Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Danish man seeks to help Amerasians in Taiwan find their fathers

Amerasian Childfind Network

Danish traveller Brian Hjort didn't plan on going to Vietnam in 1992,
but the trip changed his life. In a chance meeting with an Amerasian
man he met in Ho Chi Minh City, a dream -- and a personal lifelong
mission -- was born: helping to bring Amerasian people from all over
Asia in touch with their American fathers or other relatives. Using
Internet outreach and a dedicated website, coupled with frequent trips
to Vietnam, Hjort has become a kind of accidental angel helping to
bring peace of mind to the adult children of American fathers who
fought or served in the military in Southeast Asia and Japan.

"Amerasian" is a word coined by Pearl S. Buck, the famous American
novelist, who first used the word in 1964 when talking about children fathered (and often abandonned) by American soldiers in South Korea during the Korean War in the 1950s. Taiwan has a small population, mostly invisible, of Amerasian adults whose mothers were Taiwanese and whose fathers served with the U.S. military in Taiwan during the 1960s and 1970s.

Lam Goc Mai is an Amerasian woman from Vietnam, in her early 40s now, who came to Taiwan ten years ago to marry a Taiwanese bachelor. In Chiayi City, where she lives and works in a popular hot pot restaurant near the central train station, the lanky, now-divorced Lam cuts a singular figure with her golden locks and mostly-Caucasian features. And yet she speaks little English, is fluent in the Vietnamese of her native country and has, of course, learned to speak Chinese and Taiwanese while living in Taiwan and raising a daughter, now seven.

When a reporter asked Lam if she ever knew her American father, a U.S. soldier during the Vietnam War, she explains that he went back to his native land before she was born and has never contacted the family since.

"I have never even seen his photograph," she says. "My mother destroyed all his photos after he left her, so I have no idea who he was or where he lives today, or even if he is alive. Sure, I would love to find out someday who my father is. My life is okay, but there is one part still missing. I am afraid I will never find it."

Although Hjort has not yet visited Taiwan, he is aware of Amerasian
adults like Ms. Lam in Taiwan, and has been in contact with a few of them by email, he said.

He hopes to visit Taipei in the near future in his role as friendship
ambassador to American people worldwide. It's a mission that began
without a real plan over 15 years ago, and now Hjost -- who is not an
American and was only four years old when the Vietnam War ended in
1975 -- has plans to keep his non-profit mission alive for the rest of
his life.

Born and raised on an island off the coast of Denmark, Hjort now lives
in Malmoe, Sweden with his Peruvian wife of eight years and their
daughter, now six. In a recent email, he explained why he has Taiwan
on his itinerary and what he hopes to achieve here.

"Over the years, I have been involved with some cases of Amerasians from
Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan, in addition to Vietnam,
where this work began for me," he said. "But I never got many
inquiries or responses from Amerasians in Taiwan, other than one
person who father served with the CIA there. But I am aware of that
there are some, maybe many, Amerasians living in Taiwan who might want
help finding their fathers or their fathers' relatives, just to make
contact and know more about their heritage."

Hjort is the most unlikely of independent international aid workers.
He studied to be a blacksmith in Denmark as a teenager, but an
accident that later damaged his eyes made that line of work impossible
to take on. His day job now is in a furniture factory in Sweden,
painting chairs and tables, and the salary he takes home allows him to
provide for his wife and daughter while also keeping his dream of
reaching out to Amerasians alive.

The man also likes to travel.

"I've been all over, to Laos and Cambodia and
the Philippines, through north Africa, across the United States by
bus, and down to Mexico and Paraguay and Brazil and Peru, which is
where I met my wife," he said. "I spent some time in London, too."

When asked what drew him to work first with Amerasians in Vietnam,
Hjort explained that he knew very little about the Vietnam War or the
U.S. role in it since he was born in Denmark just four years before
the war ended in 1975. But on a backpacking trip through Thailand in
the early 1990s, Hjorst heard that Vietnam
was beginning to open up to tourists so he arranged for a visa and
flew to Ho Chi Minh City.

"I met a lot of Amerasians right away in Vietnam then, but one guy I
met, an Amerasian with an American passport, started me off on my
mission, in an indirect way. His name is Doan
Thanh Vu, or Arnold Doan, and I first met by chance outside the
Amerasian Transit Center in Ho Chi Minh City. He becmae my friend and
helped me navigate the side streets of old Saigon, and he once sort of
saved my life when a local gang was set on attacking me and taking my
money. Arnold heard about the upcoming attack from his friends and
arranged for a bunch of Amerasians took protect me as my bodyguards.
To this day, I feel that Arnold's actions, and the group of bodyguards
he assembled, saved my life, and you know, I never forgot what they
did for me, and that's how I began working with Amerasians this way."

When asked what keeps him going in his outreach work, a religious
faith or a personal philosophy, Hjort said it's in his blood.

"For me, all this is about a love for mankind, a caring for those who
have very little and got a rotten start in life, and a feeling that
one can change things from bad to good,: he told the Taipei Times. "So
instead of getting angry at all the
sadness and injustice I saw in Vietnam in 1992, all around me, I
decided then and there to try to change things for the better, and I
found that even as just one person, I could make a difference. I found
out what I could do as one person."

"Amerasians need to know their father, need to try to find their
fathers, and that's where I felt I could try to help, fill in the gaps
somewhat. I can't save the world, but maybe I can help work with a
small part of it and do my bit, and that's what my mission and
outreach is all about. I hope I can help make the world
at least at little bit better of a place to live in," he said.

So who is Brian Hjort and what makes him tick. When asked to explain
more about himself, he said: "There's really not much to say about me.
I'm just a quiet, humble guy, from a small village in Denmark, living
now in Sweden, married to a Peruvian woman and with a beautiful
bi-cultural daughter. I am completely at home with poor people and
with famous celebrities, too. I don't care about wealth or status. I
treat the Amerasians I help like family and
friends, and I try to listen to their life stories without judging them."

"You know, in many ways, I am the just
like the people I try to help. I'm a very simple person, and actually
very shy, too. In fact, I prefer to just be with my wife and daughter
doing our family things, and public life does not hold a big
attraction for me. Except to help further my work with Amerasians. So
there are two sides to me, the public side, to raise money and media
awareness, and the private side with my family."

"I'm Danish, I'm a Danish guy, but I've lived outside Denmark for such
a long time, I don't think my being Danish has much to do with my work
with Amerasians," Hjsort said. "But I believe I got this attitude,
this philosophy of trying to make the world
a better place, from my parents. When I was a kid in Denmark, they
were always helping out those less fortunate than us, so they were
always my main inspiration."

When asked what he would say to the Taiwanese people and the local
media, both the English-language media and the Chinese-language media,
when he visits Taipei to meet Amerasian adults living here, Hjosrt
said: "I'll say something like this: Close your eyes,and imagine that
your skin is brown or
that your hair is blond or your eyes are blue. Imagine that you're the
only one like this among your
classmates or in your town in Taiwan. Imagine that people are always
looking at you, staring at you, sometimes calling you names and
insults, hitting you, spitting on you. That's what life has been like
for many Amerasians in Asia and overseas."

"Open your eyes my friends in Taiwan, and then you will understand a
little about what it means to be
Amerasian, what it means to be different, to have a different ethnic
origin that separates you from others. Amerasians in Taiwan are the
children of a Taiwanese woman and an American father, black or white,
and remeber that America is a friend of Taiwan, always has been.
Amerasians in Taiwan might be invisible in Taiwan today, a group of
people who were not supposed to exist, forgotten and disowned by their
fathers overseas and looked down upon by their fellow Taiwanese. Is
this good? Is this right?".

"Amerasians are human beings, and they deserve
love, attention and a family. too. And they need to know their
fathers, or who their fathers were, in order to find out who they are
and where they fit in."

"Taiwan had its own Amerasians, left over from the Vietnam War in the
1960s and 1970s, and the Cold War with the Soviet Union. They are
often forgotten in Taiwan, I suppose, and not only by their American
fathers and the
U.S. government, past and present, but also by the news media. I'd
like to address these issues in Taiwan when I visit, and even now my
website is open to field questions and supply answers when we can."

"In my opinion, and I hear that Taiwan is a very warm-hearted country,
I hope that Taiwan and its people will open their arms to the
Amerasians living there, and they are Taiwanese people, too. If we can
work together together to help some of them find their American
fathers, and close a sad chapter in the past, I will feel we
accomplished something."

For Lam Goc Mai in Chiayi, Hjort's visit might help answer some of her questions, too.


No comments: