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30 Years Later, Immigrants Shed Vietnam War's Burdens

She learned German -- her adoptive mother's native language -- and took summer trips to Germany. Her master's degree is in Spanish from Middlebury College in Vermont, her father's alma mater. After school, she moved to Washington and landed a public relations job specializing in Latin American issues.

Only then did she begin thinking about Vietnam.


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)

"As you get older," she explained, "your history becomes more important."

Five years ago, Delahunt accepted an invitation to travel to Vietnam with a group of adoptees and officials from Holt International Children's Services, an Oregon adoption agency that placed many of the children from Operation Babylift.

This trip was dubbed a homecoming. It didn't feel that way.

After mastering two foreign languages, Delahunt thought she could learn a few Vietnamese phrases, but the unfamiliar tones overwhelmed her.

Everywhere, she saw young children. Some sold chewing gum; others held out empty plastic bowls.

Delahunt had seen poverty on trips to India and Chile, but this was different. "That could have been me," she said, shaking her head. "I could be in Vietnam on the streets right now."

What Delahunt found on her trip, she said, was a comfort with other Vietnamese Americans. After the trip, she attended a conference with other adoptees, and some became her close friends.

"For the first time in my life," she said, "I was with people who were like me."

A friend introduced her to Asian American LEAD, a nonprofit group in the District's Columbia Heights neighborhood serving disadvantaged immigrant families. Delahunt became a mentor and eventually, a member of its board of directors.

Almost every week, she meets with 15-year-old Man Pham, who immigrated with his family in 1997. He gives her advice on computers, and she helps him with his Spanish homework.

During the visits, Delahunt sometimes sees his parents, Minh Pham and Phuong Nguyen. Their exchanges are short and awkward because of the language barrier.

She is more comfortable with Man, who like her, thinks of Vietnam as only a part of himself. Once, when Man asked, Delahunt told him that she left as a baby and was adopted. His response: "Cool."


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