During my thirteen years of roaming around in South Vietnam during the war, I spent a good deal of time helping out in orphanages. From the late 1960s on, a growing proportion of the orphanage population was Amerasian children, fathered by American soldiers with Vietnamese women. These children were outcasts—welcomed neither by the Vietnamese nor the Americans. Even if they survived to adulthood, they would be shunned by the Vietnamese and treated as second class citizens at best.
These little kids broke my heart. They wore rags and barely had enough to eat because the orphanages were impoverished. And the nuns who took care of the children were invariably harsh.
The protagonist of my novel Last of the Annamese volunteers, like I did, to visit the children and play with them. The following is the text telling of one visit to an orphanage. What I have described is what happened to me on every visit:
Chuck rang the bell at the gate set into the white-washed walls of Cité Paul-Marie, where both the sisters and the orphans were Vietnamese but spoke French. Sœur Annette-Marie, in her bleached wimple and habit, admitted him to the courtyard. “Bon jour, bon ami.” As she led him down the walkway toward the center of the compound, a one-legged girl hobbled by on a crutch. The sister spoke sharply to her. The child responded with a raspy “Oui, ma sœur.”
Behind the chapel, they entered the children’s play yard. Here, in the spot furthest from the street and a possible grenade attack, were more than a dozen children, most Amerasian—fathered by American GIs with Vietnamese women. All had been brought here from the main orphanage in Gia Dinh, northeast of the city, or from Da Nang, where the orphan population was outgrowing the facilities. He could no more judge the children’s ages than he could those of the Vietnamese sisters. The Viets were the tiniest people he’d come across, and these kids, like the ones he’d seen in Da Nang seven years ago, had been malnourished to boot. Most were mutilated or crippled, their faces pinched, their limbs twisted. He looked from child to wiry child until his gaze settled on Philippe, the smallest of the boys, dressed in sun suit and zoris and squatting in the shade of the chapel wall.
Chuck hunkered and lifted the miniature brown chin. “Hi, Pipsqueak.”