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The return of the Vietnamese adoptee

“I am a product of the Vietnam War,” Suzanne tells VnExpress. “I was the daughter of a Vietnamese woman and a black American soldier.”

Found in a bush by a police officer, the girl was sent to the nearest orphanage. “The orphanage gave me a name and a birthday. The name they gave me was Thi Hien. The birthday they gave me was March 26.”

Thi Hien’s birth story is recorded in a letter written by Maragret Routh, an English nurse at her orphanage, to her adopted parents, Barbara and Murray Hook.  

In the letter dated June 6, 1971, Routh wrote that the two-year old Thi Hien suffered malnutrition, could not lift her head off the pillow or sit properly.

Mixed raced babies, especially babies of Vietnamese women and American soldiers, were not looked after very well at the orphanage and usually got food last, according to the nurse.

Thi Hien, born on March 26, 1969 when she was three at a Saigon orphanage. Photo courtesy of Suzanne. 

Thi Hien at three in a Saigon orphanage. Photo courtesy of Suzanne 

Thi Hien was among the adoptees to leave Vietnam and arrived in England. Her name was changed into Suzanne Thi Hien Hook.

“Many children were abandoned, and many children did not survive the war. So I am very lucky to have done that and lucky to come out healthy.”  

There are no accurate records for Vietnamese – American children born during the war. Figures from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement show 30,000 Vietnamese were settled as the children of American soldiers and officers. The Amerasian Fellowship Association, an organization for Amerasian rights, estimates over 1,000 illegitimate children remained in Vietnam.

“The devil child”

Suzanne Thi Hien Hook 6 months after the day she came to England. Photo courtesy of Suzanne

Suzanne Thi Hien Hook 6 months after the day she came to England. Photo courtesy of Suzanne

One September morning Suzanne waited for me in a white gown and dark red hair at a Saigon café. On the table, an ashtray had three cigarette butts and one that was half burned. A waitress brought out water and tried to take away the ashtray, but Suzanne stopped her. “I need to use it.” In three hours she finished a pack.

Most people think adoptees enjoyed happy lives abroad, but Suzanne did not.  

“To me, adoption is like a lottery. Sometime you get the golden ticket, you get loving adopted parents, and then you get a bad lottery ticket.

“Sadly for me, my adopted parents weren’t very good people.”

Barbara Hook was a housewife and Murray Hook was a ground staff at Heathrow International Airport. They had strong religious beliefs. Before deciding to adopt a Vietnamese girl, the couple had a daughter together. The Hooks lived in a low-income all-white neighborhood in Hayes town, west of London.

Suzanne’s adoptive parents would rarely mention Vietnam. The only times they would refer to the distant country were when they ranted at or hit their daughter.

They would be hurtful: “Your Vietnamese mother didn’t want you. Vietnamese nurses didn’t want you because you are mixed race, because your dad is black and your mother is Vietnamese. You’re ugly. Nobody wants you.”

Hands trembling and taking a deep breath, Suzanne recalls a childhood of physical and mental abuse by her parents.

Suzanne Thi Hien Hook in the suburb of London in 1994. Photo courtesy of Suzanne. 

Suzanne Thi Hien Hook in a suburb of London in 1994. Photo courtesy of Suzanne. 

One day, when she was in grade 3, Suzanne showed her mother an A in her English test, and for the first time saw her happy. For a month straight Suzanne came home every day with high grades.

But at a parents’ meeting soon after, her mom found out all the A’s were a lie.

“I knew she would find out sooner or later, but I still did it to make her happy. If she was happy, I was happy too.” Suzanne presses her fingers against the corner of her eyes to stop the tears from falling.

Returning home, Barbara pulled Suzanne out of her bedroom down to the kitchen where she hit and cursed her as “the devil child.” That night, the 11-year-old girl cried in the basement and went to sleep on an empty stomach.

“She would call me Suzanne at the church in front of everybody. But when I was at home, I was called the devil child.”

Her mother would often vent her anger on her without a reason.

Suzanne moved out of her house at 18. She spent three years learning cooking before earning her way up from chef assistant to a chef on cruise ship. After working for 13 years Suzanne went to college and then opened a beauty services company.

She became a successful businesswoman and married a good man. But her mother never acknowledged her efforts.

“I’m 49 and I still call myself ugly.”

Suzanne leaves to wipe away her tears. She does not want to cry in front of an audience.

Finding her mother

Suzanne Thi Hien Hook in HCMC. Photo by Hanh Pham 

Suzanne Thi Hien Hook in HCMC. Photo by Hanh Pham 

In Suzanne’s mind, “Vietnam” was associated only with beatings, and so she always avoided seeing herself as Vietnamese. Whenever someone asked, she just quickly answered she was American – Vietnamese. Even her close friends are unaware of her full name.

But she realizes there is a void in her life after growing up wondering why she was abandoned and then hated by her adoptive parents.

“I need to have an identity, I need to know where I came from, I need to know who I am, I’d like to know who I look like.”

When she came to Vietnam for the first time in 2006 Suzanne thought Vietnamese would look like her with curly hair and dark skin. After two weeks in Saigon she realized she was completely wrong.

“I realize I don’t look Vietnamese. I don’t belong to anywhere.”

The hole in her identity caused a further longing in her to trace her Vietnamese origins and sparked off a journey to find her birth mother.

“When I was in Vietnam, it was the time I felt the happiest,” she says to explain her decision to return to Vietnam in 2007, when she spent the year helping orphans in Saigon.

“I was shocked to see how many orphans there were and how big the poverty divide was. I don’t know how to explain it, but I felt a responsibility to those children. I had to help them.”

After a year in Vietnam she returned to England but her worldview was never the same again.

All of a sudden, her first-class flights, 300 pairs of shoes, her Mercedes car, and shopping trips in Paris all became meaningless.

“My heart had stayed in Vietnam.”

Selling all her properties and splitting up with her husband, she returned to Vietnam in 2010 with a suitcase and a vague idea of setting up an orphanage.

“Because my childhood was not happy, I want to make some orphans here happy.”

Since its establishment, Allambie has become a home for 12 orphans. Suzanne covers the children’s meals and school fees and also tries to address their emotional well-being.

“My mother never hugged me. Every day I hug them, I tell them I love them and they are beautiful because I don’t want another child to go through what I went through.”

Suzanne only thought about herself after putting all her money and energy into the orphanage.

In 2013, she decided to send a DNA sample to Family Tree DNA, a U.S. testing center, which confirmed she was 40 percent Vietnamese and 60 percent black.

But a more important piece of information arrived later: that there was a high possibility she was biologically connected with Tran Ngoc Thanh living at 45 Nguyen Hue Street, Dong Ha City, Quang Tri Province.

The hope was lit, but for the last five years Suzanne has not been able to find this person.  

“When you do a DNA test, you are opening up a Pandora’s box; you have to understand, you have to accept, that you may not get the happy ending,” she slowly says and stubs the last cigarette in the ashtray.

“I’m either a lovechild or I’m a product of rape. But I’d still like to know.”

“Even if I don’t have a relationship with my birth mother, I would just want to sit down and say ‘thank you’ to her.”

If readers have information about Suzanne Thi Hien Hook’s biological mother, please contact her at the Allambie Orphanage at https://www.facebook.com/allambieorphanage.vietnam or send an email to info@allambie.co.uk

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