In early 1974 my husband and I applied to adopt a baby from Vietnam. That July we received a photo a newborn Mai Thi Ngoc Tram whose parents were listed as “unknown”. After 9 months of waiting she was sent off on C5A US Air Force plane, which was part of “Operation Babylift”, and carried almost 300 babies and young children and their caretakers.
Tragically the plane crashed shortly after takeoff killing more than half of it passengers. Mai survived and I picked her up in Montreal less than 36 hours later to begin her new life as Mai Thi Ngoc Tram Cashion. As a friend observed: Vietanamese, with an Irish last name, growing up in Canada with Yankee parents.
Growing up Mai was smart, athletic, fearless, very pretty, vibrant, able to connect with just about anyone, and effortlessly good at anything she attempted.
In her early twenties Mai and I traveled to Vietnam together. We located the village where she was born and travelled throughout the country. People were welcoming. At one point I remarked to a young man that I found it hard to imagine that people were not hostile or bitter toward Americans. He responded, “We were at war for 100 years. It’s time to move on.” and found the fact of her adoption novel and fascinating. Another time we were touring a monastery with an American veteran and a young Vietnamese boy was relentless in trying to sell us soft drinks. Finally the veteran said to him, “OK I give up, no wonder you guys won the war!” He bought us all drinks!
Mai actually ended up staying and teaching English for the better part of a year. For the next ten years though she struggled to settle into anything for very long. She attended college off and on, was a nanny in Belgium, an English teacher in France, a model in Spain (she spoke English, French, Spanish and later Vietnamese) and for 4 years Buddhist nun in a Vietnamese monastery in France.
In her 30s Mai settled in Montreal and ultimately became well known as a dog trainer and walker. She connected with animals the same way she connected with people. However, she also began to experience depression and was hospitalized several times.
In late 2013 Mai returned home to New Brunswick and in the June of 2014 she took her life.
I have been relieved to find out that this is not common among Vietnamese adoptees. However, many, now in their forties, still struggle with issues of identity. The tentacles of war are wide and long lasting.