When meeting with Vietnamese audiences, these are the five most frequently asked questions.
1. How did you get to the United States/what was it like to grow up here?
My Vietnamese birth mother gave me to a Catholic priest in Saigon for adoption by an American family. In April 1975, the US government launched Operation Babylift and several thousand children from infants to pre-adolescents were flown out to the United States, Europe and Australia for adoption. Some of these children were biracial and others like me were fully Vietnamese. I grew up in a white family and in a predominantly white community. I did not grow up with Vietnamese language, food, culture, or friends. As a teenager, I became obsessed with learning more about Vietnam, which in America in the 1980s primarily meant reading books and watching movies about the Vietnam War.
2. What was it like to go to Harvard?
I loved Harvard for many reasons, but an important one is that it enabled me to make some of my first Vietnamese friends. At the time, there were a few dozen Vietnamese undergraduates in the Harvard Vietnamese Association and they were very welcoming. I also had the opportunity to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) in Dorchester and to learn more about the Vietnamese refugee experience. Academically, I took the opportunity to take classes about Vietnam beyond the war, including history, economic development, and language (though sadly, I never became proficient). My academic advisor was Hue-Tam Ho Tai.
3. What was it like to go back to Vietnam?
Going to Vietnam was very important to me but before diplomatic relations with the US were normalized, there was not an easy way for me to go. One of the only ways to visit was on a student visa, so I enrolled as a student in Hanoi (the only place where foreign students were permitted). This gave me the opportunity to live in the country for several months with a lot of freedom to travel throughout the country. Because I had apprenticed with two well-known photographers, Chris Killip from the UK and David Goldblatt from South Africa, I also took the opportunity to document what I saw, which later became the raw material for my book, OTHER STREETS.
Emotionally, it felt more like a going to rather than a going back because I left before I was able to consciously remember Vietnam. And to be in a place—for the first time—where everyone kind of looked like me was exhilarating. However, as other Vietnamese Americans have pointed out, one feels very Vietnamese as a minority in America and one feels very American when one is in Vietnam.
4. Were you able to meet your birth family in Vietnam?
When I went to Vietnam, I did not seek out my birth family. Several years later, I did hear via letter from the daughter of my half-sister who had tracked me down. We exchanged letters and photographs for a period of time, but that tapered off. Through those exchanges, I learned some things about my birth family and the complicated situation at the end of the war that led to my being given up for adoption. I have considered taking a DNA test to see if I can find more relatives, some of whom may even be in the US.
5. What is the purpose of your book OTHER STREETS: Scenes from a Life in Vietnam?
The first is personal. I had all these wonderful images locked away and, as I was getting older and my children were getting more interested in my story, I wanted to create something from these images. The book was a gift first to me, and then to my family. It has been critically well received within the artistic and photographic communities, winning praise and awards. More than the awards, the most meaningful feedback has come from the Vietnamese community, which has been most personally moved by the book, oftentimes to tears. I would love for my work to reach more people within the Vietnamese community in America and maybe someday even in Vietnam.
The second is artistic. As Viet Thanh Nguyen points out in his book, Nothing Ever Dies, there is a a war machine that imposes on us a certain two-dimensional view of Vietnamese people as either villains or victims. One of the only ways that we can provide a counter-narrative is through the literary, visual and performing arts. The works that have been produced by the Vietnamese community over the past two decades didn’t exist when I was growing up and give a much more complete—and complicated and contradictory and human—representation of the Vietnamese people. It is my ambition that OTHER STREETS contributes to this assertion of community-defined Vietnamese identity and narrative.
Mark F. Erickson is the author of the photobook Other Streets: Scenes from a Life in Vietnam not Lived.