After being uprooted from South Vietnam for adoption as a baby, Kevin Mihn Allen has come to understand “home” as someplace you will eventually leave.
Back in December 1973, when I was supposedly born, my “home”, Sài Gòn, South Vietnam, was slowly collapsing under the weight of war. I have no documentation of my parentage, although word was my mother was Vietnamese and my father was an American. Of course, I don’t remember anything from that time because at around 6 months old I was on a plane being transported to Springfield, Missouri to be adopted by a married couple. I don’t know who they were and don’t remember what they looked like because as soon as I arrived they separated and, as a result, I was shuttled to a foster home in Colorado. A couple months later in November 1974, I was flown to Rochester, NY to be adopted by another married couple.
That was a lot of travel for a not-yet-one-year-old boy. And, in a peculiar way, I think I’m still trying to recover from it.
For simple survival, I learned that “home” was where I was supposed to be at a certain hour of the day in order to be fed, to sleep and to seek shelter from the outside elements. As a child, “home” was the address that my parents had me memorize in case I ever got lost or, more mundanely, whenever I needed to fill out forms at school. “Home” as an identity or a place where I could plant my proverbial flag and finally declare mine was never a claim I could make. I could never shake the feeling that I was stateless, rootless, even rudderless, despite the new paperwork that certified I was a U.S. citizen.
My conception originated in a nation that no longer exists and in a war which was never fully acknowledged, nor honestly discussed, in my presence. The message of the day concerning my history was to forget it and move on. My role was to play the blank slate for my parents, my extended family, my community and my adopted country to write on and draw in whatever they believed was best for me.
But, for as long as I can remember I struggled to find my place and also refused “to know my place”. As soon as kindergarten started, I was getting bullied and called “Bruce Lee”, which firmly established in my developing sense of self that I was a Brown body stuck in an overwhelmingly White body politic.
Whenever I needed an escape from the daily reminders of my foreignness and outsider-dom, I walked to my favorite climbing tree and straddled a sturdy branch like a napping jaguar or skulked around under the thick cover of the old orchard across the street where I spent time hitting mushy browning apples with a stick. It was during these times of respite and release of deep hurt when I transported my young self back to my mythical birth parents to have brief, or long, conversations with them to let them know that I was okay. But, that I really hated this place I was supposed to call “home”.
I have always felt myself detaching, uprooting myself and wandering, whenever the mood suited me or when life events became too overbearing and stressful. No matter how often others tried convincing me to come back to them or no matter how hard I tried to suppress my nomadic nature and wanted simply to be “normal” and “grounded”, I wished to be somewhere else where I would be left alone and not be bothered.
These inner migrations haven’t hindered me from connecting with other people, sharing my love with others or spending fun times with others. They have been some of the most wonderful times in my life. But, I always come back down to earth afterwards, knowing that these relationships are transitory and that either I or they will undoubtedly have to move on. People who have tried to make a “home” with me eventually figure out that I will leave, unannounced, more and more often until my absence becomes the only thing they see.
When I’m talking to strangers or new friends I’m getting to know and it comes out that I was adopted, they usually ask me whether I have ever thought of going back to visit Vietnam and searching for my parents. That’s when I chuckle and then stifle an outright guffaw and then casually answer, “Someday, maybe.” I don’t wish to concern them with the depressing thought that when you’re given nothing, but seemingly handed everything, it begs the question why you would go on a search to try and find something that isn’t there waiting for you. Perhaps this is just a rationalization I’ve developed to protect myself from the unknown and to spare my sanity from utter disappointment if I ever do decide to search but come up empty handed.
But, I try to have no illusions. Vietnam is not “home” for me. Those three long flights at the start of my infancy and the almost four decades that have passed have pretty much guaranteed that I will feel little connection to my place of birth. But, I also never adopted that suburban town in which I grew up as “home” either and the city in which I currently reside is also not truly “home” for me. In fact, I am suspicious of having to settle on any firm definition or concept of “home”. I think it could be a place outside yourself or it could be you all along; it could be a person you have always taken comfort in or it could be a memory of a place or time in which you once experienced the greatest joy.
So, for right now, I will gladly call “home” the place where I am currently choosing to stay, knowing that, eventually, it is the place I will need to leave.