Adoptee stories shared through film

On Monday, April 4, students gathered in Regents Hall 210 for a screening of the film Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam, an award-winning documen- tary by Tammy Nguyen Lee. The Departments of Asian Conversation, Asian Studies, Race and Ethnic Studies and Teaching Race and Family all co-sponsored the event. The screening was followed by a Q&A session with Associate Professor of Communication at Pepperdine University Bert Ballard, who is prominently featured in the documen- tary and served as film consultant. The documentary describes the events of Operation Babylift, which was a U.S. military operation aimed at evacuating over 3,000 Vietnamese orphans just before the end of the Fall of Saigon, from April 3-26, 1976. Beginning with the voices of Vietnamese adoptees expressing their feelings, the documentary moves to the narration of American volunteers in the Babylift. The film then shifts to the Vietnamese adoptees’ lives in the United States. Some adoptees feel compelled to return to Vietnam to find birth moms, volunteer to teach English in Vietnam, or adopt a Vietnamese child.

The driving force of the documentary is not the histori- cal facts but the individual voices of those affected. Their experiences speak to the complex problems of internal psychology, racism, social judgment and political conflicts that followed these adoptees as they grew into adulthood.

One of the stories that most attracted students’ attention was the story of the Ballards’ quest to adopt a Vietnamese child in the present day. The process lasted for three years and was complicated when the U.S. government ended Vietnamese adoptions over allegations of baby selling, bribery and false documents. In July 2008, the couple moved to Canada and started the process again. In 2010, they adopted Jayden from an orphanage in Vietnam.

Following the screening, Ballard answered questions about what it was like growing up as a Vietnamese adoptee and the process of adopting a Vietnamese child, focusing on the consequences of growing up without knowing his origin and often feeling smothered by the whiteness of the community.

Ballard acknowledged the complexity surrounding the issue of transnational adoption. He said that when he was growing up a lot of people accused him of ungratefulness if he expressed any ambiguity about Operation Babylift.

“I feel both grateful and angry – blessed for the oppor- tunitues and sad that I don’t know my birth mom,” Ballard said. He pointed out that Operation Babylift was mainly a PR stunt to make the U.S. look better after losing the war.

The event attracted about 40 students. Ballard hopes that the movie will enhance St. Olaf’s understanding of the con- sequences of this little known period of American history.