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Posted 24 Feb 2001   For week ended April 16, 2000
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Sent on Mormon-News: 21Apr00

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 money.

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 desired."

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 city.

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 said.

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 is here."


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