Sussex Press Agency Debuts On BBC Inside Out

An Eastbourne woman’s journey to find out her past in Vietnam is the story behind a BBC Inside Out which was featured on BBC1 Monday 9 November 2009.

Co-Produced by Paul Gibson from the Sussex Press Agency, the piece which was screened by BBC1’s Inside Out South-East is part of a longer documentary which highlights Viktoria Cowley’s journey to find out her background, after being adopted from Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Above: Polly Evans and Rob Smith from BBC South-East Today talk to Viktoria Cowley Live on the programme.

Viktoria was one of the 99 babies airlifted to the UK during Operation Babylift which was organised by the Daily Mail. 34 years later, Vikki has set out to discover her past and meet as many of the other adoptees who were on the same flight as possible. BBC Inside Out will feature Viktoria discovering a photograph of herself on the front page of the Daily Mail in 1975, and travel to London to meet a group of other Vietnamese Orphans.

April 2010 marks the 35th Anniversary of the airlift, and thousands of people will travel to the country to re-unite and mark this special anniversay. 2,500 babies were airlifted from the country during the Vietnam war, but only a handful came to the UK.

BBC Inside Out will also be producing a 30 minute special programme inconjunction with the Sussex Press Agency early next year as the crew travel to Vietnam with Viktoria.

Over a two day period, Viktoria Cowley completed fifteen radio interviews and one live television news discussion programme. These were as follows:

BBC Radio Kent, BBC Radio Sussex, Sovereign Radio, South-East Today, BBC World Service, BBC 5 Live, BBC Wiltshire, BBC Radio Derby, BBC Radio Berkshire, BBC Radio Scotland, BBC World Today Programme, BBC Five Live, BBC World Service. Other Coverage included; Eastbourne Herald, Hastings Observer, Bexhill Observer, BBC Magazine.

The programme is also expected to be screened on BBC World Asia in the near future.

Read more about Viktoria’s story

You can also listen to two of the interviews for a further 6 days:
BBC Radio Sussex: Monday 9 November 2009 – The Breakfast Show – click through to 2hrs 12 mins.
BBC Five Live: Tuesday 10 November 2009 – The Breakfast Show with Nicky Campbell – click through to 2hrs 39 mins.

Read more about the Sussex Press Agency.

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Meeting with Trista

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I’d never turn down the chance to meet with a fellow adoptee, even from another country. Trista came over from the US to visit London and Paris and luckily I was able to take the day off work and meet with her in London.

Of course, no meeting with another Vietnamese adoptee is complete without sampling some Vietnamese cuisine.

During my walk from the tube station in Old Street, I was amazed to see the number of Vietnamese restaurants en route to the restaurant I was meeting Trista in which indicated that there was a great Vietnamese community there. I think I counted five restaurants I passed before finding the one we met in.

There was a great choice from the menu which was great but not having tried much on my previous samplings, I wanted to try a bit of everything. Trista ordered a whole variety of dishes, which were unfinished. I was invited to box them up and take them which I had no hesitation in doing.

It was lovely to meet with Trista. She is a very prominent figure in the Vietnamese community, having set up the weekly international teleconferences, hosting a variety of subjects from our own personal stories to information on getting DNA testing set up. A great networker in the knowledge of people and subjects of transnational and transracial adoption.

It was a very educational meeting and hugely enjoyable. I hope I’ll be able to meet up with her when I visit the US later in the year.

 

Real name or given name – how did this come about?

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This is an edited version of an email correspondence between myself and volunteer who served in Vietnam during Operation Babylift:

Q:

A few months ago I uncover some documents that have always been available to me but I’ve only really started looking into them. On one document I see that I have two names, the name I’ve always known myself to be in Vietnam, Lam Yen Hang, and another name, Trang Thi Minh, Tran. When I first found this document, I thought that this could have been my real name before I going to the orphanage.

I have connected with an adoptee in the US who has a very similar name to my own: Lam Yen Hang and hers was Lam Yen Hoan.

I saw another fellow Facebook friend on a documentary quite a few years ago whereby she goes back to Vietnam to try and trace her roots and she found out that the name she thought was her real name, was indeed a name that was given to her in the orphanage.

However, during yet another trawl across the internet, I find this report on the Leamington Spa edition of the Courier following the demise of the Rev. Patrick Ashe:

http://www.leamingtoncourier.co.uk/news/Orphans-rescued-in-Saigon-airlift.4900610.jp?articlepage=2

In this report, I see the adoptee also had a very similar name to mine, being Tran Thi Minh Tam, which leads me to believe that as her name was changed to this, mine must’ve been as well. So my question is, what is the name of the orphanage and would you have known a case of orphans being transferred from one orphanage to another? I had actually been chosen by my adoptive father before leaving Vietnam so maybe this could be an added factor?

A:

My best guess is that your “real’ name is Trang Thi Minh Trang. I believe that some of the confusion about all of this might be explained to you in my book which is why I think it is important. It goes into a fair amount of detail about the pressure everyone was under at the ‘end’ to simply come up with names. Before I knew which orphanage you were in I knew that Lam Thi Nhi named all of their kids something with a Lam. Birth certificates meant virtually nothing and there is a section in the back of the book where I basically spell out for US immigration what every single person working with adoption was forced to do, this is the form of an affidavit. Babies didn’t come with names and therefore we were in a position of having to provide a name and record. I would think in looking at this that someone gave you the name Minh Trang and the orphanage would have just gone ahead and named you as they wanted to perhaps after someone or something they held dear. This doesn’t mean much in terms of searching though as we wouldn’t know who named you Minh Trang which is actually a lovely name. We would often start the paperwork for one child, which could be the case here. Papers were started on a child named Minh Trang who passed away but the papers were valuable and so they were simply going to use the document for you. That was done often. There were two very different things at work here. Babies and chidlren and keeping them alive with staggering death rates, far more children dying than surviving and then there were papers. The papers were a necessary obstacle as most children were abandoned just as they are today. The orphanages remain full and culture plays in as well with that. There are all sorts of omens with the Vietnamese that might make it lucky or unlucky to have a child and might cause a parent to abandon it. You can skip the part of my book about me and just go to the back when the war is pouring down on us and read the part about paperwork and how horrible it was as we tried to save the lives of those chidlren with us but were forced to produce documents when none existed.

I first saw my son’s picture in April of 1973 but his birth certificate said he was born in September of 1973. Birth certificates were expensive and meant little as they had so little to do with the kids. I think the worst part of this is realizing how horrific the abandonment rate was/ is.

I hope that this somehow helps. I am not certain if I mentioned but my grandfather was from Serbia and I went into a fit once finding out where he was from as I recall the name of the village. I traced back all of his papers and was really totally obsessed with it and even knowing him, but not my father it was so very important to me to nail down the exact spot, which was actually in Turkey but that’s another story so I definitely do understand what you are searching for. If I were any one of you kids I would search and I might also be rather frustrated or downright angry if I thought that people were careless with my identity. It was just that the papers meant so little. When I first went to Viet Nam to work I watched death after death and I remember they came in and told us that paperwork for ten children had just been cleared by Germany and that it had taken a year to get the papers done and therefore ten kids were going to get to go home. The problem was finding ten kids even close to a year old. The original babies had died for the most part and I watched astounded as ten kids were simply picked some about six months old and sent home to the families because the paperwork had made it, the kids had not. It was as though the two never qutie meshed with each others.

For some reason Lam Thi Nhi wanted to name their kids with that name. Perhaps it had something to do with a Buddhist ritual but I would imagine that you came to them as Minh Trang but who was Minh Trang? Or was this just paperwork that survived would be my question. It was a really horrific time and I will remember forever the babies that died in my first days of working there as I had never experienced anything like it. I was totally astounded that human life was so cheap. Names meant very little to us but I think that you have found something very important as it is a bit more of a clue. Chidlren were often given from one orphanage to another. Children came to me frequently from Lam Thi Nhi and maybe had started out somewhere else though usually a child abandoned in a place near a Buddhist Temple would not have ended up in a Catholic orphanage.

In that your father picked you out before you travelled what did he remember you as being known as or were there not yet the papers? I know that you sent them to me but don’t remember. I think also that I noticed what you sent before that I had seen this name though it had not registered. Surely this is a case of paperwork survival and it might well have been yours. But it doesn’t add up to me that Lam Thi Nhi would have gotten the vaccination certificate for you in one name when they planned to use another and never ever did we get a vaccination booklet for a child unless it was going for adoption so if they were doing the paper for you with Lam as the family name the easist thing in the world would have been to get the vaccination certificate in that name. Unless they were trying to assemble paperwork as fast as possible. Now you have me curious and I have to go back and look at the other documents that you sent. I most likely won’t make it a tonight. Long night with the kids but I do find it very interesting.

However you will see in the affidavit that I wrote which could have landed me and many others in jail in another time or place it says whatever papers we sent with you most likely have little or nothing to do with you. It is a miracle that you have what you do have but at the same time it compounds the mystery.

Don’t you dare apologize for asking the question 🙂

It is very interesting and different for you in that you do have much more paperwork then the average baby from airlift days.

Viktoria discussed Looking for Vietnamese Operation Babylift Adoptees in the UK on the The Largest Vietnamese Facebook Group Ever discussion board

1914645_172002573901_3716035_nHi everyone. I just wanted to post a note here as I seem to have exhausted all other methods and I’m just hoping that someone in here may be able to help me.

I’ve connected with quite a few Adoptees from Operation Babylift, and now that I have, I’m looking to specifically expand my contacts of UK adoptees. 105 came over to the UK, and whilst some may have moved back to Vietnam or elsewhere in the world, there are still a fair amount outstanding.

If you are one, or know of one, and you (or they) are happy to connect with others, please could you get in touch, or pass on my details so a connection can be made. I would dearly love to hear from you.

Many thanks

Viktoria

Has this journey stirred up any emotions?

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So many. I cannot even begin to describe how I feel about this whole experience. But I will try:

At first, when I started to search the web and found the name of my first Facebook Vietnamese friend, I felt so excited that she had a name so similar to mine and that she was in the same orphanage I just knew I had to make contact.

When I had sent that initial email, that feeling was immediately replaced with fear. What if she felt the same way I did two weeks before, that she didn’t want to be contacted? Had I opened a can of worms that had been lying dormant? Would a torrent of emotions have erupted that she didn’t want to deal with?

I waited an agonising period of time (it was really no time at all, but minutes felt like decades) wondering if I would receive any reply at all.

All that doubt and panic was replaced with such a wonderful feeling of heart warmth, joy and celebration as she had ‘virtually’ embraced me and let me right into her heart and into her life. I felt as if I had connected with an angel.

The next contact I had was with someone who was trying to raise awareness in Agent Orange which had left so many children disabled with Hydrocephalus, who were now residents in the same orphanage in which she had started out.

Again, the fear set in but, feeling slightly more confident, I hoped I would receive a positive reply, especially as she lived here in the UK.

Within a week I had received the most wonderful surprise. Not only was she also an earth angel, she lived in London and I just knew I had to meet with her.

We spoke on the phone and I felt so much love as I heard her voice, the air was electric as I felt my aura soften and embrace this new angel, I felt such a rush of positive hope through me, it really was a feeling I will never forget.

These two contacts form the basis of the reasons why I’m continuing this now.

My contacts continue grow and I continue to share and connect with more and more people, my love for my mission continues to grow. I also feel a growing concern for my contacts as reach out to help others who haven’t been as fortunate or forthcoming as myself and offer help and guidance in making new connections, as this is still very new, I understand the fragility and sensitivity of the situation.

The Facebook Vietnamese community is one of the most powerful, loving and supportive network of people I have ever had the fortune to meet in person, in voice and in ‘virtuality’. Even if I never find the answers to my questions, I know that I have friends for life through this very special and very unique fact: that we started our lives in unfortunate circumstances and form an elite group within an ethnic minority.

Since that first contact I have felt excitement in finding a new friend; fear in possibly being rejected; elation in being welcomed; intrigue in finding out more; more fear in the possibility of not realising my dream; more excitement in the future journey and reunion; yet more fear in my initial conference call; excitement in taking part in my first conference call; accomplishment for having taken part in my first conference call; fear for the future; excitement for the future; excitement for the reunion; love for my supporters. And sometimes, when I write about my experiences I feel so many mixed emotions all at the same time, I don’t know how I feel as I feel them all at once. On the whole, I feel so elated for taking this journey that it moves me to tears. Unfortunately, the times I feel like this I’m alone in my thoughts when all I need to do is hug someone.

How do I feel? I feel fantastic!

Do I feel sad that I’ve only just realised I need to do this?

19958_268145841427_4018750_nYes and no. I do feel sad that I’ve only just embraced my true identity and I know I have so much work to do.

I know that history cannot be rewritten and the facts of my identity will still be the same today as they were in 1975 when I left Vietnam. However, with time, these facts get diluted, in that they may be more difficult to find answers to as the nuns at the orphanage may not be around today or, if they are, their memories of those days will not be as vivid.

It still may not be too late. Yet.

But still, I also realise that I may never find all the answers to my questions as not all the facts were written down or recorded, so a great deal of speculation has to be applied. That’s why the other adoptees are invaluable. With their facts and speculation, I can try make some outline of what I think my story may have been.

So the facts that I once denied myself has now become a strong need, a burning desire to do everything I possibly can to find out about such a tiny portion of my life, the first years of my life, that formed the basis of who I am today.

They say that the first two years of a child’s life are the most fundamental as they form the foundations of their personality, their mental standing, their maturity and their ability to deal with everyday life as an adult. So those first 18 months form 75% of that valuable time I need to uncover. I also believe that the outstanding 25% of that time was absorbed in getting used to a new life with a new family in a new country.

This is so very important.

So, in answer to that question, yes I feel grieved that I haven’t done this before now.

But on the other hand, I also realise that I obviously wasn’t ready to travel this journey before now. Everything happens for a reason: sometimes stars collide, sometimes the planets realign themselves. Even if it if it is too late, this journey will still have been worth it, if only to find out about my own personality rather than the facts of it. I have always been an immature child, I could never cope with mature conversations; the last 10 years is when I’ve done most of my mental growing up and so I feel that this past decade has helped me to prepare for what I’m doing today.

Another aspect of it is that I never knew how to approach it as I wasn’t aware of what tools I needed in order to accomplish this task. Since the art and facilitation of online networking sites, this task has become so much easier, that I can share experiences with others, obtain the right support and comfort from other people. So no, I don’t feel sad that I’ve only just started out as it would have been so much harder and a longer journey.

So, I also feel confused in my mixed emotions.

I’m extremely fortunate for the amount of love and support I have around me; from my family, my friendship circle and my online friends that I can share so much and put my story out there without fear or judgement and get so much back from them. I also feel so blessed for the people who have come forward to help me on my progressive journey to help uncover and record my story.

And to deal with the subject of angels: this covers every one of those people in these passages who have so much love in their hearts, so much time and information to give and their invaluable help and support, without whom, none of this would’ve been conceivable.

Stunned … she’s just found out that one of her Vietnamese names means “Angel in the Full Moon”

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So do we translate each part of our name and make a story of it or do the pick the most prominent one? Since I think I have a given name by my birth parents and a “false” name by the orphange, here goes:

* Lam Yen Hang
Lam: Jungle or Dense Forest
Ye^n: Peace, Safe, Stand Still
Ha`ng: Angel in the Full Moon (<— I like this one!)

* Trang Thi Minh, Tran
Trang: Not yet known
Thi: Poem (<– the most common middle name for girls)
Minh: Jade
Tran: Not yet known (<– very common surname)