Baby Steps

You know how when you have something big to do, sometimes you put it off? For like, 8 months? Yeah, that’s usually a paper or dissertation or taxes for people. For me, it turned into this project.

Since leaving off in April, I started a new job, moved to a new house across the city, and found every reason in the world that I could not work on this project. In some ways, the avoidance has been legitimate—the life transitions I just named are known to be consuming, even stressful. Added to it, I also took on some side hustles, to help pay for things that are “extra” in my life. The result is that I just haven’t focused on this project in the way I had planned when I started it.

But it’s a new year and I am starting to find a new rhythm, so I am back to it. Here’s what I’ve done since my last update too long ago:

  • Opened, sorted, and “preserved” my mother’s letters from Vietnam in scrapbooks.
  • Recorded a conversation with my mother about her very first memories. Debating on fully transcribing it.
  • Submitted my mother’s DNA to Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder, MyHeritage DNA database, and This will broaden our net in hopes of finding any of my mother’s family.


Because I wasn’t exactly sure what I needed translated and the academic calendar, I decided to put a pause on working with a translator. I will resume this effort when I have a clear plan of what documents need to be translated.

Hopefully we get some matches on the DNA. Until then, I plan to start to gather “the facts” and find a way to document them. For instance, I need to formalize a potential timeline, learn place names, and perhaps create a map. I also want to do more reflective writing, but of all aspects of this project, that has started to intimidate me the most. To be honest, the idea of accurately reflecting my mother’s experience while being totally aware that I can’t separate myself from my own perspective gives me deep pause. More on that another time, though.


2 – Birth, Birthdays, and Birth Certificates

You can listen to a recording of this entry here.

This entry is about birth—giving birth, birth certificates, and my mother’s birthday: the last confirmed time that the three of us (my grandmother, my mother, and me) were all physically connected.

April is a big month in our family. In just 30 days, we celebrate 4 birthdays and 1 wedding anniversary. My mother’s birthday falls on April 16th, although we are not completely sure that this was the actual date of her birth. This year, we think she turned 68 years old. She celebrated with a bum knee, a simple lunch with my father, and phone calls with all four of her children.

During my own “happy birthday” phone call, I talked with my mother about this entry. I told her I wanted to write about her birth certificate, and how it came about.

She wasn’t pleased with the idea. “You get me in trouble,” she told me. Her father had her birth certificate created well into my mother’s adolescence, a fact that she believed could lead to her deportation. Several days later and after reassurance from my father, she gave me permission to tell the story after all.

My mother’s birth certificate—and indeed of much of her life—is tied to my Aunt Cricket.

First interesting fact: my Aunt Cricket isn’t my real aunt at all. In Vietnamese culture, close friends are very frequently given familial titles. My mother and Aunt Cricket grew up together, worked together on the American base, and eventually both ended up in the U.S. married to American men. Therefore she has been as close to my mother as a sister. Second interesting fact: until I started to write this entry, I thought we actually called my Aunt Cricket “Aunt Crooked.” I called my mother to ask her why we called her “Crooked.” My mom said something about how she sounds like the bug, and after much back and forth I realized that for the past 30 years, I have misheard my mother calling this woman “Crooked” instead of “Cricket.” Her real name is Nga, but the nickname was created by her husband and stuck.

Anyway, as kids my mother and Aunt Cricket wanted to work at an American base, on housekeeping staff. At the time, civilians could easily enter the base and find work, but only if they had “papers,” like a birth certificate. Neither of them had a birth certificate, but they did have a friend and enough guile to get around the rules. Their friend would go through the gate with her birth certificate, and then walk far from the guards. She found a rock, wrapped her birth certificate around it, secured it with a string, and lobbed it over the fence. Cricket would retrieve the birth certificate and use it to enter the gate. Then, she repeated the rock trick to allow my mother to enter.

Mom said it took the guards several weeks to realize there were three girls named “Phương” with the same exact birthday.

Money was tight, and work on base was good. My grandfather, who depended on my mother’s income to pay gambling debts, agreed to go back to his home village and get a birth certificate made for my mother and Aunt Cricket. When he came back, they realized that he had to fill in a lot of missing information. He made a guess at my mother’s birthday, assigning her April 16th, 1950. My mother also thinks he may have given one or both girls my mother’s birth location.

In preparing for social security and retirement benefits a few years ago, my mother turned her house upside down. She called me, crying. She couldn’t find her birth certificate in her files. She was afraid this would hold her back from receiving her benefits, but she was also just upset that she lost such an important document. Although the information was almost completely made up and the document itself fabricated by her uncle, it was one of the few things that tied her officially to her home. And what’s more, she had become fond of her birthday, designated by the piece of paper.

When I became pregnant, a dear friend told me, “Your kid’s birthday isn’t just their day… it’s yours.” The day before my son’s birthday, my husband whisked me from the Target parking lot where I was doubled over in pain to the hospital, and I thought about that comment the whole time. Two people experience a singleton pregnancy and labor, but only one will remember it.

The memory of my mother’s birth is lost to time. We can hope that someone who may have assisted my grandmother in her labor is still alive and remembers, but I think my mother and I accept that that’s a remote possibility. Instead, what I have left are my own assumptions of how my mother’s birth may have gone. I can imagine that my grandmother labored in a home environment, with the support of women in her family or village. I can assume that she had an unmedicated birth. Because my mother was never told that my grandmother passed away in childbirth, I have always thought that it was vaginal, a safer delivery method in a rural, non-hospital setting.

My own mother gave birth four times, each in a U.S. hospital with western-trained physicians and nurses. She once told me about her terror giving birth for the first time in Chicago in 1973. My father was not allowed in the labor and delivery room, and her English was far from sufficient to comfortably navigate the birthing process alone. “What did you do?” I asked her. “I had the baby,” she told me.

Most things in my mother’s life were described this simply. She had the baby. Her father beat her. She got a job on base. She was shot. She left Vietnam without telling her family. She worked multiple factory jobs. She survived.

That simple.

My own labor and delivery process was not simple. I had stalled out at 9 cm after about 20 hours of labor. My epidural, probably requested too early, kept me laying on my back for at least 16 of those hours. When the surgeon exposed the field, there was meconium in the sac and my son, according to the surgeon, was “Staring up at the ceiling like he was looking at the stars.” After my c-section, I felt a lot of frustration with my immobility and a deeply hidden sense of shame that I was unable to have a vaginal birth like my mother and grandmother.

It made me all the more committed to breastfeeding. This, also, was not simple. Circumstances prevented me from latching my son for the first four weeks of his life. With a lot of support, we eventually figured it out. My mother sat next to me on the couch one day while I fed my son. She was telling me how she didn’t know anyone who breastfed. Because of work and lack of support, she formula fed all of her babies. She mentioned seeing women breastfeeding in Vietnam, but they were not her friends or family.

“Your mom must have breastfed, though,” I told her. She paused and I paused, and I think we both had to think about it, imagine the mysterious woman who was my grandmother. Did she breastfeed? How long was she with my mother before disappearing from her life? If not for very long, did my mother receive another woman’s milk, or was she given an alternative to human milk from a bottle?

Despite the questions in the air, in that moment I had never felt more aware of and connected to my grandmother. I can’t know the truth right now, but I feel relatively sure that she fed her child in a similar way that I fed mine, and something about that made me feel… connected and whole, but also curious. I began to think more about who my grandmother was, what choices she made, and how those choices may have shaped my mother’s and my life like an invisible hand. I thought about finding my grandmother for another 9 months before I approached my parents and got their approval for this project.

So, happy birthday, Momma. I thought you and all of our followers might enjoy the illustration attached to this entry, which came across one of the many mommy groups I follow on Facebook. It’s technically correct, although the “me” in the photo is an egg, and therefore only half the DNA needed to make a complete human being. Although it was only half of my genetic material, the illustration is a reminder that at one time, my grandmother, my mom, and myself shared a physical space, and we were truly connected.

Update – 4/23/2018

I got a reminder today that I started this project about a month ago–and what a month it has been! A lot has happened in my personal life, with small amounts of work on the project to find my bà ngoại. Here’s a quick update of where we stand so far:

  • I am seeking a research intern to help me with translations. See and share the job posting here:
  • Primary documents: I have started to sort through photos and letters that my mom has saved over the past 40 years. Next steps will be digitizing these items, tagging them in Dedoose, and moving them into acid-free environments. Updates with photos of these things will be coming soon, I promise. I should give the original photos and letters back to my mom when I see her the first weekend of May, so I have a hard deadline! 😉
  • Social media connections: I found two Facebook communities that I expect will help me a lot in my research. The first is a group of vets who served at the Phu Loi base where my parents met. These amazing men and women are sharing stories and photos from their time in Vietnam. The second group is “DNA Detectives,” a group dedicated to helping people find biological family through DNA tests like the on provided by

I’m working on my next reflective entry focused on birth: birthdays, birth certificates, and the birth of this project. I hope that will be ready to share later this week!


Right now, we don’t know how much time my mother and grandmother had together when my mother was a baby.

Listen to a recorded version of this entry here.

Here is what we know: Around 1950, my grandmother gave birth to my mother, Nguyễn Thị Lệ. The rest is conjecture.

My mother grew up being told that my grandmother died in a hut fire. My grandfather had the choice of saving his wife or the baby. He chose the baby, and so my mother spent the rest of her life wondering what it would be like to have a mom.

Except, at some point in her childhood my mother overheard my grandfather talking to a friend. He said, “I drowned her in a rice paddy.”

My mom had a single photo of her mother. She believes she was wearing a nurse’s uniform.

This page will document my journey to find my grandmother—or at least, to find out who she was—and help my mother find closure on the greatest mystery of her life. Throughout this journey, I will also retell my mother’s story: from wading in jungle streams catching minnows, her indentured servitude at her aunts’ house, cooking for the prostitutes at her father’s brothel—to the turning point her life: working in the clubs of a US Army base where she met my father, arriving in Chicago in 1973, raising her four children in the American Deep South, and beyond.

My hope is to update this page weekly. Updates could be a description of where we’re at in the effort to find my grandmother; it could also just be one of my mother’s stories or an old photo. The page is to document, but also to publicize. We are using DNA test results to reach out to potential family members. At some point, I will also seek funding to travel to Vietnam to do research on the ground. At the end of this journey, I hope to pull everything together into a book. Entries are recorded specifically for my mother, whose conversational English is far better than her written English.

Thank you for joining me on this journey by following this page. I started to tell my mothers’ stories in high school. Her life was a major influence in my poetry in college. After taking an almost 10 year break from creative writing to pursue my PhD in education, I am armed with both energy and qualitative research skills to honor my history through this work. Still, I will need your help. I need your encouragement, the support of historical and qualitative researchers in my circle, feedback from my creative writing friends, and connections of potential family who visit this page. I look forward to finding my grandmother with you. Thank you again.