Daughter from Denang


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



During the Vietnam War, local Vietnamese women were recruited

to work on military bases, to cook food, launder clothing,

and do sex work for the North American men stationed there



Daughter from Danang

The Imperial Camera Lens as Documentary Form

By Soo Na

I’ve always wanted the feeling that somebody would love me no matter what.”

                                                                                                                                   – Heidi Bub

Daughter from Danang is a convoluted, exploitative, and complicated film that weaves together desire, love, mother and child connections – mother and daughter in particular – gender and sex differentiation; abuse, transplantation, money, war, and abandonment; emotion, notions of blood ties, saviors, agency, North American imperialism; and the ways in which inter- and intra-personal human connections are complicated by each of these. “Family” has often been used to cushion war atrocities.

In particular, arguably opportunistic “humanitarian” and “child welfare” organizations and business empires, such as Holt International Adoption Agency, have capitalized on wars, including and not limited to the Vietnam War and the Korean War. It is a common argument that “war rips families apart,” and the Vietnam War was no exception. But who is recreating those families, and who is taking the “pieces” of so-called “broken families” and where are they then being displaced, transplanted? Who has agency in this process? Surely not the “broken family” itself. Instead, it is often the humanitarian efforts of North America (after creating a scene of genocide which necessitated such “humanitarian” measures), the United Nations, the various nonprofit Christian / Catholic, or other usually religiously-affiliated child adoption agencies and organizations, to “rescue, resuscitate, and recreate” families from the “rubble of war.” 

This film focuses on Heidi, a woman who, after 22 years, is reunited with her biological birthperson in Danang, Vietnam. We find her not in a single place, but in many places. The location of a person often reflects who they are, and shapes who they can be. Heidi, adopted from Vietnam in the 1970s, following the North American government’s 1975’s “Operation Baby Lift,” found herself in Pulaski, Tennessee, where the Ku Klux Klan originated. Her hair is permed and she self-identifies as “[one] hundred and one percent Americanized.” A family friend refers to Heidi as an “Oriental,” and her mother disowned her during her second year in college, after she came home not more than ten minutes late from a date. Heidi is married to John Bub and has two children. 

I was deeply disturbed by this film. In particular, I was struck across the face by how little emotional support and time Heidi was given to process her time with her biological relatives in Vietnam. It is apparent that Heidi is given little time to process the various emotional, intellectual, psychological, social, economic, and political histories involved in that pivotal moment of her adoption. Rather, she is obligated, through emotionally intense circumstances, a demanding female birthperson and blood relative members, as well as a Vietnamese journalist from North America, who accompanied her, to co-exist in her contradictions, which we are all at some point forced to do, but done in such an extreme way that experiences are shoved continuously down her throat.

Heidi’s female birthperson insisted on sleeping next to her each night of her visit there. One morning, Heidi’s female birthperson asked, “Are you awake yet?” to which Heidi replied, “I am now.” Heidi often wanted space from her female birthperson, who continuously hugged her, kissed her, instructed her to say “I love you, mother,” and who, in turn said, “I love you, daughter.” In addition, she took every opportunity show Heidi to people living in Danang. 

My interpretation of Heidi’s facial expressions while being paraded around by her birthperson was one of experiencing a long-anticipated reconnection with the woman who gave birth to her, a universally-powerful cultural symbol. I believe, too, that Heidi was responding to her birthperson’s intense need to “make up for lost time.” I am struck by Heidi’s fortitude, emotional strength, and patience with her new-found blood relatives. I am horrified by the improper support, time, space, and preparation given her by the filmmakers and the journalist. Where is Heidi’s agency in this film? The Vietnamese journalist asks Heidi before she leaves, “You want to say, ‘I love you,’ right?”

Thus, other people besides Heidi impose onto her their own assumptions about family, and about her presumed deep connection to people living in Vietnam who are related to her. These factors result in a painful culmination of feigned emotional connections, most intensely between Heidi and her female birthperson, in addition to Heidi’s personal negotiation of an already dubious and tentative position between multiple worlds: Vietnam and North America, her family in Tennessee and her blood relatives in Vietnam; whiteness and otherness; filial duty and disownment; war and nation-building; and immense economic and quality of life disparities.

During the Vietnam War, local Vietnamese women were recruited to work on military bases, to cook food, launder clothing, and do sex work for the North American men stationed there. Heidi’s female birthperson was one of these women, earning money to feed her several children, especially with the added loss of an absent husband serving in the Vietnamese army against the Vietcong. The film reveals that there still exists strong anti-communist sentiment among Vietnamese people, a possible after-effect of North America’s war on Vietnam’s popularly-elected government in Hanoi, resulting in numerous coercive and exploitative policies. 

For instance, Vietnamese women who gave birth to mixed children – babies who were born from sex between a North American military person and a Vietnamese woman – were told that their babies would be taken from them because of their being “bastard” or “illegitimate” children, soaked in gasoline, and burned alive.

In “Operation Baby Lift,” many of the children weren’t actual orphans – as in, bereaved of both parents and all other relatives. Most children were told, “You have to remember who you are,” by mothers and other family members who relinquished them for adoption into North America. White women with long blond hair and condescending English spoke to Vietnamese women holding their children, telling them in deliberately slow speech, “Don’t worry, I’ll give your daughter a good home,” and, in another instance, when a Vietnamese woman decided to give her son to a white woman, she responded, “You have done a good thing for your son. You should be proud.” White women “saviors” came to coax children from Vietnamese women whose babies were mixed (race). Heidi was one such child. As Heidi’s female birthperson recounts it, she couldn’t afford to feed her own children, who were starving, and giving Hiep / Heidi up for adoption was an economic and social “necessity.”

The initial interactions between Heidi and her birthperson, and the people living in Danang, seemed a charade of gift-giving, and the kind of hugs and kisses that you give to a distant relative that you have never met before, but about whose importance and gravity you are informed, and therefore act upon. Near the end of Heidi’s visit, she is emotionally, psychically, and psychologically drained by the experience. In one part of the film, Heidi talks about how she wants to return early with the journalist, but decides not to. One day, the entire family, all of Heidi’s relatives, gathered around the kitchen and sat her down among them. 

All of the women in the household, besides Heidi’s female birthperson, were peering out from behind a curtained area outside of the kitchen. It was at this moment that Heidi’s “brother” asked her to send money intermittently back from North America to support her family, saying, “Now we hope you’ll assume the filial responsibility a child has toward a parent.” In this instance, Heidi is finally able to admit to herself what has been bothering her the entire time – that there were unspoken meanings, words, responsibilities, attached to her much-ado visit, and that she finally is pushed to a point where she needs time to stop pretending she knows all of the people calling her “daughter”, “sister”, “aunt”, “niece”, and start asking herself what these people mean to her.

One of her greatest fears has been realized – that her “family” in Vietnam didn’t really care for her after all. That all of the happy reunion performances were just that – performances. Rather, it was the money they were after, her status as a passing white woman in North America, with her privilege and better quality of life. This is one reading. Heidi wishes she had never met them. The expectations and desires and “lost time” seemed all placed onto her, a daughter who turned the gender roles in the house, as she sat in the privileged kitchen while the other women in the household looked in behind a curtain demarcation. Heidi’s female birthperson, privileged by her age and by her attachment to this moneyed North American ambassador and sister, daughter, family member, was the only other woman in the kitchen besides her.

This was a third loss for Heidi: first her female birthperson at the age of seven; then the loss of her mother in Tennessee through emotional and physical abuse and eventual disownment; and now the emotional and economic disownment by her blood relatives in Danang, Vietnam. What rapidly followed was powerful: the first time Heidi was able to express her need for space: “Don’t touch me! Get away!” through tears, as her brother followed her after she left the kitchen where the request for financial support was posed.

Heidi’s blood relatives in Vietnam react to Heidi’s hurt at the request for money. A male sibling says, “We’re trying to understand your situation and we hope you’ll try to understand ours. Let’s just be happy. Yes, let’s just be happy. Don’t try to force anything.” The women behind the curtain are crying. Heidi’s birthperson remarks, “We don’t speak the same language so it’s not clear. What does she know about the Vietnamese notion of love and emotion?…She doesn’t understand , it’s not  good to force her. She’s still in shock. I’m afraid when she goes back, she’ll be angry….It’s hard. Poor thing, she thinks I’m asking for money.” But aren’t they? She continues, “And all I know is how much I love her.” Another man in the room chalks it up to, “This is all just a misunderstanding.”

What does the title, Daughter from Danang, mean? What does it mean for Heidi, “Hiep,” to be a daughter of a province, connected, connoted to a place? What obligations are attached?

In the end of the film, Heidi is shown back at home in Tennessee, with her two daughters and husband. She sits on a couch with her husband while being interviewed after the process. She is self-effacing, vulnerable and revealing, yet sharply self-protective in the most unobtrusive way possible, a possible quality of the gendered Southern woman performance of femininity. Something Heidi’s female birthperson said comes to mind, “It’s not as if you’re going your way and I’m going mine.” Why not? Who is recreating this “family,” who is “reuniting” this “mother and daughter”? Through whose eyes is the entire process negotiated? Who is the audience for this documentary? Back in Tennessee, Heidi talks to her grandmother. She seeks comfort in her grandmother’s home, leafing through photographs, looking through the fridge for food. Heidi’s grandmother urges her to re-visit Vietnam, to be open-minded about it. Heidi pushes back, “But you’re who I know.”

I am struck across the face by war. By North American imperialism. By the disparate qualities of life just in North America, and then in those places North America chooses to carpet-bomb. I am struck by Heidi’s presence, seeking her voice and agency in a film that cares little one way or the other, and only wants the drama, the shock-effect of an “adoption reunion”, to show a “culture clash,” of an ungrateful, “overly emotional” woman who has “suffered greatly.” I am sickened, distraught, worried about how people viewing this film will judge Heidi once again, while never truly understanding that they haven’t heard, seen, known Heidi. The people watching the film cannot know Heidi because the grotesque way in which the film is directed robs the audience of Heidi.

Directors Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco both need to be held accountable to the subjects whose stories they used. Like adoption agencies, they have silenced the voice of Heidi. The imperial eye of the camera used to film this documentary could have been re-examined and prevented if the staff and directors of the film had thought about the ways in which they are implicated in the process of the film. They also failed to talk about the ways in which countries around the world are more willing to sell their children rather than invest in viable social and welfare services and infrastructures. Once again, women and children are the last in line to receive what they are entitled to: safety, housing, food, and psychological as well as physical health.

Perhaps next time both Dolgin and Franco could do their homework and watch films by Trinh Thi Minh-ha, a Vietnamese woman, artist, and professor whose film, “Reassemblage: Living is Round” deals specifically with the complexities of the filmmaker’s implication in the work and art they create. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that as you measure something, you change its original state. That, by inserting a thermometer into a glass of water, you will change the temperature of the water. In this way, you will never know the actual temperature of the water. Such is the nature of poor, uncompassionate documentary filmmaking. And it is clear here that indeed, the filmmakers failed to acknowledge their own investment in the film, and in this lack of self-reflexivity, engaged in an emotional and psychological erasure of Heidi’s wholeness. They, of course, did not succeed.

(c) 2002 Soo Na is an artist, writer, and activist who is currently on leave from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts

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