Tam Biet, Em Be (an excerpt)

I have a reading this evening at Marylhurst University, and I’ve managed to whittle what had been a chapter down to two pages to read aloud:

Not one of the two dozen children who live at the baby orphanage come out to greet us when Jo and I ride in, ringing our bike bells in typical greeting. The buildings are eerily quiet. The play yard is empty. We park our bicycles in the shade of the fig tree that grows wide and heavy near the gates, then wait.

My children—Stuart and Audrey—are delivered by Mr. Hanh in his little Fiat, along with our interpreter Yen.

“Where are all the little ones?” I ask Yen as we walk through the barren play yard.

“They’re coming,” she assures us and slips off her shoes to enter the baby room. Stuart, Audrey and I follow. A few of the babies have been here for months, including Fat Baby, who quickly became a favorite with his eager grin, but a new baby shows up every other week or so. Today there is another: a tiny little girl born just yesterday. I ask Yen the birth date twice assuming the workers had misunderstood and were saying she had arrived at the orphanage yesterday. “No, born yesterday. Came here this morning.”

She still has that silky down of a newborn across the top of her ears. In the creases of her neck, the waxy residue of birth hasn’t been washed away. And her swollen eyelids open one at a time, unable to coordinate them.

“What happened to her mother?” Yen translates the question for me and the worker pantomimes tossing something off to the side as she answers in Vietnamese.

“She didn’t want the baby. Too young,” Yen tells me.

Lifting the mosquito net that covers the baby’s restless form, I carefully slide one hand beneath her neck and another under her rear then lift her to my chest. The workers watch me, smiling and one touches my shoulder. “Mẹ,” she say and pats the baby’s back. She smiles at Audrey sitting on the bed behind me and pats my shoulder. “Mẹ.”

I nod, smile and sway with the tiny baby. Would I take her if I could? I’m not sure how I could choose just one. How could I leave Fat Baby here? Or Lan who likes to snuggle on my lap and sing me songs in Vietnamese? If I took her, though, I’d have to bring along her brother Tu and sister Lieu. Then there’s still Audrey’s friend, Trinh and the Three Musketeers, a trio of kindergarten-age rabble-rousers who adore Stuart. There is no way to choose, no way to take them all, even though I would if I could. I’d take them and love them and give them all I had. The reality is that I can’t afford to adopt one, let alone a dozen. This time here is all I can give them.

From the play yard outside the baby room, I can hear the children running in and when I go to see what’s happening, they are lining up in two neat rows. Instead of the broken plastic shoes and mismatched, worn clothes they usually wear, each is wearing a pristine outfit with new shoes and socks. The girls line up, ruffles bumping into one another. They each wear sandals with white socks and against their umber skin the white is striking. All the boys are wearing long knit pants with matching t-shirts, sports socks and tennis shoes. They look nothing like we see them everyday. I’m not sure why until the government van pulls up to the front of the orphanage.

I look at Yen whose joined me just outside the baby room. “An adoption?”

“Yes, Hung and Mai are going to America.”

“Really? Together?” They aren’t sisters, so it surprises me that a family would take both.

Yen nods and turns back to watch as the Vietnamese officials climb out of the van and welcome the Caucasian couple to the Quang Nam Baby Orphanage. They are tall and blonde, a full head taller than their hosts. With wide-open eyes, they are silently brought up the stairs and onto the landing above the play area where the children are all still perfectly lined up with the half-dozen workers standing behind them. From across the way I can hear the government official struggling in English, but I can’t quite understand him. He has a broad salesman grin as he shows off the children. One of the workers, in a crisp white uniform, brings Mai and Hung forward to meet their new parents.

I’m still holding the baby girl, still swaying, as I watch the Western woman. Her face brightens into a smile as she kneels to bring the girls into her arms. Her long, blonde hair drapes over the cropped black hair of Mai. Both young girls stand stiff.

Rocking the baby, the clean smell of a newborn filling my air, the memory of my own children’s births overwhelm me. I remember the moment 14 years ago that Stuart, red from crying his way into the world, was handed to me, a young idealistic 22-year-old—the instant I realized that I was a mother. The memories flood me and I wonder if this American mother feels the same as she embraces 8-year-old Mai in one arm and 7-year-old Hung in the other. I cry tears of joy for her, for her husband standing awkwardly beside her, and for their new ‘parent’ status. Then I notice the workers, wiping away tears, too.

The girls have been at the orphanage for several years now. They call the workers “Mẹ,” mother in Vietnamese. They will be missed in the days, months and years to come. Everyone knows they won’t be coming back to visit and it’s a bittersweet farewell. In America, Mai and Hung will have their own clothes. They will have soft blankets and they won’t have to survive on rice porridge and fruit. They will go to school. They will have a family. And yet, as they head off to more prosperous lands, they will leave behind their friends, their culture, their language, and the women who loved them the best they could.

an orphanage mother with a new infant and Fat Baby

2 comments on “Tam Biet, Em Be (an excerpt)
  1. lisa bara says:

    Teresa You gave me goose bumps with this excerpt as it caused me to remember standing in the orphange in zhuzhou (PRC) on a hot august day in 1996 as i was handed an 8 month old baby girl who is now my 14 year old daughter–how overwhelmed i felt. Again in 1999 in Thai Nguyen at a small store where i met my then 3 month old daughter, watching the foster mother filled with grief as we drove away. And for the last time in 2005 in Changchun where a wise beyond her years 3 year old joined the clan. Thanks for that.