They climbed onto the bus with smiles and memories, both eagerly awaited by the six Vietnamese adoptees searching for a past. These women had cared for hundreds of orphans back when a war raged outside and the battle for the survival of abandoned children raged inside. They bathed and bandaged, fed and held, loved and cherished the orphans who entered the walls of these orphanages. Sometimes they cried as they watched their charges leave for families abroad. Often, they cried as their charges gave up the battle for life.
These eight orphanage workers had joined us on a trip to their history.
At Phu My the workers milled about, waiting for us as we toured the huge facility. The courtyard surrounded by walls of buildings embraced them as they sat in the calm. We walked into classrooms and around corners, finding yet more wings of the huge facility. When we returned they smiled again and spoke to individuals who may have been in their care. None knew quite for sure, although some may have recognized a look or two. They knew for sure where they worked and when they worked there - all pre-1975, before the fall of Saigon and the closure of the orphanages. That's how history is measured here, before 1975 and after.
We travelled to some other orphanages next, ones that didn't exist anymore. We expected to find one which was now the home of a newspaper office but when we got there the building was gone. The people who had stayed there as infants got out and looked at where their home used to be, a few of the women who had worked there standing nearby, tut-tutting. One orphanage is now an office building. Another, split up into apartments. Still, the adoptees stood and took pictures with those who had mothered them, if only briefly.
The last orphanage we visited was Go Vap, the second government-run orphanage still in existence today. It, too, was huge, tucked down an alley - or is it a street here? - beside a large structure. We entered the orphanage and waited in the room for the administrator to speak. Some of us took up strategic locations in front of fans mounted on the walls, above our heads. She talked of the caring for children with disabilities, although many of the children there were only orphaned due to circumstance, not abandoned due to disability. Again, we toured, with one mother and adopted daughter handing out gifts to every child there. The gifts, bags of small toys and goodies, seemed to baffle some of the children, those unsure how to open the bags. For some, the bag became another toy, for others, another frustration.
Go Vap was particularly important to this young woman passing out presents. She remembered Go Vap. She remembered her room, now filled with a dozen cots. She remembered the street where it was located, although it was a lot more busy and noisy and dirty than she recalled. She remembered the stone bench where she sat when someone took her picture to send to the woman who wanted to adopt. Unlike the others on the trip, she was 6 when she left Vietnam in the early 1990s
Soon after someone instituted a ban on foreign adoptions of children from Vietnam. The reason told here was that the U.S. believed that some Vietnamese were selling their children, using the potential of adoption to get rid of unwanted children and using the desperation of childless parents to make some money. Only in the past year has that ban been lifted.
We saw quite a few children at Go Vap, youngsters happy to see someone knew. But one care worker, a Caucasion although I don't knew her nationality, just glared at us with marked intensity as she fed a baby. I had to wonder if she felt disgust for tourists taking pictures of sick children and including an orphanage on their itinerary with shopping and the museum. I did feel a bit like the children were treated like zoo animals, put out on display during feeding time. But this is a way for the museums to raise money. I gathered the cards from the adminstrators at both Phu My and Go Vap to use in the future. I'd brought items for the orphanages, mundane things such as toothpaste and soap and pens and paper, but planned to give those to the orphanages in more outlying areas. I'd like to send similar packages to the Saigon orphanages periodically so I gathered the addresses. I also hope to gather donations from others interested in doing the same thing. Right now they receive about $10 per child per month for food, clothing, shelter and the like. That's the price of small pizza. It would be nice to do that.
Just as we finished our tour, an ambulance drove up to the orphanage and a nurse with a baby got out. The pristine child, looking small and active and perfect, had been abandoned at the hospital,likely by an unwed mother. It is easy to give up children still, easy to give birth in the large birthing room surrounded by other mothers and children. It is easy to get up to go to the bathroom and never return. That is how the orphanages get many of their children now, orphaned by society's stigma against birth outside marriage.
When we returned to the bus, the child care workers sat and talked with the adoptees, language barriers doing little to bar the exchange of memories. After a while, silence filled the bus and each person thought about 30 years ago and a different time. Then one adoptee got up and walked to the back of the bus when the workers all sat. He kneeled down in front of them, getting at their eye level, and proceeded to give each one a white envelope with, I assume, money inside.
"Thank you," he said as he slowly passed them out, nodding at each woman. "Thank you for caring for me."