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30 Years Later, Immigrants Shed Vietnam War's Burdens

By Phuong Ly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page A01

On humid Washington days, after thunderstorms churn up the smell of fresh earth, Sandy Hoa Dang remembers the war. When the bombs fell on Hanoi, she was a little girl, cowering with her family in a hole in the ground.

Hundreds of miles away, as victorious North Vietnamese soldiers stormed a beach town near Saigon, 5-year-old Phuong Nguyen's mother stashed her in a concrete cistern. Her fair, freckled face and uplifted nose were evidence: Her father was an American.

Sandy Hoa Dang, second from left, cheers during her Asian American community group's spring celebration. From left, Jessica Valencia, Debbie Huynh and Miriam Cabieses look on. (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

Kara Mai Delahunt, an infant then, was buckled into a seat of a 747 on one of the rushed flights that brought more than 2,000 orphans to the United States. Her new parents discovered that their child reacted strangely in their arms. She stiffened. She was not used to being held.

Thirty years have passed since Saigon fell April 30, 1975, time enough for these three women and a generation of Vietnamese Americans to come of age. Thirty is now the median age of the 1.2 million people of Vietnamese heritage living in the United States. Thirty is young enough to be haunted by Vietnam, old enough to have created new lives.

The war brought the three women to the United States under starkly different circumstances: one as a baby adopted into a Massachusetts home; another as a teenager escaping with her family on a fishing boat; the third as a mother granted a chance to immigrate because of her American blood.

They are connected by the past they left and the lives they lead here: Dang is the founder of a social services organization in Washington for immigrant families, Nguyen is a client there and Delahunt is a volunteer mentor for Nguyen's teenage son.

Yet in their own way, they are defying the war's hold on their identity.

A Sought-Out Heritage

"Lovely with rosy and chubby cheeks," was how the adoption papers described Nguyen Mai Tai Trang, abandoned by her mother two days after her birth in a Saigon hospital.

She is now Kara Mai Delahunt, and the description is still apt. Even after a long day of work at a downtown Washington public relations company, she is poised and polished -- hair in a neat bun, makeup fresh and clothes professional. She has recently returned from a seven-month business trip to Madrid. Tucked in her black purse is a travel book on Peru, her next destination.

She sometimes wonders, though, what price was paid for this life.

"My mom would always say, 'Say a prayer for your birth mother,' " said Delahunt, 30. "I was always told that she loved me so much and cared for me so much that she was willing to give me up."

Delahunt arrived as part of Operation Babylift, conducted in the frantic weeks before North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon. The U.S. government commissioned jetliners to ferry hundreds of orphans to new homes here. Some Vietnamese parents, learning of the flights, left children at hospitals and orphanages. Advocates called it a humanitarian effort, and critics decried it as ripping children from their homeland.

Delahunt was adopted by Kati and William D. Delahunt, now a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. The couple tried to make their new daughter comfortable with her heritage, taking her to Lunar New Year events, buying her Asian dolls, introducing to her to another adopted Vietnamese girl, hopeful that the two would become friends.

She resisted. "The Vietnam War to me is exactly that -- it's history," she said. "I just wanted to be American."

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