The following is reprinted on this blog with permission by AsiaTrend Magazine. It originally appeared in AsiaTrend Magazine’s June 2015 issue.
Born During the Vietnam War: An Operation Babylift Adoptee’s Story
By Jodi Katherine Kiely
Vietnam is not the war of my generation. It is, however, a war generations before mine have ensured won’t be forgotten. Growing up I read Tim O’Brien’s book “The Things They Carried” and watched the 1980s drama “China Beach” on TV. In school I studied the Tet Offensive and the Fall of Saigon, however, one event never made it into my history books: Operation Babylift, the U.S. government’s humanitarian effort to evacuate more than 3,000 Vietnamese orphans – many fathered by American servicemen and considered vulnerable – as Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) was about to fall to the Communist North.
Greg Maaswinkel was one of those children evacuated in that high profile mission of 1975. He came to the United States from Vietnam at nearly four years old.
As is common among international adoptees, Maaswinkel doesn’t know much about his early years. He knows his birth mother is Vietnamese and his estranged father an American GI named Gerald Green. He knows he was living in an orphanage prior to his evacuation but has heard from his biological mother – who he reunited with in his early 20s – several versions regarding what happened. One story is that his birth mother sent him to the orphanage with the intention of it being a temporary stay, however, Maaswinkel says he had been living there for years while his biological siblings stayed with their mother. Another story has his birth mother handing him to a nurse on a plane headed to the U.S. before collapsing on the tarmac in grief – an account he finds to be overdramatic. Then there is what he believes is the real story: his mother knew the North Vietnamese were going to take over the South and that the Americans were about to leave. Realizing that her half-white son would be at risk for retaliation by the North Vietnamese (in addition to the social stigma she faced having a half-American child), she sent him to the orphanage because she could not guarantee his safety. As Operation Babylift unfolded, Maaswinkel’s orphanage was evacuated, leading him to his adoptive family in Collegeville, Penn.
When he first met his adoptive parents at the Philadelphia International Airport, Maaswinkel spoke no English and they spoke no Vietnamese. But he tells me assimilation came easy, and as he grew up he overcompensated for his differences. “I became assimilated to the point that I wanted to disassociate myself from Asia,” he told me during our interview. “I went to a majority white school, and as far as others were concerned, if you were Asian you were Chinese. I resented that so much that I tried to deny my Asian background and went overboard by being sarcastic and condescending to other Asian kids.” Maaswinkel said it wasn’t until his early 20s, when he received a letter from his biological mother, that he began to accept his dual identity.
Maaswinkel was adopted through the Pearl S. Buck Foundation which at the time conducted closed adoptions, meaning birth parents had no contact with their children after adoption. When the foundation’s policy changed, Maaswinkel received a letter written to him by his birth mother, dated 18 years earlier. It contained pictures of her and him as a baby. That sparked a communication between the two that resulted in Maaswinkel sending his birth mother a FedEx informing her that he was going to Vietnam to meet her. When he arrived at the Ho Chi Minh City Airport, Maaswinkel was welcomed by a sea of locals waiting to receive travelers off the plane. As he scanned the crowd, a tiny hand rose above the mass and in it was his FedEx envelope. “I was feeling a whole gamut of emotions,” he recalls. “Upon seeing me, my mother jumped into my arms, wrapping her legs around me.”
Maaswinkel spent the next days getting to know his mother and siblings (a younger sister and brother and an older sister). He realized his birth mother, who he is still in touch with, feels genuine remorse about what happened, however, Maaswinkel struggles with conflicting emotions.
“Sometimes I think my mother gave me up because I wasn’t good enough for her to accept the risk and shame of having me in her life,” he admits. “I can’t help but feel that it was more important to her that she save face than protect me.” Then his logical side kicks in as he recalls the reality of those dangerous times. His mother’s decision may have saved his life.
Now a successful attorney and founder of Esquire Legal Group in Orlando, Maaswinkel, who is married with a family of his own, acknowledges his adoption was a good thing. “I have a loving and supportive adoptive family,” he says, “and had I stayed in Vietnam, I probably would have ended up dead or a criminal. I definitely have a better life because I was adopted.”
Jodi Katherine Kiely is a former Orlando resident now living and working in Washington, DC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.