Cao Thi My Kieu, from a Vietnamese perspective, is as African American as Oprah Winfrey or Mohammed Ali. But that’s where the comparison ends. From an American official’s perspective, Kieu is a visa reject who wasn’t able to legally establish a link to her African American father.
Kieu, whose birth name is Son Thi Kieu, lives with two of her children and her white Amerasian husband, Tran Van Thach. Her home is next to Dam Sen Park, located in the western part of Ho Chi Minh City and within walking distance of the now demolished Amerasian Transit Center. She claimed to be the daughter of an African-American US Army sergeant named James Alexander, who was stationed in Nha Trang from 1969 to 1970. With her dark hair of tight curls and stocky build, she certainly looks more African American than Vietnamese. Information about James is scant as Kieu’s mother destroyed all photos, documents and letters after the fall of Saigon for fear of persecution.
Kieu’s 68 year-old mother, Son Thi Ba, had worked as a bargirl in Nha Trang and it was there that she met her American lover in 1969. He persuaded her to stop working at the bar and rented an apartment for her. Son Thi Ba moved into the apartment with a son, Son Dung, and a daughter from two different US servicemen. Kieu was born in November 1969. Before James left Vietnam in 1970 he promised that he would return for Linh and the children. Unfortunately, he was never to return.
Kieu’s older sister died when she was young. Son Dung and Kieu grew up in poverty and suffered constant taunting and bullying from the local kids: they usually called her ‘Mỹ đen’, which translates as “black American”. Since the family was living in poverty, both siblings didn’t have much schooling or education and were put to work at a very young age. It was sometime in 1991 that a Vietnamese family surnamed ‘Cao’ approached Linh and offered to buy Kieu’s Amerasian identity in order to apply for a US visa under the Amerasian Program. Surprisingly, Linh refused to take any money but, instead, requested that the family take care of Kieu in the US should their application be approved.
Armed with fake documents, the Cao family applied for a visa at the US consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. However, the paperwork failed to convince the officials and the application was rejected despite the fact that, by appearance alone, Kieu would fit the ‘Amerasian facial features’ requirement. Her newly adopted family soon left her to fend for herself. It was during this time that Kieu met her husband, Tran Van Thach.
Since Kieu and Thach were both unsuccessful in their applications, they decided to start a life of their own. They moved into their shanty home with an older daughter from Kieu’s first marriage to a Vietnamese man and then had two children of their own. Their tiny home has barely enough floor space and the washing and bathing facilities are communal shared by at least 12 families. As both of them had no residential papers for the municipality of Ho Chi Minh City, they had to bribe local officials to obtain temporary residential papers so that their children could have access to education in the city.
Kieu was unable to hold back her tears as she recalled the discrimination she suffered as a child “The name calling and taunting was the worst.” she said. As an adult she had a hard time looking for work at restaurants, factories or offices because of her lack of education but especially because of her identity as an Amerasian with dark skin; such “undesirables” were perceived to be dirty and ugly due to their dark skin colour.
Kieu currently works as menial worker and barely makes an average of US$6 a day while her husband, Thach, sells steamed buns on a cart in the streets of Saigon but fares no better, earning barely US$10 on a good day.
Although Kieu’s oldest daughter got married and moved out of their home to make a home of her own, the couple’s combined meagre salaries are still barely enough to cover rent and expenses for themselves and their two remaining children. The relatively high cost of living and educational expenses for their 11 year-old daughter means that a monthly income of at least US$250 is needed to sustain the family. The family occasionally has to borrow money from loan sharks in order to make ends meet when they have a bad month.
Although her older brother, Son Dung, was more fortunate to have escaped Vietnam as one of the boat people some twenty years ago and settled in the United States, he was unable to bring Kieu to the US due to the different family name. He has since visited the family several times and has provided some financial assistance. Kieu hopes to eventually make it to the US so that she can secure a better future for her children and be nearer to her brother. She has always thought of America as ‘home’ and the birthplace of her father whom she eventually hopes to meet one day. Even though their applications for an Amerasian visa have been rejected several times over the past years, Kieu and Thach have not given up trying.
When asked what would be the first thing Kieu would say to her father if she were to be reunited with him again one day, she laughingly said, “I would ask him why he left us in Vietnam for so many years and then give him a big hug.”