The following is an extract from Dominic Golding’s latest play, Umbilical. Umbilical explores the relinquishing of children to orphanages during the Vietnam War, and their subsequent evacuation in Operation Babylift. The core of the play explores an adoptive mother’s and a biological mother’s experiences – how their dreams intersect and diverge, with the centre of the dream being the child.
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We left Australia in 1967 with our four children bound for Kwikila in Papua New Guinea. Katie had been in a small class of four year olds who were being taught an experimental way of learning to read. Jonas was two years old and ready to take on the big wide world with his best friend, a huge knitted teddy bear.
We were a normal, average Australian family on the poorer end of middle-class
Tim was a very busy teacher of Agriculture while I sewed and cooked for all of our family’s needs. We seldom had special outings or holidays.
We had no idea what life might be like ‘over there’. All of us were setting out on a grand adventure and Papua New Guinea didn’t disappoint us.
The lifestyle was wonderful, the climate second to none for us and the indigenous people with whom we came in daily contact were the grandest people we have ever encountered.
The blanket of warm humid air that enshrouded us as we stepped off the plane was my first surprise and while at times it could become uncomfortable, I loved it. It was an idyllic time for both the children and they spent most of their days in shorts only, barefooted and free.
When I went teaching at the local mission school, Kate and Phillip were put in the care of an elderly local lady from a nearby village. She was called Grandmother, Bubu, by everyone and she looked after Kate and Jonas, teaching them the ways of the Papuan people and making sure they were safe and happy.
Here we took the shell of a brand new school and built the Maprik High School, literally from the ground up.
Everyone was busy creating something for the new school. The teachers built the playing courts, the students created the soccer grounds and built their own meeting shelters. We all worked together to plant the spacious lawns, plant by plant, lined the pathways with stone and then threw zinnia seeds each side of the pathway to be treated three weeks later with beautiful flowers.
Our fifth year in Papua New Guinea was spent in Kainantu where we opened another brand new school with 80 students, mostly boarders. The government provided the unlined shell of school buildings and we told to ‘go teach’.
Once again we built roads, gardens, sporting fields, a first aid hut, a trade store, desks for the school rooms, bunks for the dormitories, toilets for the latrines;
I provided shorts and t-shirts for the soccer team and dyed them in the school colours; I collected, collated and catalogued hundreds of books which had been donated to the school into a working Lending Library that was available to the students and operated by me several times a week; and all the while I ran my house cooking and sewing for my children.
During our time there, Papua New Guinea, up to that point a territory of the Australian Government, became independent and we joined in the celebrations on the big Port Moresby oval. We took our students into Port Moresby to be part of this momentous occasion and I think none of us will never forget that day. Speeches were made and dancers from villages, near and far, provided spectacular scenes for those, like us, lucky enough to find seats in the big grandstand.
The war in Vietnam had escalated during our time in Papua New Guinea. Cut off from outside news of the world for the most part we seemed to have been living in a comfortable cocoon there and suddenly now we were thrust into a world of violence, dirty violence, and we all found it very disturbing.
The Australia we came back to was not the same Australia we left. Even the (teacher’s) staff room was divided between hippies and the old boys.
People were different. It seemed that I was looking at them for the first time and the society, which I thought I knew and was part of, had changed. People were extremely intolerant. Racism was an undercurrent, strong and alive.
It was not the Australian life that we had left. Worse – our own extended family had become distant and almost patronizing in their acceptance of our quieter ways and our decision to adopt an Asian baby. We just didn’t fit in any more.
America’s Operation Babylift was underway,
Another plane took off but never made it safely away from the country.
It would be a week later when our Prime Minister also announced Australia’s own Operation Babylift.
Days later I had a phone call to tell us that our little boy who had been allotted to us had died from ‘smallpox’, later diagnosed as a very bad case of measles. With a broken heart I rang the Dr who had brought the children from Vietnam to tell him of the news and asked if there were any children who had not been allotted to families. When I found out that there were, indeed, just a few children who had been brought out of Vietnam without specific adoptive parents waiting for them, my hopes were raised again. I grieved deeply for the little boy for whom I had been given no name or information, but our reason for adopting remained the same and our door remained wide open. After all those months of desperate planning and the chasing of official paperwork, I was like any other mother who had lost a child. I cried. I desperately wanted to have another baby in the family circle.
The authorities in Melbourne who were handling the cases of the ‘extra’ children told me that we had been chosen to adopt a little boy.
He was at that time about two months old and very sick.
I knitted two pairs of little socks on the way there, well actually more like 7, a five hour drive to Melbourne. We listened to the radio and heard the latest news about the war orphans. Our four-months-old baby boy was just six and half pounds in weight and so tiny! He was grey and looked so sick, but he was ours! Our boy was here at last.
Each Christmas you and your Dad
Would go into the forest
pick a handsome tree
bucket and rocks
stand it up next to the front door,
out comes a big chest
santas and xmas candy canes
A stocking over the fireplace
a wooden fireplace
chocolate chip cookies
and a glass of milk.
and a letter for Santa.
At day the Vietnamese nationalists would hold meetings, at night the Vietnamese cadres would hold political classes.
The ARVN would grab any boy, 17 yrs old. And off to war they go.
They all talk of freedom, yet we are not free.
Not when the butcher boys son goes missing,
The servant house boy goes missing, the daughter of the dress maker does not turn up for school. The fear of Communists & the fear of ARVN.
the war is not just America, it is civil war, but it is not just a domestic struggle, it a is a religious war, but it is not just Buddhist against Catholics, it is a student revolt, it is not just young against corrupt power, it is criminal gangs against foreign opportunists, is not just thugs against GIs, it is the every person on the street, the mad and the sane. This war is about the people struggling against the tides and cyclones brought down upon us.
That land we played as the children died too as the machines grew into monsters. Monsters that left too many spirits to wonder.
Hearing the airlift on the radio, I ride to the airport. Watch them loading of the children. Praying and crying. That you are going and safe
I started a new life, beginning on a plane. From the old world to a new world.
There it is looking
at the skyline
the super structures, that city called New York.
The lights of times square, the lights of this big big city ,
the greys, the greys,
the black stones and the shadows, against the white marble.
From Brooklyn to Chinatown, to Manhattan,
from waters edge to central park, this city is alive and dead.
Koshers, hotdogs, diners, Russian sweets to Chinese and Italian pastas,
this is a city.
a mass, and a mess, crazy chaos, all so beautiful too.
It is where you live that defines you, just as in Saigon. Queens, Soho, there is something strong and hard about this city,
as it is a city of cities.
Yes, that’s it
a city of races,
from other great cities of home.
Yes this is what makes New York. Everyone can find a place, their place in New York.
New York and San Francisco can brag about having the biggest Chinese Chinatowns on the East and West coasts. But here in Chicago, Saigon is little, it is intimate a few streets, streets. Not like the blocks, the ally ways, and all the knockoffs and tourists. Just a few casual one-perhaps two story streets.
Been living here since 1983. I have lived here five years. The US government gave us a second chance. We were the first lucky ones, Miller is lucky only his eyes can you see that he is half Vietnamese. Now he can live a free man. Like his father an American. Miller is my sister’s son, you are my son. And I miss you every single day.
Every Christmas, a white Christmas, it snows here.
I stand at the smallest of photo of you, for a moment.
I’m in Chicago
Run a Restaurant
It funny was thinking of you today
A group of seven white Americans with their Asian babies.
They were happy.
It made me happy
To see your life.
We make good money,
Our small house, all warm.
Sometimes I imagine you opening your Christmas presents surrounded by a big American Family.
We do what Americans do for Christmas. My English class, teach gave out American… recipes. Now, now I cook roast goose with sage and onion, with a spicy apple sauce.
I so want one of those, to be like those men in the war books.
My life is full of great men
The enemy of my mother’s father
The enemy of my school friends father’s
I drew pictures of Nips and Nazis, work my boots like the SS
And that old World War Two German motorbike wow cool huh?
Steve MacQueen skid on the moterbike mime.
Mum gives me slap behind the head.
Let’s just say I was good at history.
Real American men
Men with mos
we all need heroes
Was my Father a hero?
When I open the book NAM.
For the first time
I am one of you, some how.
Your silent screams, your silent anger, your silent torn bodies, your silent cries, your silent laughs, your silent looks of fear, your silent gazes of disconnection.
Vietnam and Korea, but let’s focus on Vietnam is a man’s war. It written by men, by soldiers, by generals, by political scientists, by, officers and NCOs, by reporters and doctors. The women who have written about Vietnam are nurses, aid workers, refugee, defectors, protestors, m others of soldiers. Then there is the silent majority. The farmers, the clerks, the cooks, the cleaners, the garbage scavengers, the beauracrat, the store owner, the stall holder, the newspaper kid, the milk runner, the baker, the guard standing duty, the nightclub owner, the night club dancer, the bar man.
I know it is this war, this war my mum brought be out from, this war that separated me from my parents, this war that separated me from my people- I don’t know who they are, does mum know who they are? She did say they suffered much. Yes, they did but by who and why? It was then I crossed the library to the adult section, looked up Vietnam and opened the books.
Cold war in my history class. This war in Vietnam didn’t look too cold to me.
I found myself falling for the righteous, the pained, the oppressed, the fallen, because it all comes back down to my ma, my dead burnt mother.
But all I saw in the books was the men, the tanks, the war birds, the burning villages, the burning flesh, the burning children, the burning souls of my mothers.
I would spend hours in the library looking at the large Vietnam War pictorial books
Bodies dragged behind tanks
People falling from helicopters
Am I alone
As people tell me I’m an orphan
In the truest sense of the word alone?
Mum showed me a book called Turn my Eyes Away, about this time.
I looked in the eyes of all children in that.
The half black children the half white children.
Looking at my Vietnamese
brothers and sisters.
A felt a conscious drift away from my adoptive mother and father and was looking for another mother.
I became less appreciative of my life, my place in Mt. Gambier, I began to loath whiteness, white men, white authority- all the while playing the good Asian kid.
Gone are the
I am stuck in this town, this lonely stretch of white paradise.
Kevin Bloody Wilson
Went to the farm auction
People say ‘the Irans will nuke us, the North Koreans will nuke us, the Japs wanted to over-run us, the Abos are irresponsible look we given ‘em houses and they destroy them.’
You know what’s funny, being a “gook” and adoptee and all? Is the outfit. Everyone gives you an outfit, they don’t ask, they just make you wear the one they want to see you in and it totally sucks. You’re either a small wimpy guy, a dumb Asian, a class Suck-up, a book worm, the enemy, the perfect “assimilated” white Australian, or too white for other Asians, and to make it worse is teenagers are soooooo fucking fashion conscious.
This Christmas I want to surprise Dad
Taking the axe I went into the forest, searched for a full hour looking for the perfect tree.
Every year the tree would go up, I can’t say if you have pine trees like we do
Every year I’d help my mum set up the nativity scene, baby Jesus, the Sheppard, the three kings,
But this year, I thought of you ma, half a world away, I wished a silent wish, a merry Christmas to you.
The shit that gets you out of bed – interview with Dominic Golding
I’ve known Dominic Golding over many years although I’ve never interviewed him in depth. The one thing that always strikes me about Dom is his blunt honesty, humility and serious commitment to grassroots forms of activism. His art practice is eclectic – theatre practitioner, writer and performer. He is also a community arts worker who is currently engaged in a project at RISE, Australia’s first not-for-profit refugee and asylum seeker welfare and advocacy organization run by refugees, asylum seekers, and ex-detainees. As we sit over our hot drinks outside of the Melbourne Central food court, I ask Dom my first question, “Do you identify as Australian/Asian/Asian-Australian poet/writer (or some other variant)? If so – is this a comfortable way of defining yourself, particularly in the professional/poetic sense?”
Dom pauses and then asks to read over the question from my computer screen, then sighs and replies, “I think it’s a problematic question. For me, I’ve been denied being called Australian for most of my life. But I’ve come back to acknowledging that I am a banana. I lived in Vietnam for a period of time. To be honest with you I just like to call myself an Aussie of Asian descent. I don’t really relate to being Asian because I don’t have parents of Asian background likewise I don’t identify myself as an Asian-Australian because I don’t have relatives who are Asian. This question is only applicable to a certain demographic of the Asian population in Australia not to the intercountry adoptee communities. I just call myself an Aussie born in Vietnam.”
I take a deep breath, absorbing this information. All the other poets and writers I’d interviewed had offered various perspectives around this identity question, however, none have given feedback that the question is problematic; none of them that I know of anyway has Dom’s history. I thank Dom, make a mental note about re-thinking this question and how to frame it in the future. We proceed with our interview.
While Dom’s writing tends to poetic prose, he operates primarily as a playwright, not a poet. As a youngster, he was a voracious reader, however growing up in Australia, a lot of his reading material, was “very colonial, very white” from Enid Blyton to Rudyard Kipling. Dom also devoured comics, interpreting it his way, “a lot of superheroes are adopted or orphaned at some stage and something happens and then they take on the bad guys”.
In 2005, Dom debuted his full-length stage play Shrimp at La Mama, Carlton Courthouse. Shrimp evolved from Dom’s honours year at university. Even though he wanted to become a director, he also harboured conflicting feelings because he felt all theatre directors “were wanky”. Furthermore, Australia’s theatrical tradition of casting actors of colour were, and still is quite bleak. However, instead of being bitter, Dom reacted to this parochial attitude by fighting back, “I’m not white enough to be an actor, so I thought fuck it, I might as well write my own shit, so that’s where Shrimp started.” In fact the “shit that happens in the world” is what gets Dom out of bed.
“Shrimp came about because I knew nothing about my country of origin. I re-wrote it twice. First time I was an empty vessel, I went to Vietnam and I didn’t know what I was looking for. I was completely a fish out of water. And I was angry at the establishment. I was angry at how white civilization imposed their identity on me and I felt like I had nothing to lay claim to. So I went to Vietnam to write, and came out with a lot of poetic prose, I don’t know what at the time, it was just writing. It was just me – physically in an environment supposed to be my own, but it’s not.”
For Dom, working out where he belonged is like a work-in-progress, compelled to the journey, but the ending unknown. “I spent about four or five years with the Vietnamese community in Australia, how politics works there and how I as a Vietnamese-Australian, a hyphenated Vietnamese-Australian was supposed to fit in. The Vietnamese once they know that I’m adopted, they’re kinda a bit wishy-washy, flip flop, they don’t know how to categorise me. Even though certainly, my culture, my English, my upbringing is working class white Australian.” In 2007, Dom re-wrote Shrimp, which toured around Victorian schools. In reflection, Dom reveals, “It was interesting how such a story was received. We went to the bush and race again became a dominant central complication. No one wants to talk about it. The feedback that Peta Hanrahan [director] got was that race again became problematic.”
That word “problematic” came-up for the second time in our conversation, and again in relation to a question about identity. Dom elaborates without a second thought, “Me physically being present as a person of colour was too confronting for some teachers and students. We’re not meant to be visible, we’re not meant to have a narrative or a story. They weren’t ready for that and I found that really interesting.”
I interpreted problematic to refer to audiences not comprehending completely the complexity of Dom’s story, but I wasn’t prepared for Dom’s answer about the blatant racism he experienced. This was 2007, for goodness sake, White Australia was abolished a couple of decades ago, yet these country Victorian schools were stuck in a time-warp, or were there? While it’s probably easier for me to project racism as existing in small-town country Victoria, racism is not a monster that you can tangibly pick up and smite with the sword of humanity. I do know better and have been the witness or been the recipient of casual racism – racist attitudes can be any place, at any time. Two articles that come to mind are Waleed Aly’s “Curse of Australia’s silent pervasive racism” about the “polite racism of the educated middle class” and Tim Soutphommasane’s “We must stamp on the cockroach of racism” in relation to the complacency surrounding urban public tirades of racism. Luckily for Dom, there was a happier result when he performed in Melbourne, “Audiences were a lot more receptive, high school students were relating, but not relating”. City kids by the sheer force of population diversity had more capacity and resources to find answers, and were better equipped to deal with complexity even if they didn’t completely understand.
A few years after Shrimp, Dom has a new play, Umbilical, a sequel to Shrimp. Umbilical is also Dom’s offering to the Peril Map. The genesis of his play came from a place of intellectual enquiry, a process not unlike his first play. “A couple of years ago I was doing a Masters by Research at Monash University’s Theatre and Performance program and I was looking at transnational adoptees particularly those who were adopted from Vietnam and Korea, ” explains Dom. The adoptees that he sought had been adopted in predominantly white American families. His research focused on the adoptees returning to their country of origin and how that manifested in their cultural production be it literature, poetry, comedy or blogs. Dom elaborates, “I had the golden opportunity to meet and interview a lot of these artists and I was also going around the Little Saigons around the United States, but also talking to adoptee parents about how they relate to Vietnamese culture.”
The germ of Umbilical came at one of these meetings during the Vietnamese Moon Festival in a Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago.
“Me and five other adoptee parents went to this restaurant and had a meal, and it was kinda funny because I was surrounded by five White American women and their little kids that they had adopted from Vietnam. And their kids are typically very cute and noisy and all that. But what really struck me was the way the Vietnamese who owned the restaurant were relating to the families and relating to myself and the children. It was almost a sense as though the Vietnamese woman who owned the restaurants were taken back 38 years – she’s trying to speak Vietnamese to the little kids in Vietnamese, she was also asking probing questions about myself because I’m the only older Asian male in this family’”.
Dom didn’t hold back on his autobiography, satiating this woman’s curiosity.
“I told her I came out of the war – Babylift, and she was saying ‘Oh wow, you’re so lucky’ this sort of stuff. ‘These kids are so beautiful’. There was almost a sense of nostalgia and loss when she was trying to be quite positive.”
Dom’s research led him to findings where in 1989, America and Vietnam opened their doors to migration from Amerasians.
“Amerasians are children who were, whose fathers were generally American service personnel and the women were Vietnamese locals. When the war was coming to an end, a lot of these people ended up being evacuated from the country. A lot of adoptees are actually also Amerasians. And it’s really interesting to me how a lot of Amerasians remained and did not get evacuated, and adopted—possibly because they were older. Quite a number of Vietnamese mothers and “relatives” through the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) and the Amerasian Homecoming Act settled in the United States for the purpose of finding their American fathers and their American husbands.”
For Dom, Umbilical was him grappling with how these Vietnamese American women could reconcile relinquishing their child to an orphanage and the child subsequently being air-lifted through Operation Babylift. The central thematic thread of Dom’s play is to “examine the idea of dreams; how we attach dreams to children.” In particular, in relation to these women, he asks, “What kinds of dreams does she attach to a child that she doesn’t know but hope they have grown up with the good life of the West?”
Umbilical has three distinct voices, the stories drawn again from the autobiographical. In the play there is Dom’s white Australian adoptive mother, Dom’s voice and then the only fictional element – Dom’s Vietnamese mother. In setting up these voices, Dom’s intention was to explore how these women’s dreams start intersecting, and then diverge. As Dom states plainly, “because in the centre of these two adult dreams is a child, which is myself.”
Dom asserts that his role is secondary, Umbilical unlike Shrimp is about the mother’s stories. “In a sense, the Vietnamese-American mum’s story is reinforced when I finished my Masters I went back to Vietnam for a reunion of adoptees 35 years since Operation Babylift; it’s the first time that a lot of us had got together. We don’t know each other. We’re from Australia, France, the UK, various cities around the US, Stockholm, quite a global mix of people. The only thing that we have in common is the fact that we were air-lifted. The Vietnamese press had organized a group of adoptees to meet those mothers who were seeking reunification with their children and Amerasian children who were seeking relationship or relation to those who were adoptees back in ‘the world’. Now the ‘world’ is the West. During the Vietnam war American soldiers called ‘the world’ back home, the home country.”
Unfortunately, Dom has trouble finding funds for Umbilical. The feedback from funding bodies was that the play was too much like Shrimp. I hear this flabbergasted – did the funders not read Umbilical? Why did the funders not have a problem with “Australia’s best known playwright” white Australian playwright David Williamson writing two plays with elements drawn from his marriage break-up (Jugglers Three, What if you died tomorrow?) ? Juggler’s Three also had the luxury of another re-write to become Third World Blues, which also had the privilege of being staged. The cynical part of me wonders if a white Australian playwright had written an adoptee’s story but premised from a white Australian adoptive parent’s point of view, would the funders have been won over easier?
In terms of pinning his work to a map, Dom says, “you’ve got my adoptive parents beginning in Australia and PNG, and then you have my fictional birth mother from Vietnam. Actually there’re two parts of that story – she’s a double refugee, from the north (Hanoi) to the south (Ho Chih Minh City) and from the south to the United States. Specifically I chose Chicago – it’s a small Vietnamese-American community. It’d be too easy to set it in Orange county, which is the biggest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam.”
Even though funding Umbilical is challenging, this hasn’t stopped Dom writing another play based on his experiences living in a boarding house in Adelaide. His investigation this time is about questions around class, and the day-to-day alliances employed by people struggling to survive. According to Dom, a rooming house is a middle ground, between heaven and hell. Society aspires to heavenly ideals such as a status and a good job. However, a rooming house is supposed to stop people from falling into ‘hell’ – the downward spiral of depression, homelessness, drugs and alcohol. The characters in the rooming house are based on real people, including himself.
“There is a refugee from Albania, an Australian homosexual, very much out, very much a drama queen, but suffering from severe mental psychosis. There’s also a migrant from the Philippines. Interesting that he had class and status, but lost it, but he kept the illusion of having that status and power. And there’s myself, who I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. I wanted to experience shit, I came from a really nice white Australian family. I wanted to know what it’s like to experience stuff. But the story is completely about experiences that happen and what occurred in the house, crazy moments”.
As we finish, I feel deeply moved and also filled with profound admiration for Dom’s courage in working autobiographically. His work has never been a “holier than thou” dialogue about anti-oppression; it’s about the shit that happens in the world, survival, and along the way, taking on the bad guys.
– interviewed by Lian Low