As 16-year-old Van Dai prepares to meet his adoptive family, and his adoptive family prepares to meet him, they share what they’re nervous about, what they’re excited about, and why they are so eager to finally meet one another.
Van Dai is 16 years old. He likes math, soccer and computer games, and is naturally good at things that require problem solving and forethought. He’s a bit shy and introspective, and doesn’t show a broad range of emotion. But when you catch his eye and smile, he will return your smile a thousand-fold. His smile is absolutely radiant.
It’s a hot and humid January afternoon in the south of Vietnam, but cooler where we sit inside on wooden furniture, beneath a blowing fan. In the background, we can hear the sounds of children playing, the occasional squeak of metal swings.
“How are you feeling right now?”
Van Dai’s eyes gleam and glance around the room. He smiles.
“’I’m so happy to meet my parents,” he says. “I’ve been waiting for this for so long.”
Margaret Wasnak and Bill Hong are native New Yorkers. Both first-generation Americans, Margaret grew up in an Irish-Ukrainian family, and Bill’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from China. They both march with a bagpipe band, collect T-shirts with funny sayings and are both practicing Catholics. They live in the suburbs of New York with their 14-year-old daughter, Siobhan. When they adopted Siobhan from China four years ago, their lives completely changed.
“What did Siobhan bring into your lives?”
“Fun,” Margaret says, from where she sits side by side with Siobhan and Bill on a sofa in their hotel room. “Lots of fun.”
Although they have barely slept after a long journey to Vietnam, Margaret, Siobhan and Bill are buzzing with excitement. In fifteen minutes, they will meet their new son and brother.
“What do you hope Van Dai will gain from being part of your family?”
Margaret has fiery red hair that she wears long over a floral dress. Siobhan has jet black hair that she wears pulled back in a ponytail, over a bright red polo shirt and shorts. They sit so close their arms touch.
“I hope he’s happy,” Margaret says, smiling at Siobhan like this is something they’ve talked about endless times before.
“Happy, excited,” Siobhan adds, smiling back at her mom.
“And has fun with us. And that he grows up to be a happy person in whatever he chooses to do,” Margaret continues. “I think that’s the interesting part of getting to meet our son, is that we don’t really know what he likes to do, what he’s good at … what he wants to do with his life. That’s the adventure for us. ”
Bill wears glasses with small, round lenses, and is measured and thoughtful in his speech. He is perhaps a bit introspective, like Van Dai.
“We don’t have any preconceived notions about what success in life might be for him,” he says. “We want to be able to nurture his potential and help him be the best that he can.”
Van Dai was 11 years old when he came to live at House of Love, a Catholic orphanage in a small rural village in southern Khanh Hoa province.
“When he first came, he was so timid, shy and didn’t talk much. But when I taught him, I realized that he’s a bright child,” says the House of Love director, an elder sister with a gentle manner and a forehead that seems perpetually etched with concern. “He’s clever and grasped new concepts quickly.”
At school, Van Dai excelled — earning the highest marks of any child living at the orphanage. At the orphanage, he quickly became a favorite among the sisters, and a big brother of sorts to the younger boys. A smaller care center, House of Love has a very familial atmosphere. White and pink bougainvillea bloom along the edge of three block buildings that open up onto a brick courtyard full of potted plants. Van Dai shares a room with three boys. It’s a spare room, with wooden bunkbeds lining the walls, each with a simple bamboo mat rolled up at one end. Van Dai has an upper bunk, where he keeps just two possessions hanging over the railing — a watch, and his rosary beads.
The school sits just a short distance from the orphanage, and the children walk to and from class along a narrow cement road that runs through a dry rice paddy. In the afternoon, they come back for lunch and to take a short nap in the heat of the day. After school, they run and play in the courtyard or kick a soccer ball around an abandoned field. Enveloped by lush tropical foliage and towering green hillsides, their home feels safe, quiet and peaceful.
But no matter how loving the environment at House of Love, the children here — many of them older boys who have waited years on our photolisting — are missing something. Something more important than anything else in a child’s life.
“Are you going to miss the House of Love?”
“Yes, a little,” Van Dai says, “because I’ve been living here for so long and know the nuns and kids here so well. I’m going to miss them all.”
Through the years, over 60 children have grown to adulthood at House of Love. Only seven have left to join adoptive families — four in the time that Van Dai has lived here.
“How did you feel when you saw these boys go home with adoptive families?”
“I felt happy for them as they had their own family and parents to take care of them.”
When the House of Love director told Van Dai that he was matched with a family, he just smiled, she says.
“How did you feel when you found out you had a family?”
“It isn’t easy to describe my feelings about having a family,” Van Dai says. “It’s a mix of excitement, confusion, worry, but most of all I’m happy and feel lucky to have a family of my own.”
“What does having a family mean to you?”
“Having a family means I’m loved and supported. I can share my sadness and happiness with them. It means I can thrive and live a normal life.”
Before adopting Siobhan, Margaret and Bill focused heavily on their careers. They both worked high-powered jobs in finance, and became parents fairly late in life. Today, they work from home so they can spend more time with Siobhan – Margaret as a CPA, and Bill as a financial consultant.
When they adopted Siobhan, Margaret was in her 40s, and Bill in his early 50s. Siobhan was 10.
“Why did you decide to adopt an older child?”
“We just felt as an older couple, we would be able to handle an older child and help them progress. So we kind of skipped over the baby section,” Margaret says, referring to Holt’s waiting child photolisting, “and went right to the two older group categories.”
Siobhan stood out to them immediately. “We just fell in love with her biography, her picture,” Margaret says. They especially loved the candid description of her personality.
“We knew she was for us when we read that she was ‘bossy’,” Margaret says, laughing. “New Yorkers are born arguing.”
Reviewing the pages and pages of older children waiting for families, Margaret and Bill also felt moved by how long Siobhan, like so many older kids, had waited for a family.
“There seemed to be a real need,” Margaret says. “The kids wait a really long time. Siobhan waited six years to get adopted.”
Growing up in the orphanage, Siobhan had received no formal education, and could not read or write Chinese when she came to the U.S. But once home from China, Margaret and Bill threw themselves into teaching her both English and Chinese — catching her up as best they could.
Today, Siobhan is in the fifth grade.
“She just made honors,” Bill says, prompting Margaret to cheer for her daughter. “She read the introductory statement for her Christmas pageant because her teacher thought she can do this really well.”
Turning to look at her dad, Siobhan just smiles.
Wanting Siobhan to experience everything she never got the chance to experience while living in an orphanage in China, Margaret and Bill say they get out and do interesting things all the time. And they feel more a part of their community. Siobhan has an innate ability to bring people together — including neighbors who never met each other before.
“Even in our neighborhood, Siobhan really changed people’s lives,” Bill says.
But as both Margaret and Bill grew up in large families, with lots of siblings — and Siobhan grew up in an orphanage with lots of other kids — all three felt like their family was not yet complete. Siobhan wanted a brother, and Margaret and Bill wanted a son.
When they started the process for their second adoption, they again skipped over the babies and went straight to the older children.
“We saw I don’t know how many listings of older boys between the ages of 11 and 15,” Margaret says.
When they read about Van Dai, Margaret, Bill and Siobhan all felt like he would fit their family.
They also knew this would be Van Dai’s last chance to be adopted. At nearly 15 years old, he was nearing the age when children are no longer eligible for international adoption from Vietnam. So they quickly moved forward with the paperwork, and soon received notice that they were officially matched.
“We already tell everyone, this is our son!” Margaret says. “Siobhan tells everyone she has a brother. As soon as we got that letter in the mail that we were matched, we felt like our family had already changed. I hope he has that same feeling, once he gets over the transition period.”
Margaret and Bill realize it will take time for Van Dai to adjust to his life in the U.S., and to accept them as his parents.
“It’s sort of like a blind date and then you get married,” Margaret says. “That’s it. You’ve never met the person and now you’re linked for life permanently. That’s pretty intimidating I think.”
“What do you think his personality is like?”
“I think he’s a little bit shy,” Margaret says.
“Nervous,” Siobhan adds.
“But he was smiling,” Margaret says, referring to the first time they met Van Dai, over Skype. “They say he’s very thoughtful, and considerate to his other friends in the orphanage and that he helps out at the orphanage when he can. He seems like a very considerate, helpful boy.”
“What do you think your mom will be like?”
“I’ve imagined my mom is funny,” says Van Dai, who learned more about his family after they sent an album with pictures of their home and their lives.
“What about your dad?”
“I imagine my dad is a funny, easygoing guy.”
“What about your sister?”
“My sister is full of personality,” he says. “She is funny too.”
“What are you most excited about, Siobhan?”
“To play with him,” she says. “Play soccer, basketball, badminton, tennis, volleyball, hockey.”
“She’s a little bit of a sports nut,” Margaret says, laughing.
Along with the family album they sent to Vai Dai, Siobhan wrote a letter to her new brother — telling him how excited she was to meet him and reassuring him that she would help him learn English, and help him get used to his new life. All things that Siobhan already went through when she came home from China, four years ago.
“How did you feel when you read Siobhan’s letter?” we ask Van Dai.
“I felt warm and thought that she must trust in me, and that she’s happy to welcome me into her family.”
“Are you excited to have a younger sister?”
“I am. I’ve never had a younger sister, but I think it’s going to be great to have a younger sister in the house.”
Over the past few months, as they prepared their home for Van Dai’s arrival, Margaret and Bill thought a lot about how to make Van Dai’s transition easier.
“For a child, coming from a different country, meeting new people, meeting new parents, learning a new language, new food, it’s scary for a kid,” Bill says.
Margaret and Bill are hopeful that the Asian traditions Bill grew up — and that they embraced more once Siobhan came home from China — will help ease Van Dai into American life.
But they know the biggest hurdle, at first, will be communication.
Before traveling to China to bring Siobhan home four years ago, Margaret learned some Mandarin — every word of which she promptly forgot when Siobhan came into the ministry office to meet her parents.
“I was so excited to meet you!” Margaret says through laughter, smiling at Siobhan. “I couldn’t remember anything!”
Now, she’s trying to learn some Vietnamese.
“Are you going to remember this time?” Siobhan asks, jokingly.
“I probably won’t remember anything right away,” Margaret says.
Having grown up in culturally — and linguistically — diverse families, both Margaret and Bill are adept at overcoming language barriers. Neither of them learned to read or write in Chinese, Gaelic or Ukrainian. But they could nevertheless converse with their extended families.
“When we’re with the older generation, we can understand them,” Margaret says. “They’ll speak their language and we’ll speak English to them, and everybody understands.”
In a similar way, learning a few Vietnamese phrases may help bridge the communication divide with Van Dai. But even if it’s a struggle, Margaret believes it’s worth making the effort to learn your child’s language.
“Just learning a little bit of the language yourself gives you a feel for how difficult it is for them to learn English,” she says. “You can see from their end how hard it is to learn a new language.”
Learning Vietnamese will also help them share essential information with Van Dai about where they’re going and what they’re doing. This, they’ve learned, is crucial — especially for older kids.
“I think it eases a lot of fears when kids know what’s coming up next. Everything’s so brand new,” Margaret says.
When adopting Siobhan, they made sure to have the staff in China explain to her what would be happening every day — from ministry appointments to vaccinations to getting on an airplane to fly home to the U.S.
“It’s like everyone’s talking about things that you don’t understand,” Bill adds, “but if you explain it to them, they’ll have just a little bit of expectation about what to anticipate next.”
Margaret says in many ways it’s about having a sense of control.
“Because so much is out of their control,” she says. “But to give them information makes them feel like they still have control over what’s happening to them as they go along with you. I think that made a big difference to Siobhan.”
With Van Dai, they hope they can also empower him to feel like he’s in control of his own life — that they are a team, in this adoption process together.
“What do you hope Van Dai already knows and understands?”
“That we can be his source of guidance. We’re not strangers. We’re there to help him. We’re there to support him,” Bill says.
“That he doesn’t have to go through things alone. That we’re gonna’ be there no matter what, no matter how difficult it is, we’ll figure out a way to get through it,” Margaret says. “We’re going to be there no matter what, 100 percent.”
On Van Dai’s last morning at House of Love, he and several of the sisters climb in a van and drive to meet Margaret, Bill and Siobhan at their hotel — about an hour from the orphanage. The Hong family had hoped to meet Van Dai at House of Love so they could see where he spent the last five years of his life. But a massive snowstorm in New York delayed their flights by a day, and they couldn’t reschedule their “Giving and Receiving” ceremony – an official part of the adoption process in Vietnam. They are scheduled to be at the Department of Justice at 9:00.
It’s 8:30 now. Van Dai sits waiting in the lobby, with three sisters and two other children who came along for medical appointments — a baby, and an 11-year-old boy on our photolisting who has waited a long time for a family.
As Margaret, Siobhan and Bill step into the elevator, Margaret is suddenly nervous, and her stomach starts to churn.
Seconds later, they walk out into the lobby, and see Van Dai — his back to them, surrounded by the women who have cared for him for the past five years. Van Dai turns around and smiles that radiant smile.
Margaret rushes over to hug him.
“Oh, I’m so happy to meet you! You’re so handsome,” she says, touching his cheek.
Siobhan eagerly waves hello from behind her mom, and Bill waves and shakes Van Dai’s hand.
Margaret asks if he’s nervous.
“Yes,” he says, confidently, in English – once her question is translated for him.
“Me too!” she eagerly responds.
They sit together at a table, Margaret, Bill, Siobhan and Van Dai, and say the few words they know in each other’s languages. Mostly, though, they just smile — eyes lit up with the exhilaration of meeting someone new, someone you’ve waited so long to meet, someone who will forever be a part your life.
In the background, at a neighboring table, the 11-year-old boy who is still waiting for a family of his own watches Van Dai with his new family. He stares at Margaret and Bill with wide, wondering eyes, and his expression seems distant, full of secret emotions.
Van Dai studies his new family, not understanding what they’re saying, but meeting their eyes and laughing with them at the situational comedy of trying to communicate without a common language. Their connection is immediate, and the distance between them is fast eroding. Van Dai’s eyes gleam as he looks at Siobhan and Margaret and Bill. This is his family. Finally, he has a family.
As they get ready to leave for the Giving and Receiving Ceremony, Siobhan grabs her cell phone, and wraps her arms around her brother. They look into the camera and snap their first selfie — with Bill smiling behind them.
One of the sisters walks arm in arm with Margaret to the door. Later, the sisters will cry as they say goodbye to Van Dai. They will tell Margaret and Bill how much they love him, to take good care of him, and to make sure he goes to church.
Van Dai walks in step with his family — one medium-sized backpack slung over one arm. Everything he owns in the world is inside this backpack.
Siobhan turns to her brother and gives him a reassuring pat on the back. Together, with their parents, they climb in the van. A family of four.
“How you thought about how your life will be different in a family, Van Dai? What will you do to bond with them?”
“Yes, I have. I think I’m going to greet them often and ask them for help when I need it. That way we can create a bond between us and they can understand that I care about them.”
“If we visited your family in two years, what do you hope we would see?”
“A really happy family,” Margaret says.
“Yep, fun family. Playful,” Siobhan says.
“Just a happy, well-adjusted kid,” Margaret says. “That would be my goal. Everything else is kind of like, we’ll figure it out as we go.”
Robin Munro | Managing Editor
Video and Photos by Daniel Hespen