As Holt reflects on 40 years since the Vietnam Babylift, Steve Kalb, Holt’s director of adoptee services, interviews Holt adoptee and board member Tara Linh Leaman about her recent travels to Vietnam, the beginnings of a search for her birth family, and her part in Holt’s continuing growth as an organization. Tara is the co-founder of AmerAsians Building Bridges, Inc. (AABB), and currently serves as the program director of Westchester Building Futures, a federally funded initiative that aims to better serve young people aging out of foster care in Westchester County, NY. She is a graduate of Cornell University and Georgetown University Law Center, and lives in the “People’s Republic of Brooklyn.”
TL: My comrade, Nguyet Lam, and I co-founded the organization in 2005. Nguyet, like me, is Vietnamese and African American (aka Black Amerasian); but unlike me, grew up in Vietnam with her birth family. We created AABB because we recognized the discrimination Amerasians still face in Vietnam. In an effort to address that reality, AABB provides small educational and business loans to Amerasians in Vietnam, as well as family strengthening and pathways to citizenship classes for Amerasians in the Washington, DC region. In 2010, AABB expanded its mission to include resources for members of the adoption and foster care constellations, specifically in the area of nurturing healthy forms of identity(ies) within transethnic/transracial adoptees, our families and the communities in which we live.
SK: You are also a member of Holt’s board of directors. What inspired you to join our board, and what do you hope to contribute/accomplish during your tenure of service?
TL: As a Holt adoptee, I was excited to be a part of its evolution from a grassroots adoption-centered organization to an international child welfare, humanitarian and adoption organization that welcomed all because of its faith-based roots/routes, not despite them. Holt is at a turning point as it commemorates its 60th anniversary. It is super rewarding to be part of that change as both a grassroots benefactor as a child, and a grasstops leader as an experienced adoptee.
SK: In January, you traveled to Vietnam along with several other board members to visit some of Holt’s programs in the region — family strengthening programs, single mothers services, orphanages with whom we partner, etc…. Can you share about what you saw, who you met, what moved you?
TL: Before I answer that specific question, one of the gifts of returning to Vietnam with Holt this time is that my family joined me and the board, who welcomed my mom, dad and brother as if they were Holt board members. We have an amazing board committed to strengthening Holt’s three pillars of work (family strengthening + orphanage care + adoption). It was extra special for me to witness my parents and brother, all physicians, able to provide direct medical care to children when asked by Holt staff and partners.
Now to answer your question: first and foremost, I was most impressed with the Holt staff in Vietnam. Thoa Bui, senior executive for Southeast Asia, Hang Dam, Vietnam country director, and their team are extraordinary at every level. Their ability to inspire, work and lead with family strengthening as their core philosophy was very evident. Equally important, the local, provincial and national partners that the Holt Vietnam team chooses to work alongside are just as authentic and committed to meeting and helping families where they are located, wherever they are, which can often be very far from Holt’s central and local offices. It’s no longer just about adoption, but helping the whole community survive and thrive.
The Holt Vietnam staff, with authenticity, is able to frame the [question], “What can HICS do for Vietnam to improve the lives of the people of Vietnam?”
SK: You also helped make needed home repairs for two families in our family strengthening program in Danang. Can you tell me about that experience and how your efforts will help these families succeed?
TL: The home improvement work we did in Danang focused on a family that was Catu, which is one of the most vulnerable ethnic minorities of Vietnam. Again, it was impressive and heartwarming to see that Holt was serving populations that often the Vietnamese marginalize. And it wasn’t just about painting their home, but offering new clothes for the New Year Tet celebrations for their children; buying chickens so the family could eat more healthy and possibly gain income by selling the eggs; offering monies that will enable the father to receive urgent medical attention for his aggressive cancer, as well as making concrete efforts to understand the bureaucratic process that keep families in poverty such as lack of proper citizenship papers, etc. The Holt staff does a great job at assessing what a family needs in order to thrive in each situation. It’s no longer just about adoption.
SK: What else is Holt doing to help these families become stable and self-reliant?
TL: I was unaware of the amount of daycare support that Holt offers to families. For example, we met several older children — closer to the tween age group — that had developmental differences, and were living with their birth families. Without the daycare support, these tweens would be left alone during the day where there was a high risk of being harmed and/or abused by other neighbors. In daycare, these older children were protected and given attention from staff.
SK: Was this your first trip to visit Holt programs overseas?
TL: In 2002, I participated in a Vietnam Motherland Tour led by two Catholic nuns. I learned a lot, and the best part of that journey was meeting other adoptees, and sharing our stories while recognizing that we all have a story. And most importantly, I gained a much sharper understanding that there is no single story.
SK: Did anything differ from your expectations, or was anything particularly affecting?
TL: In Oct. 2013, I traveled to Ethiopia with former board member Cindy Davis and current CEO Phil Littleton. Cindy actually was the person to initially recruit me, and formally invite me to join the board. She’s an absolute diamond with a heart of gold; and she’s a Texan, enough said. The three of us traveled to Ethiopia primarily to assess Holt’s work as it was experiencing transitions. Ethiopia, at that time, was more centered on adoptions, so it was a different but equally educational experience.
SK: You were unique among the travelers as the sole Vietnamese adoptee on the trip to Vietnam. How might your personal history and experience shape how you view Holt’s work in the region? What do you see that others might not?
TL: As an experienced adoptee, I am much more in tune to the cultural nuances. For example, I didn’t feel the burden of being seen as a Caucasian American tourist (and may I add, I also did not benefit from the white privileges being a white tourist brings; but that’s another article for another day…). I also noted who Holt serves and why. Equally important, as an adoptee, I was incessantly aware of how much I have lost, and how much I have gained in both family and social kinships.
Also, it is truly a gift and a privilege for Holt to have Senior Executive for Southeast Asia Thoa Bui and Vietnam Country Director Hang Dam — who were both born and raised in northern and central Vietnam, respectively — leading the Holt Vietnam team. In addition, it is equally significant to mention that both Thoa and Hang spent time studying in America as Fulbright Scholars, so they understand the American experience as well.
SK: While in Vietnam, I understand you visited the town where you were born. Are you comfortable sharing about that experience?
TL: A joyful and emotional experience, as one can imagine. And the first step in a search and reunion process that will be a lifetime journey. I must first share how incredible the Holt team was in doing its due diligence related to my beginnings. Again, Thoa, Hang and their staff went above and beyond to verify how my story began. As a result, my family and I had the opportunity to spend invaluable time at the orphanage where I spent the first two years of my life, which is now an elementary school. Several nuns still live and work at the Catholic mission where I, as a 2-day-old infant, was left at the gate. The mission is one of the most beautiful places of learning, listening and meditating that I’ve been to in the Global South/East. We had the chance to fellowship with older nuns, who took care of me until placed with my parents, younger nuns, some of whom have studied in the U.S., and also very young sisters-in-training. I am the first orphan to return to the mission.
What made the time together extra special was that the only mom, dad and brother that I know were with me. For me, I could not imagine beginning this search and reunion process without them. It’s not just about me or my journey, but it’s also my mom’s journey, my dad’s journey (who by the way was a conscientious objector during America’s War in Vietnam), and my brother’s, as an older sibling of an adoptee. And it was the journey of the nuns who were my first mothers. You see, it’s so not at all just about me. I am just the bridge between families, birth and given, nearby and afar.
SK: You were also invited to share about your adoption experience at an adoption training in Khanh Hoa province. What was the goal of that training, who was it for and what thoughts and insights did you share?
TL: [It was] set up by Thoa and Hang to present to about 20 people, including police officials, Ministry of Labor officials, social workers and faith-based leaders. The goal of the session was to introduce our Vietnamese partners to the three pillars of Holt’s work. Again, having my family join this conversation was unique and fruitful for all. We kept it real while sharing our stories that recognized and honored both the burden and dignity of difference within our families, as well as other modern families. More specifically, our partners were able to ask us questions about what it was like to raise a Black Vietnamese girl; what challenges did our family face, and how did we discuss race and difference? And how did we talk about the profound loss that our adoption story, and all adoption stories, begin with? Again, it’s not just about me, it’s about everyone who’s a part of my life in America, Vietnam, Holt and beyond. We are all bridges of learning and unlearning.
SK: This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam Babylift. Did that add a greater significance or weight to your recent travels through your birth country? How so?
TL: It might be helpful for me to share that I actually was not a part of Operation Babylift. What made this journey home for me was much more centered on the fact that 40 years after leaving Vietnam, I returned with the family who raised me from the age of 2 to reunite with the family who raised me from day two. The icing on the cake is that we accomplished this while witnessing together Holt’s continuing evolution with several extraordinary Holt Vietnam staff and board members. Now that’s a 40th worth repeating!
SK: This year, after a six-year moratorium, international adoption from Vietnam to the U.S. also resumed for children with special needs, older children and sibling groups. Holt was selected as one of the two U.S. agencies approved to place children from Vietnam. What are your thoughts on this development?
TL: Regarding finding families for children with different/special needs, that’s essential, of course — especially when those families do not have the extra resources that their child with physical and mental differences need.
It is also truly a rich opportunity to go beyond adoption stemming from the evolution of Holt while giving us the framework to ask, “Beyond adoption, how can Holt best advance the welfare of children and families in Vietnam?”
And having seen some of the children with different [special] needs, especially in environs where people in Vietnam do not have the financial means to offer their children the extra support that they may need, it is certainly an opportunity to provide assistance and care where and when it is asked for. That said, those realities certainly do not diminish the work that we need to do on this side of the Pacific Ocean concerning sharpening and enhancing the training prospective parents receive and authentic impactful post-adoption services. After all, we know that there is no perfect family, even if they seem so during their initial application processes. Love, yes, is essential; but it is simply not enough. We need to have tangible resources as well for all families.
SK: In the 40 years since the babylift, what do you think we have learned about international adoption? What progress have we made? What still needs work?
TL: Yes, the [special/different needs children] need support, but all children need to be supported just as thoroughly through pre- and post- [adoption] training for adoptive families. We all, and I include myself here, need to get much more secure in our vulnerabilities and facilitate crucial conversations within our families and communities, and to not be afraid to ask for help. In asking, that is actually an act of strength, not weakness. Love just ain’t enuff anymore good folks!
SK: What were your primary takeaways from the trip, and how might they inform your continued work on Holt’s board of directors (and your work with AABB)?
TL: Primary takeaway #1: the committed and authentic staff of Holt Vietnam. I was so impressed by their grasstops and grassroots leadership and authenticity. They’re working in very difficult environments and their partnerships are fostered through best practice in leadership development and program management.
Primary takeaway #1-too: Being a part of the evolution of Holt and seeing in real time how Holt is so much more than just an adoption agency. Holt is about family preservation, family strengthening and humanitarian work as a faith-based agency rooted/routed in advancing socioeconomic well-being for all families because of our faith, not despite it. And towards that end, what can we do now to help Holt advance its three pillars of work? What responsibilities do we have to children, youth and young adults, families not just in Vietnam but in our own backyard?
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