In Last of the Annamese, I described the use of French instead of Vietnamese in Saigon orphanages. During my years in Vietnam, I volunteered to work in orphanages and was surprised to find that the nuns who managed them, all of whom were Vietnamese, spoke French among themselves and to the children. Moreover, they gave the children French names. Two children who appear prominently in the novel are Philippe and Angélique, both killed on 4 April 1975 in the crash of the C-5A Galaxy aircraft. That flight was the first of the Operation Babylift airlifts organized by President Ford to get orphans out of Vietnam before the south fell to the North Vietnamese.
Another feature of the orphanages was the nuns’ severity and what seemed to me like coldness in the way they dealt with the children. I saw little warmth and sympathy. The nuns spoke sharply to the children and demanded instant compliance with commands. As a result, I was all the more outgoing and friendly with the children, doing all I could to make them smile and laugh.
I concluded that the nuns’ use of French and their attitude toward the children derived from what they believed to be French common practice. The nuns shared with upper-class Vietnamese the belief that their native language was crude. The way they treated the children presumably came from their perception of French child-rearing practices. It was a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child attitude. I spent too little time with French families in both France and Vietnam to know if the nuns’ understanding was accurate. All I knew was that the orphans led bleak lives.
In the C-5A crash on 4 April 1975, 78 orphans died. I still grieve over the loss.