October 4, 2008 – Randy Tran walked quickly past the majestic domes and marble statues of Capitol Hill, looking for the Cannon House Office building and the people he believed could help him.
Tran, a Vietnamese pop singer who lives in a Bay Area suburb and sleeps on a friend’s couch, flew 2,900 miles to be here. He rehearsed what he wanted to say. His English was not perfect. He was afraid he would have just a few minutes to make his case.
He had a 3 p.m. appointment in the office of a Wisconsin congressman. He was not exactly sure what the congressman did, but he was certain that this was a powerful man who could help untangle a political process that had ensnared him and thousands like him.
Tran came to Washington on behalf of abandoned children of American soldiers and Vietnamese women, born during the Vietnam War and, like him, seeking citizenship in the country their fathers fought for.
Called Amerasians, many were left to grow up in the rough streets and rural rice fields of Vietnam where they stood out, looked different, were taunted as “dust of life.” Most were brought to the United States 20 years ago after Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act, which allowed the children of American soldiers living in Vietnam to immigrate. But citizenship was not guaranteed, and today about half of the estimated 25,000 Amerasians living in the U.S. are resident aliens.
Tran lives in Hayward and travels the country crooning pop songs to Vietnamese fans at restaurants and concert halls. But he feels unsettled.
“I feel like I belong nowhere,” said Tran, whose father was an African American whose name he likely will never know, but who gave him the mocha-colored skin so different from other Vietnamese.
“If I go to Little Saigon, they say, ‘Are you Vietnamese? You look black.’ If I go to the American community, they say, ‘You’re not one of us. You’re Vietnamese.’ “
But most wrenching for Tran is his lack of citizenship, a constant reminder of being an outsider in what he considers his fatherland.
“Our fathers served for the country, fought for freedom,” Tran said. “I am not a refugee, but I am being treated as one. We are Americans.”
Tran and 21 other Amerasians flew to Washington, D.C., for three days in July to lobby for the Amerasian Paternity Act. It would give Amerasians born during the Vietnam and Korean wars automatic citizenship, rather than requiring them to pass tests in English.
Most of them had never been to Washington. Some purchased their first suits for the trip. Some spoke no English at all.
Tran does not know his age. On paper he is 34, but he guesses he is closer to 37.
His mother left him in an orphanage in Da Nang when he was days old. A few years later, a woman in a nearby village adopted him to help care for her cows. She refused to let him call her “mother.”
The neighbors gawked at his dark skin; the village children yanked his curly hair. At night he would dream that his hair had turned straight and that he could pour a liquid over his body to turn his face pale. He would hide behind the bamboo mat he slept on.
“They looked at us like we were wild animals, not people,” Tran said.
When the Homecoming Act passed in 1988, thousands of Vietnamese who wanted to escape the Communist government used the Amerasians as a device to flee. At 17, Tran was sold to a family for three gold bars. When the family got to America, they asked Tran to leave their home. He moved in with a friend’s family.
Like Tran, many Amerasians lacked the English skills, education and family connections that had helped other Vietnamese refugees assimilate. Many did not attend school in Vietnam and arrived in America illiterate. Many migrated to Vietnamese communities where they were once again shunned. Some turned to drugs or gangs.
They received eight months of government assistance, including healthcare, English lessons and some job training. But the government did not help Amerasians locate their fathers, and funding for the program ended in 1995.
In Washington, Tran and the other Amerasians crowded into a friend’s house. There was Vivian Preziose from Queens, whose father brought her to the U.S. when she was 10. There was Nhat Tung Miller from Seattle, who found his father a few months before he died. There was Huy Duc Nguyen from Dallas, whose only clue about his father is that his last name sounds something like “Sheffer.”
They mapped out their plans. Preziose passed out 435 folders containing a letter she wrote. The next day they would deliver a folder to every Congressional office. They also had appointments on Capitol Hill, so they rehearsed what they would say.
Some stumbled over their words. Preziose encouraged them to speak from their hearts. Nguyen reminded them not to wear jeans. Tran advised them to speak slowly.
A year ago, few of the Amerasians knew one another. That changed when Nguyen went to a screening of a documentary about Amerasians stuck in Vietnam and met others like him. They talked about helping those still in Vietnam and started reaching out to Amerasians across the country. They knew of Tran from his singing.
Tran urged them to lobby for the citizenship bill, sponsored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose). In September 2007, they formed the Amerasian Fellowship Assn., which now has 5,000 members.
They had grown up haunted by a raw sense of being thrown away by their parents. Now mostly in their 30s and 40s, they came together for political reform, and along the way formed a community for those who felt invisible.
The day after they handed out the folders, Tran anxiously waited on the marble steps of the Cannon building for his team to arrive.
By the time they got to Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner’s office (R-Wisconsin), they were five minutes late.
They met a man in a tan suit with a faint smile.
Tran introduced himself and began describing the difficulties faced by Amerasians. Many cannot speak English, he said, making it difficult to pass the citizenship test.
The meeting lasted less than 25 minutes – not enough time for Tran to say that he was not allowed to go to school in Vietnam, that while he tended to the cows he would peer through the schoolhouse windows at the students learning to read.
Tran thought the man seemed confused why they were there. But the man promised to do what he could to help.
It wasn’t until the man handed out his business card that Tran realized he wasn’t talking to the congressman from Wisconsin. He was talking to a staffer.
“I didn’t know who he was,” Tran said. “I just knew we wanted to meet him. I wanted to tell our story.”
There is a lot Tran does not understand. He’s not sure which of the two houses of Congress the bill is stuck in or why it is taking so long to become law. When he and other Amerasians met with Lofgren in the Capitol building, he thought they were in the White House.
Lofgren warned the group that it was unlikely the bill would pass this year. But she promised to reintroduce it next year.
Some of the Amerasians decided to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, believing the names of their fathers might be inscribed on the wall.
Tran decided not to go. He has no clues as to who his father his. When Tran walked past an older black man on the street, he turned and looked.
He still wonders why his mother left him to suffer in Vietnam. Once, it was a source of deep anger. But his fury turned to sympathy when he learned about the harsh conditions during the war, the stigma of having a child out of wedlock with an American.
Perhaps she gave him away hoping he would have a better life. He once wrote a song called “After the War.” When he performs it before Vietnamese audiences, they are often brought to tears.
Tran later wrote an e-mail to the staffer. He mistakenly identified the man as “Mrs.” He also sent along an English translation of the lyrics of “After the War.”
He has yet to hear back. But he has faith that America will come through, eventually.