Summarized by Kent Larsen
Mormon Orphan Seeks Her Vietnamese Heritage
Keene NH Sentinel 16Apr00 P2
By Sherry Hughes: Sentinel Source
KEENE, NEW HAMPSHIRE -- A Mormon woman, Kathy X. Thielen, 26,
returned recently from Vietnam to her home in Keene, New Hampshire
following three months learning the Vietnamese language and culture
and searching for information about her birth and heritage. Thielen
was one of nearly 400 abandoned Vietnamese children airlifted to
safety during the fall of Saigon in 1975. She was adopted that year
by Mormons Bruce and Susy Thielen of Keene.
When she first arrived, her parents worried about her health, "She
could not sit up or hold a bottle. She had a swollen stomach, sunken
cheeks and open sores on her skin and scalp. There was a bald spot on
the back of her head. She perspired constantly, breathed irregularly
and rejected all human contact," reported the Keene Sentinel in 1980.
But after six months she had become healthy and active.
She attended the grammar and high school in Keene, graduating in
1993. With two other students, she took Vietnamese language classes
and started looking for her heritage. Not feeling quite ready to
confront it all, she fantasized over eight years about returning to
Vietnam. Her parents supported her desires, giving her books and
magazines about the country. Unlike some parents, they didn't find it
a threat, "My parents were very secure in our relationship," Thielen
says. "We love each other. We are a family."
At Keene State College she took more Vietnamese lessons and learned
to teach English as a second language at the School for International
Training in Brattleboro. Three years ago she started planning a trip
and did further research on Vietnam in books and through the
Internet. And she started working up to three jobs at a time to save
Finally, Thielen was able to leave for Vietnam on November 21st. With
enough money to stay for up to a year, she hoped to immerse herself
in the Vietnamese culture and language and research her roots at An
Lac, the orphanage from which she was airlifted to safety. Her
return date was open, "I wanted to stay as long as ... my heart
But while she did learn a lot about Vietnamese culture and language,
her attempts to find her roots hit dead ends. Finding the orphanage
was difficult. The initial address she was given was that of a
warehouse, but further research revealed that all the street names
had changed, and An Lac had actually been in a different part of the
But while there, Thielen was able to embrace the Vietnamese culture.
For the first time she felt just like everyone else around her,
instead of like a minority, "At this point," she says, "I'm really
embracing the idea of Vietnam being my homeland ... that I've
returned to my roots. And I'm totally loving it. I could get away
with being like them until I opened my mouth to speak -- then they
knew." Her American accent led people she met to think that she must
be Cantonese or Japanese or maybe from the Philippines instead of
from Vietnam. They even said she didn't look Vietnamese. "It felt as
if I'd been saving all these years to come to the wrong country," she
She also found that some Vietnamese were bitter about her past. They
sometimes felt that her story could have been theirs. "Here I was
wearing a pair of shorts and a T-shirt that was worth more than they
would make in a month. I did feel guilty at times," Thielen said.
Eventually, Thielen was able to track down the location of An Lac.
Through other orphans from the U.S. looking for their heritage, she
learned that An Lac was itself a dead end in finding her heritage.
The workers at the orphanage had simply made up names and birth dates
for the orphans there because they didn't know what their names
really were. But Thielen was able to visit the site of An Lac, now
residential housing, and see where she would have stayed as a baby.
Eventually, just as she started feeling a connection to Vietnam,
Thielen started feeling homesick. Starting at Christmastime, she
discovered she longed for her home in Keene, "When I planned the
trip, I didn't think it would be a big deal to miss Christmas," she
said. But a long expensive telephone call to her parents on Christmas
day made her realize otherwise. She was soon missing friends and
American things like pizza and videos with her family.
She decided to leave after Tet, the Vietnamese new year, when
businesses close and people spend time with their families, "Vietnam
is such a family-oriented culture. Much more than any place I'd been
-- and even more than my Mormon upbringing. And it was so hard to not
be with my family. There I was, twelve time zones away." She arrived
back in New Hampshire February 19th.
Thielen remains in touch with her friends in Vietnam, and may even
return before the end of the year, but she has also realized a lot
about her self, "I had accomplished most of what I wanted to. I
learned more about my culture -- I did immerse myself in it. I found
out more about my roots at An Lac. I didn't learn as much as I would
like about Vietnam -- but as it turned out I learned more important
things. What meant more were the things that weren't on the list.
Vietnam isn't my homeland -- it's my birth place -- and those are two
very different things. Vietnam will never be my homeland. My family