A Vietnamese adoptee returns to Vietnam twice, but finds the real rewards working in Rwanda
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 10, 2010 - Dan Bischoff got his first real look at Vietnam on the bumpy bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City Airport to his hotel. He saw swarms of motor scooters zipping around, felt the heavy heat, heard a blanket of noise as the city unfolded around him. It felt uncomfortable -- all that chaos -- but something else pulled at his thoughts.
It happened moments before in the customs line at the airport.
In front of him, Bischoff watched fellow Americans get their passports stamped by the mean-looking customs official dressed in a soldier's uniform.
Intimidating, he thought.
Then, he stepped up and presented his passport. The official slipped a piece of paper in, stamped it and handed the passport back. What's he doing, Bischoff thought? On the ride to his hotel, he asked the bus driver, who explained. Inside Bischoff's dark blue U.S. passport, there is a line that reads: Place of birth. Next to that line -- Vietnam.
In 1997, after 23 years away, a lifetime of wondering and trying to understand where he came from and who he was, Bischoff was finally back in Vietnam. He wanted to see it for himself.
He'd grown up with a white, American family, attended public and private schools in St. Louis, graduated from college with a journalism degree, worked and dated and partied like any 24-year-old.
But in subtle and strong ways, he often felt he didn't quite fit.
If you're from here, the bus driver explained, they won't stamp your passport. They'll take that piece of paper out when you leave.
It was a small thing, just a stamp. But Bischoff realized that when he left, he'd have no proof in his passport that he'd ever visited Vietnam.
ST. LOUIS, APRIL 1973
Richard and Anne Bischoff wanted one more child. They already had two boys and a girl, and after watching and opposing the Vietnam War, the opportunity to make something good out of something bad presented itself.
The Bischoffs had already donated money to Friends for All Children, a Colorado-based organization, when they realized the group also facilitated adoptions in Vietnam. They signed up. After a home study, two years passed.
Some families who were adopting had photos of the children they'd soon care for. The Bischoffs never did.
Then, in April of 1975, Anne Bischoff got a call at work. "We have a boy for you," the woman from FFAC said. "Do you want him?"
A few days later, the family went to Lambert St. Louis airport to meet Tran Mong Viet, whom they'd name Dan.
A few other adoptees were on the plane, and she remembers another passenger complementing the sweet babies.
"'Oh, they were so good,'" the woman told Bischoff. "'They never cried.'"
"But of course," she says now, "we realized later that that's not good."
In the beginning, Anne Bischoff wouldn't take photos of the little boy. He was tiny for a 1-year-old, dehydrated, with blisters on his lips. He was quiet, she noticed right away, which didn't seem right. He had big, watchful eyes.
A few weeks passed before he started crying.
His mother thinks it took that long for him to realize that when he did cry, someone would be there.
ST. LOUIS, FEBRUARY 1978
Rebecca Bischoff was just 3 when Dan came into her life. But she remembers from the beginning how he was cherished. And because he'd been sick when he first joined the family, he received an extra layer of care and concern. Then, in February 1978, the Bischoff family got a letter.
In April of 1975, a plane evacuating 228 of our children from Viet Nam crashed. Seventy eight of the children and six staff were killed. One hundred and fifty children survived. Your child was one of the surviving children.
After much thought, Rosemary Taylor and I decided that we should take legal steps to protect the interests of the surviving children ... After almost three years, the despair we felt over the loss of children and staff is undiminished. So, too, we retain a concern for the surviving children and the physical injuries or emotional trauma they suffered. During the exhausting months following the evacuation from Viet Nam, we had little time to research the effects of the crash on the children who survived it. We have, we feel, preserved your child's right to claim compensation for any physical or emotional damage that they may have suffered in the crash..."
The letter from the Colorado headquarters of Friends for All Children wasn't the first the Bischoffs had heard of the crash, but it was the first time they realized Dan, now 4, had been on that flight.
They felt shock, anger, concern for their quiet little boy.
For four years, the Bischoffs traveled regularly to Washington, D.C., along with other adoptee families, seeing doctors, meeting with lawyers, testifying in trials and before Congress.
Among the evidence against both Lockheed, which made the C5 Galaxy, and the government -- the rear doors of that exact plane had blown off a total of 17 times before blowing off again on April 4 during the first Operation Babylift flight.
There was also a comment in the cockpit just before take off. "We're up at 370 and we have a rapid decompression, ah we're gonna lose someone."
When those doors blew off on April 4, a rapid decompression caused loss of oxygen. The babies all passed out. The plane crashed.
The survivors who had no physical scars were sent to their new families.
As the children grew, the possibility became a probability that many of the children had suffered "minimal brain damage," or MBD, due to loss of oxygen.
Dan was between 6 and 10 at time. Mostly, he remembers hating the trips because they took him away from his friends at school. He understood, as he had for a while, that he was adopted from a place called Vietnam, that he'd been in a plane crash and so had some other kids.
All of those things added to the persistent feeling that he stood out when all he wanted was to fit in.
ST. LOUIS, 1980s TO THE PRESENT
Throughout his life, Bischoff has had moment upon moment where he fits -- daily life with his quiet, thoughtful parents, growing up with his three siblings, holidays and vacations.
But he's had other moments that send him a different message.
He's at the Ground Round as a child with his family, and when the hostess seats them, she turns her back before he joins them. He remains standing, unsure, until his sister returns to get him.
He's called "chop suey boy" in grade school and instead of lashing back with an insult of his own, Bischoff is thoughtful.
Hmmm, they're thinking of me as Chinese. Interesting.
Around 5th or 6th grade, his sister remembers realizing that they'd have to explain he was adopted when she introduced him as her brother. She also remembers that her mom put a lot of effort into keeping in touch with other adoptee families in the area.
Dan goes on picnics and vacations with his family and other Babylift adoptees and finds people with different lives but similar feelings about their identity.
During college, he's working as an editorial intern at a magazine in Chicago in a predominantly white office. One day, after a meeting, a black co-worker pulls him aside and says, "You gotta remember, you're not white."
He sees an article around that time about transracial adoption between white parents and black children. The article talks about disadvantages the children face because their parents don't know how to teach them about safeguards against subtle racism. What are those safeguards? he finds himself thinking. I want to know.
He goes into a job interview after talking with a person on the phone. When the person sees him, there is surprise.
"You don't look like a Bischoff."
At 6 feet, 1 inch, he doesn't look like many other Amerasians, either.
"Sometimes I wish I was short," he says. "It's so uncomfortable."
He meets a Vietnam vet. The first thing the man says to him is "Oh, I dropped bombs on your country."
Throughout his life, he's felt loved, he's had a family and friends and community. But he's also had questions and vagueness and doubt. And often, the two work against each other.
"You know we're supposed to feel fortunate and thankful all the time," he says, "and then there's guilt if we don't feel that way."
According to the Child Welfare League of America, the United States had 250,000 international adoptions over the last 30 years.
"I think that things have changed as far as trying to really embrace the culture of the adoptive child," says Rebecca Bischoff, who now lives in San Francisco. "It's really important for families, and I think when Dan was growing up, the idea was that it was better to embrace that there really wasn't much of a difference."
When Bischoff and the other Babylift adoptees were adopted, many were welcomed into families, loved, cared for, made to feel the same.
"I think the agencies didn't really stress race and identity and how you need to still include where they're coming from," says Nicky Losse, Vietnam program director and Ethiopia adoption consultant with Children's Hope International in St. Louis.
Now, families are almost inundated with that information and are required to take 10 hours of education, including focusing on race, through the Hauge adoption process.
There are culture camps and whole sub-cultures springing up among adopted children from certain countries. It's too soon to know what difference that will make for the children who are still young, Losse says, but already, she has parents contacting her about taking their young adopted children on tours of the countries where they were born.
But the children adopted from Vietnam at that time weren't coming from a normal situation, says Dan's father, Richard Bischoff. It was war. It was survival.
Those things, more than race or culture or anything, are central to some of her brother's struggles, Rebecca Bischoff thinks. He's had not only to figure out where he came from, but to separate that from a history that most people know, to make it personal.
"My feeling about Dan is throughout his life he's been more impacted because of the fact that he was born during a war than because of cross-race or cross-cultural differences," she says.
Sister Mary Nelle Gage worked at New Haven orphanage in Vietnam and has kept in touch with many adoptees since. All of them have their own feelings about identity.
"There are some for whom it's not so important," she says. "There are others, it's an unimaginable wrenching that they seem to go through in terms of trying to figure out what happened."
ST. LOUIS/VIETNAM, 2000
Throughout his 20s, Bischoff digs hard into the facts of the C5 Galaxy crash. He meticulously compiles files, digs through Air Force base records, meets the pilot aboard the crash that day.
On Feb. 8, 2000, he gets a reply from Rosemary Taylor, the Australian who started the orphanages that many of the Babylift adoptees came out of.
I was delighted to receive your letter and photo yesterday. Thank you so much for sharing your news with me. Until now I have known so little about you.
You came into our custody in the last days. I don't even have an exact date. It was probably To Am Nursery & I don't have a copy of their register. In those last days they would send me notes about new arrivals, but we all had ten thousand tasks & anxieties to cope with & action had priority over record keeping at the time. I tried to update & piece together the records in the following months. In my records I have your name as Mong Viet. It is possible that this was your original name & birthdate, 1 Feb. 1974..."
But what matters most is not the past, but the present. I am happy to learn that you have such a wonderful family. This makes such a difference in life: it will be an ongoing source of strength to you ..."
In 2000, Bischoff returns to Vietnam for the second time with a group of other adoptees for the 25th anniversary of the crash.
Gage was on that trip and got to know a little about Bischoff then.
"I found such a fine and sensitive young man on that trip," says Gage, now in Denver. "That's the core of the person that struck me when we were together on the journey back to Vietnam, how self-effacing he is and wanting to make sure that those around him are cared for."
On the trip, Bischoff visits orphanages, meets orphans and is followed around by an Associated Press reporter who writes about the trip, including the day they return to the crash site on the 25th anniversary and release balloons into the air.
"One by one, the balloons were released into the sky, each bearing the name of a baby that died," Tini Tran wrote on April 4, 2000. "Into the small clearing where a cargo plane evacuating Vietnamese orphans smashed into pieces 25 years ago, four survivors stepped forward Tuesday to clasp hands and pray..."
Bischoff stands in that circle, feeling uncomfortable. He didn't know the return to the crash site would be so public.
He stands there wishing he had time to absorb everything alone.
ST. LOUIS, 2010
Off and on with jobs and cities and interests, Bischoff leaves for Rwanda in 2008. There, he spends a year teaching with World Teach.
It's hot, he's constantly broke, he gets malaria. Those parts weren't great, but he loved his time there.
In the fall of 2009, he comes home early for the St. Louis premiere of "Operation Babylift," a documentary about the orphans of the Vietnam War. He's in it, as are his friends, the nuns, the lawyers.
Bischoff walks from his parents' University City home with his family to the Tivoli, excited, nervous, unprepared to switch from thinking about Rwanda to thinking about Vietnam again.
In December, he starts talking with the St. Louis Beacon for this project, hoping to get through the holidays as his culture shock wears off, hoping to go back to Rwanda again.
"I have no idea," he says then about finding more work in Rwanda. "I'm so lost right now."
Over the next few months, he shares scores of research, photos, contacts with others who have some role in Operation Babylift.
Then, one night after meeting to look at photos from his trips back to Vietnam, he sends this e-mail. Part of it has been used with his permission.
"Besides bits and pieces, my life pre-Bischoff family is such a huge question mark, it is scary to think about all the possibilities and scenarios ... truths, half-truths, even flat out lies. I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist, but I definitely have moments where I think it's all just bullshit. All of it. And even if it is, does it matter? Does that change who I am right now, today? I have no working memory of when I was a baby in Vietnam, or of the plane crash ... so what if none of that ever happened?! Would it matter? Does it matter? I don't know. I don't think it changes much ..."
He ends the e-mail saying he hopes he doesn't sound nutty, just human.
Bischoff's still hoping to make it back to Africa.
For now, he has no plans of returning to Vietnam.