proud or that I wanted to be associated with. For example, I really loved sports and to this day there aren’t’ many Asians in sports. It’s great to see now that there are some but then there weren’t any. So I think that had a bit to do with my resistance to them trying to expose me. I didn’t feel it was natural because they themselves didn’t understand the culture. It would have to come from someone who had been through it. I could see Asian immigrants who come to the US who have parents who expose them to the culture. That’s great. They’re not getting stories second-hand, and with my parents they can’t give the first-hand account. I’m not sure what advice I would give. I don’t know how they would do it differently. I believe they did the best they could by making me fee a part of their family and a part of the culture. My father was my coach in a lot of my sports as well as my mother. Once they realized that I had a little bit of
TRACK 7 – 5:01
resistance they didn’t push further. But as I started to grow older my mother would prod me and ask me if I were interested in going to Vietnam and still I really wasn’t. And I think though in august I met several other Asian adoptees.
There had been a couple of Vietnamese adoptee reunions, particularly those from operation baby lift. And I went to the 10 year anniversary. And I don’t really remember it. But in august was the first time I met other Asian adoptees as an adult. This was sort of a reunion that was in Cincinnati. We got together with some people from catholic relief services. Sister Kateri brought some people together. And that was an amazing experience because I got to meet other adoptees from operation babylift and to me that felt like an extended family because only those people understand completely what I went through growing up. Throughout my life so many people have tried to tell me how I should feel, that I’m so lucky and I should feel grateful and I should visit Vietnam sometime. I do like when people are interested in my history but it’s complicated when people feel they know hat’s best for you. Something to understand is every person has their own experiences, perceptions, and they can’t assume that one way is the right way. One great thing about this reunion is that you suddenly, instead of feeling you’re the only one who goes through that, you realize other people go through it and you’re not he crazy odd one. So yeah, I met brothers and sisters. Some people joked this could be your brother and sister, mostly these were people in Vietnam at the same time I was, they were also orphans, and also brought to the US through operation babylift.
I guess when you’re adopted your parents sort of try to paint a nice, pretty picture. My parents would tell me that my mother must have really loved me because I was given to, she thought I would be brought to better opportunities. Or just the fact tat she loved me so much she wanted better things for me. Which is a little odd. Because you’re basically telling someone that your mother gave you up but why would she think
TRACK 8 – 5:01
I would be better off somewhere else. I look at it realistically at least for me the way to look at it not to put the blame on it is it was a war, she probably died, and some nice American soldier took me and dropped me off at an orphanage. And I feel grateful for the people who had taken care of me because it’s not easy to take care of not just one child but many children such that I would survive through the age of 2 1/2. I have read some of the accounts of the orphanages and just to have survived that with the help of others, I do feel grateful to that. As far as birth mother, I don’t necessarily feel like she loved me but I don’t’[ feel like she didn’t love me either. I just don’t know.
I definitely think that there are possibilities that my mother was a prostitute. It’s also possible she could have been raped. There are a multitude of ways that could have happened that wasn’t necessarily a product of love. Whatever it was it…
It was probably under some relatively dire circumstances and I don’t know, it’s not necessarily an excuse but it’s just the way it was. I can’t really blame anyone. I have thought a bit, am I call Vietnamese, am I partly Vietnamese-American? Was my father an American soldier. I’ve been told I look very Vietnamese but I don’t know. I’d be curious, you can’t really tell and I’d be interested if DNA technology advanced to see what the makeup was. I think when it comes to medical situations, when I was in the 5th grade I had a seizure and it was the only seizure I ever had and there was a question about was that hereditary. When you fill out medical forms they have a section of family history and I write not applicable. When things happen you don’t know if it is hereditary or if that’s just he way it is.
I’m definitely Asian but I don’t know what percentage. Am I 50% Vietnamese and 25% French and 25% American? Who knows? I guess you could say I feel perhaps more American in the sense that most Americans are made up of all sorts of things. But the only difference is I really have no idea.
TRACK 9 – 2:57
No. No, I’ve never had, honestly I’ve never had any desire to. I don’t know if that’s a result of being happy with my current parents. Not that if I were to, I’ve never played those games of oh, if my home life sucks I’ll go look for my birth mother. I’ve never thought of that. I thought I felt relatively secure in that sense. I never felt any desire. I thought if she would come and knock on my door and say I’ve been looking for you all of my life, you’re my daughter, I would be respectful…
I would certainly be respectful but it would be a little awkward. It would be the same as any sort of reunion after many years. But I guess it would be kind of cool. And I do think maybe I had, I did feel like I would be betraying my parents if I were to look for my birth parents, my birth mother. But I do know my parents are very secure and they would encourage me. I think my mother has been more interested in my past than I have. For some reason I just don’t really, I’ve never been interested.
I think one thing to say is that’s just my personal experience. I know there’s’ plenty of other people who would be interested. The adoption experience is a personal one and I don’t represent other adoptees.
TRACK 10 – 5:00
Actually I do think the reunion really helped a lot in terms of coming to realizations that one, you’re not the only ones that went through it. and then also that I guess I did realize that my life began when I was born, not when I came to the US, and by having first-hand accounts of what happened there, in fact Sister Kateri she was a nun who was there during that time and she helped take care of many of the Vietnamese adoptees.
I believe that her first-hand account brought to life things that not that I didn’t believe them but it seemed so remote for me. Most people have baby pictures that they can look at, things that are proof.
Most people have proof that they were born and that they had toys they liked and a lot of people have stories about when they first walked but I don’t have any of those things. The pictures I have of me arriving at the Atlanta airport, what is where I thought my life began. But now that I have first-hand accounts I believe now. It seemed too unbelievable too remote. Maybe there was an emptiness part of my history I wanted to know. I don’t know the details but that other people we were there when I was there and other people came at the same time in the same circumstances, that brings more reality to my experience. I think that, I’ve always been, analyzed things in general, whether it be my relationships or my career, I’ve always been over-analytical anyway. But this has helped answer some unanswered questions. I’ll be going to Boston in April for another Vietnamese reunion through VAN. And I’m looking forward to extending the family a bit. This is the first time I’ve really felt that I truly identified with other people. When I was in college I remember, I went to school in Virginia and there was a Vietnamese student association and I went and everyone was speaking Vietnamese and I felt really out of place. It was very foreign to me. So that was my first and only attempt to connect with other Vietnamese. Whereas now today I feel that is a group I can identify with. That’s not to say, I have a wonderful boyfriend, I really identify with him, but there are certain things, even your
TRACK 11 – 5:01
loved ones, even your parents, there are things they don’t quite get and it’s nice to meet people who do get it. I guess that makes me feel a little bit better. I do think I have definitely been more interested in meeting other Vietnamese. Learning a little more about the culture again, it’s sort of at my own pace in a natural sense. I don’t want to get to know Vietnamese because they’re Vietnamese. It has to be natural. I think id’ be really weird to think I want to become friends with an American just because he’s an American.
The meeting was very recently. It was in august of last year. Very recent.
Security is a relative term. Secure isn’t eh right word. It has more to do with identity. I have always for the most part felt secure in my family, always had really good friends, but I do think in the back of my mind I always felt a bit different. I wasn’t quite sure why. Maybe that’s a bit of self-absorbedness. Maybe everyone thinks they’re different from others. But I knew there was a different case and I knew this whole adoption thing was out there and it was something I had to come to terms with. For the most part I‘ve always been proud that I was adopted but again I always thought my life began when I came to the US. Some things I realize I react certain ways. Let me tell you that you always hear about these weird abandonment theories, theories about children who were abandoned, orphans, and I always thought that was just not, I didn’t believe any of it. I also felt that’s just making up excuses, but then when I really look at the way I’ve handled some relationships, the way I’ve reacted to certain things, it’s something where I look at it and think do I react this way because I was abandoned? That’s not an excuse but perhaps it’s an explanation and it helps to be aware of that and understand why I react certain ways. I do think I have certain insecurities about someone not loving me and just because they don’t want to hang out with me…
TRACK 12 – 5:01
So sometimes really small things can seem really big to me and really significant and perhaps that’s sort of a fear of losing someone I love and that could possibly be related to being abandoned. I don’t have all the answers but it is something I look as a possible explanation. I don’t think answers are black and white. No one knows the truth of anything in my life but it helps me understand myself a bit more and is something I’ve always strived to do. I tend to make things complicated for myself. It does help though to at least be able to understand perhaps why and then also I do think it helps my loved ones to understand why I’ve reacted certain ways but I really don’t know. Maybe I’ll write a book about it some day. But it helps at the reunion we shared a lot of our thoughts, the way our relationships, who we’ve handled them, and we’ve all had similar experiences in terms of relationships and so I guess the bottom line is you don’t feel so awkward anymore to know other people have gone through eh same things.
I think I’ve always been very adamant tat I was American. I remember my mom telling me I was Vietnamese-American but I always said to her no, I’m American. My parents are American, I’m American. What was sort of interesting, even recently we had a little argument well, she said your heritage is Vietnamese. And I said you know, I actually feel like my heritage is the bluegrass music they play in Kentucky. That’s what I feel closer too. And I think your heritage isn’t your blood. Your heritage is the culture from your parents that is passed on. So for example your father had a German heritage. He didn’t grow up learning German or anything, he didn’t have any German customs, but just there are certain very subtle things that are passed through the family and those are things he passed on to me that I have and even small things like the way I carry myself or expressions. Very subtle things I think. So that is I think very different from a person who was brought up here, a third-generation person whose parents are from china, they will have some heritage that is passed down, and I don’t mean
TRACK 13 – 3:39
a celebration. For some reason people think of heritage as the clothes people wear but it’s subtle things, mannerisms, and that’s where I think environment has more influence.
But today so I guess you could say then I was adamantly felt I am American. And is till do. But I also feel that I’m a sum of everything I met. And one of the greatest things about the US is that you meet people from all sorts of places and I’ve met some wonderful people who have passed on their beliefs, their values, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s German, south American, whatever, but I’ve had a good diverse perspective and that’s what makes me who I am.
Actually right after the Vietnamese reunion I though I know there’s’ a Vietnamese community down by san Jose and thought I’d like to go to a Vietnamese mall but I never got motivated to go and do it. Again I don’t’ think, I want to be careful about not being unnatural about it. so no, I haven’t really reached out and but I do think a community I am interested in reaching out to…the community I am interested in reaching out to is the international adoptee community. I would like to share my experiences with other Asian adoptees who come to the US and luckily now they have other people who have been through it and can help them out. So that community is who I am interested in connecting with. And it’s not that I’m not interested in meeting other Vietnamese it’s just again a question of ulterior motives. I don’t want to go into it thinking that I have a certain motivation that isn’t genuine.
TRACK 14 – 5:01
Unless maybe it was yahoo groups.
Actually I came upon VAN maybe about a year ago. The internet allows you to be curious at your own pace and I was curious about if there were other Vietnamese adoptees out there and I found this organization and I started to read, they had an archive of thoughts that were transferred between other adoptees and I remember staying up until three am reading about them and thinking these people have the same thoughts I do. So I joined their yahoo groups and that’s where I received the posting about the reunion I went to. And that was really my only and first interaction but since that’s been pretty positive I plan to go to this other one. But no, I don’t belong to any other organizations but I do want to help with other international adoptees eventually.
I do think that the environment is a little bit different although I think there are a few Asian role models that can be looked up to. I think that I’m curious to know if the pressures are different. I’m currently in the midst of becoming a teacher, I’m working towards a teaching credential. And it’s been interesting to meet children who are adopted and to see how adjusted they are and I do recall when I was teaching or I was an intern at an elementary school there was an Asian adoptee at that school and I heard her parents were concerned and wanted other Asians to be in the classroom. And I recall when I was younger that I would get set up with the other Asians. When there aren’t very many people think you want to be paired up with the other Asian and I was annoyed by that. Os perhaps as an educator I want to take on a role of trying to educate others about the Asian adoptee experiences or the international experience.
What kind of advice? I think for one it would be great if they could…
For one, if they could connect with other adoptees or Asian adoptees, if they could do that it would be a great experience for them. Because for me as a child, I felt like I was the only one and now with the internet there are ways of communicating that weren’t when I was younger.
TRACK 15 – 4:29
So I would say to reach out to those other communities but also just I think basic advice is to just try to be true to themselves and throughout their life they’re going to be told how they should feel and everyone thinks they know what’s best for them and it’s important to realize everyone has their own experiences and nothing should be forced on them. They shouldn’t be forced to take on certain cultures if they want to that’s great but I think I perhaps became resistant because my parents, there was an initial big push. But I think it would be good for them to connect with other adoptees.
Asian Americans? Well, I think it’s important for us to realize that just because people look the same or don’t look the same, they can’t be put in a box. And I think that’s where the chip on my shoulder comes from. I felt like I was being labeled in some way or another. It’s important to realize in the US everyone has different experiences of how they got here. They could have been born here, been here for three generations, you can’t look at someone and tell right away and if they are different, why treat them differently? Sometimes I’ll hear things like you’re not really Asian.
I think something that has been complex o me is someone will say you’re not really Asian since you were brought up in a white family or since I have such American customs but that’s not true . Obviously I am Asian. But I don’t know what that means. Why would people make conditional statements like that. So what if I’m Asian? So that’s the thing that has bothered me. Before I used to be yeah, I’m not that Asian but now I think wow, that’s kind of racist. So what if I am? The bottom line is that everybody in the US comes here with very different experiences and it’s not right to assume that all adoptees feel the same way, not right to feel that all Asians feel the same way. It’s not right to put people in boxes.
I’m not familiar with the adoptee Asian…
TRACK 16 – 0:55
I think what I’d like to say about being a part of this documentary I feel honored. I think that for the most part the Asian adoptees have always been, we’ve never really been asked or fit in somewhere and so…it’s kind of neat that that would even be asked of. I think too often people just make assumptions and no one ever asked so it’s great to be heard.