A Styrofoam container, a can of soda and a white plastic bag forever changed the way Jared Rehberg looked at himself. It was 2004, and Rehberg had just moved to New York to work at ImaginAsian TV, an Asian-American television network. Like his coworkers, he often went out to buy lunch. One afternoon, he came back with his meal, and a woman in his office stood up and approached him.
“She asked, ‘Is that my food? How much do I owe you?’” recalled Rehberg.
Rehberg’s friends were more incensed than he was about his colleague’s mistaking him for a deliveryman, he said. But for the 40-year-old marketing manager at Besen & Associates who grew up in Northborough, Massachusetts, a mostly-white enclave in Worcester County, the incident was a clarion call to learn what it meant to be Asian in America, and what it means to be a Vietnamese-American adoptee.
Rehberg was one of more than 3,300 Vietnamese children who were part of 1975's Operation Babylift, which sent orphans from war-torn Vietnam to western families in Europe, Australia and the United States. While touted as a humanitarian campaign, the operation had its critics, who alleged that the US-led effort was a public relations stunt designed to re-brand America’s sullied image after a protracted war.
Questions also emerged about whether many of the orphans were really orphans at all, or children unwillingly plucked from the homes of Vietnamese families, who felt forced to relinquish them.
Rehberg was one of 219 children placed on a US-bound flight from Saigon.
“There were no documents, no nothing,” he said. “Our names were all made up as we got on the plane to get us out of there.”
Rehberg's adoptive parents, who were white, picked up their son in York, Pennsylvania, and moved briefly to upstate New York, before ultimately settling in Northborough in 1979. Throughout his childhood, Rehberg said he was mostly “immune to racism and bad memories,” devoting much of his time to playing music and sports and performing in school plays.
His friends accepted him, Rehberg said, and the Vietnamese adoptee who was short for his age and liked to wear a rainbow-colored jacket was all but certain he was white, just like most of Northborough.
“I liked being treated the way I was,” said Rehberg, whose younger brother is a Korean adoptee and whose older sister, adopted from Philadelphia, is half black and half white.
“I would love to sit down and say, ‘Thanks for making me, and thanks for letting me go.’”
But New York City, where Rehberg moved as a young adult, was not Northborough. He encountered entrenched Asian stereotypes, and found it hard to make friends who were not Asian.
Rather than deny his heritage, Rehberg said he embraced it, performing at open-mic sessions in Chinatown, learning more about Asian-American history, and parlaying his love of music into teachable moments for himself and, later, for younger Vietnamese adoptees.
“After 2004, I continued my volunteer work in the adoption community, and that’s when I realized I was not really Asian American either,” said Rehberg, who writes songs that he performs at Vietnamese adoptee camps, including one held each summer in Estes Park, Colorado. “I am a Vietnamese adoptee, and that is what I carry today.”
Kali Hauck, a 16-year-old Vietnamese adoptee in Colorado, is one beneficiary of Rehberg’s experiences. Adopted in 1999, Hauck recalls a childhood not nearly as idyllic as Rehberg’s. Beginning in kindergarten, kids teased Hauck about her height -- a result of her premature birth -– and bullied her at the playground, she said.
Looking back, she said it taught her a lot.
“I’m actually glad I was bullied because it made me have some of my values and made me more mature at a younger age,” said Hauck, who attends Fairview High School in Boulder.
With only a handful of Asians living in her community, Hauck said she managed to make and maintain connections with fellow adoptees through the same Vietnamese adoptee camp Rehberg attends each year. In 2012, Hauck performed one of Rehberg’s songs, “Someone Like Me,” which deals with the adoptee experience.
“Being adopted is part of my identity,” said Hauck, the oldest of three siblings -- a brother and a sister who are not adopted. “It’s how I’ve grown up and how I’ve thought about being in different aspects of my life.”
“There are so many children in Vietnam that need a home.”
Since 1999, Americans have adopted a total of 5,578 Vietnamese children, making Vietnam the third most popular East Asian adoption destination after South Korea (19,370) and China (71,632), Department of State figures show. But for decades, the overseas adoption process in Vietnam has been colored by stories of fraud, deception and human trafficking.
While US international adoptions dipped from its peak of 22,991 in 2004 to 7,092 in 2013, Vietnamese adoptions fared much worse, plummeting to zero by 2011, according to the US Department of State. This was the result of a US ban on Vietnamese adoptions in 2008, stemming from concerns that documents were being altered, mothers coerced into giving up their children, and children being put up for adoption without their parents’ knowledge.
On September 16 of this year, the US and Vietnam lifted the ban, allowing adoptions of children with special needs, those who are five and older and those who are part of a sibling group, according to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
For Hauck, whose own adoption story is layered with more questions than answers, the ban lift was welcome news.
“They need to be adopted,” said Hauck, referring to the more than 236,000 Vietnamese orphans as of 2013. “There are so many children in Vietnam that need a home.”
Rehberg, who has returned to Vietnam twice, and Hauck, who has not, both said they hope some day to reunite with their birth parents and families, which they view as part of their identity. Both have taken DNA tests to help connect with relatives.
“I would love to sit down and say, ‘Thanks for making me, and thanks for letting me go,’” Rehberg said of his birth parents.
Hauck, who learned from the DNA test that she is also half-Chinese, echoed a similar sentiment.
“If I hadn’t been adopted, I probably would have died," she said. “If I were to meet my parents, I would say, ‘Hi,’ and say, ‘Thank you for bringing me into this world and having a better life.'"