Jenny has been looking for her mother for a long time. She doesn’t know what she looks like. She doesn’t even know her name. When she began her search, she only knew that she was born of a Thai mother and an American father who met during the Vietnam War. In her own investigation of the matter, she found some evidence that her mother likely came from Isaan. As a last resort, Jenny reached out to The Isaan Record, hoping that some reader may provide the final piece of information that allows her to finally discover the whereabouts of her long-lost Thai birth mother. You, or someone you know, or someone they know may be the one who helps Jenny finally end her half-century separation from her mother–and her Isaan roots. Read her account and find out if you can help.
At the peak of the American war in Vietnam, some 50,000 U.S. military personnel were stationed in Thailand. Some had intimate relations with Thai women who populated the areas around their bases. A small minority of these American GIs stayed on in Thailand after the war. The vast majority returned to the states, many times unaware that they were to become fathers and leaving behind fatherless children.
A 2004 report from the Pearl S. Buck Foundation estimated that some 8,000 Thai-Amerasians were born during the war. Many of those babies, now in their 50s, never knew their American fathers.
For years, Jenny was one such baby.
In early 1970, Chuck, then stationed at the U-Tapao Air Force Base in Thailand, was informed that he would have to immediately return home, long before the end of his tour of duty was over.
The reason? His brother would be taking his place. Per military policy at the time, Chuck had to be sent home before his brother could be shipped out. He had no choice. Unbeknownst to him, seven months later and thousands of kilometers away, his daughter was born.
Jenny’s mother gave the baby up for adoption. Jenny, as she would be called, was briefly placed with a Thai foster mother and then adopted by a Swiss family in Bangkok.
Jenny looked markedly different from her adoptive Swiss family. Her brother and sister had lighter skin and hair; Jenny was noticeably tanner and her hair fell in a dark cascade around her face.
As a toddler, Jenny went on errands and walked around Bangkok with her mother.
“We were somewhere in Bangkok and I was standing alongside [my adoptive mom],” Jenny recalls, “and Thai people came up to me [and] they asked me, ‘Where’s your mom? Khun mae yuu nai?’”
Jenny, understandably, was confused. Her mom was right there.
“And I was pointing to my mom, you know, my Swiss mother,” she says, “and they were confused.” They couldn’t understand that the woman with her was, in fact, her mother. “And then I got confused,” she goes on, because, as a toddler, she couldn’t understand why people assumed the woman who had raised her was not her mom.
Adopted, but “Inclusion Was Never a Question”
It was those curious questions from strangers that at last compelled her mother to reveal that, though Jenny could not remember a time when her family wasn’t around, they weren’t related by blood.
“So that was the moment, apparently, according to my mother, when she had to sit down and explain to me in easy words why I looked different than my siblings,” Jenny says.
Jenny apparently quickly came to terms with being adopted. A couple of days after her mother told her, she had made peace with the fact. After all, she wasn’t treated any differently from her siblings.
Jenny always felt like she belonged. She says she never viewed herself as different or felt marginalized within her family, or while living in Switzerland or Bangkok.
At the Swiss school in Bangkok, she says she “grew up with all these biracial children.” People who looked like Jenny were everywhere around her. No one ever questioned or berated her based on how she looked. She belonged there.
“Inclusion was never a question,” she says. “I never realized that many Amerasians, like me, were experiencing more bullying than myself.” In fact, she says, “I never had one single experience of bullying.”
This feeling of belonging did not change when Jenny moved to Switzerland at 14. Swiss society was used to encountering different kinds of people. Jenny says that at the time, the Swiss kids at her school were used to seeing “more foreigners.”
In fact, she says, her siblings were much more likely to be ogled when the family had lived in Bangkok.
“For example, my older brother, when he was a small kid, maybe three years old, he was so blond and pale that Thais even had to look in his pants to see if he was a boy!” she says, laughing.
The Thai label of luk kreung, or “half blood/half breed” was used to stigmatize children of foreign servicemen following the war in Vietnam.
Jenny’s experience with the term was different.
Jenny says she never felt people used the term “in a defamatory way.” She even thought that luk kreung meant “something special.”
Indeed, it’s the term she uses to describe herself. She doesn’t view it as derisive.
Many Thai people are surprised to find out that Jenny is Thai because of her outward appearance, the result of her mixed heritage.
When the situation arises, she tells people, “‘I’m adopted.’ I always say that immediately. ‘I’m a luk kreung, and I’m adopted.’”
It has become more of a reflex than anything else.
She says it never occurred to her to represent herself otherwise. She claimed the label “because I was proud to be adopted and it was never any issue.”
‘He Never Asked For Her Name’
While never feeling excluded due to her race, the question of her parentage refused to be ignored, and was a constant source of curiosity for Jenny S., now 53 and living in Switzerland. Since she learned she’d been adopted, she’d been searching for her mother, but it was only recently that she started to get somewhere.
A key obstacle from the start was that the legal documents involving her adoption were not filled out properly. Her birth certificate recorded the name of the Thai woman who fostered Jenny before she was adopted instead of her biological mother.
Jenny never visited her foster mother when she was younger. She and her adoptive parents “really regret that” because they missed an opportunity to learn more about Jenny’s parents. But she says her adoptee family was also “really scared” at the time that Jenny might be taken away, especially after a Thai family reclaimed a child from a Swedish couple had made the headlines.
To Jenny’s knowledge, her foster mother was the only one in her life to know her mother’s name. That lead died with her.
She had always dreamed about finding her mother. “I always wanted to know about her,” she says. “I had this fantasy impression in my head that I would first find my Thai mother,” who, she thought, would also reveal who her father was.
“That was my naive idea,” Jenny admits. The thread to her mother was broken.
On a hunch, she took a DNA test from the American genealogy site, Ancestry.com. She hadn’t found her mother, but to her surprise she discovered her father, who was still alive and living in America. She had learned his name, found his address, and…announced her existence to the surprised father through a letter.
The picture in her mind of meeting her mother before her father shattered. “I never would’ve dreamt it would be the opposite way!” she exclaims.
She says her father “was shocked.” He never had any idea she existed. Chuck told her that Jenny’s mother was a beautiful girl who served him noodles at a shop across from the main gate of the base.
He never knew she had given birth to their child. Even more disappointing, she says, was that “he never asked for her name” and he had no idea where she came from.
She seemed to have reached a dead end. Her mother’s identity, despite genealogical testing, help from outsiders, and connections with distant family members, continued to elude her.
However, like many adopted people, Jenny wished to learn about her parents, especially her Thai mother.
Jenny with her Swiss parents last summer
Turning to DNA tests and genealogy in Thailand
Using genealogical sites, Jenny searches for new relatives who may know something about her mother. She says that while DNA tests and genealogy searches aren’t as popular in Thailand compared to the West, she still finds it “interesting,” and will continue to monitor new branches of her family tree as her Thai relatives enter their data.
She even came to Thailand last year and went to the spot where the noodle shop had been. The shop was gone. People who might have known something about the shop had moved away or died. Even people who might have known something about those people were nowhere to be found.
Hoping to find new information about who her mother was, Jenny has reached out to Vietnam veterans, good samaritans, and even a popular Thai TV show.
Contacting The Isaan Record (she suspects her mother had possibly come originally from Ubon) is her last-ditch effort.
She describes the experience of looking for her birth mother as a rollercoaster ride “full of ups and downs.” She has to constantly remind herself to keep her feet on the ground and not be too hopeful.
Still, she really hopes that she’ll be able to meet her mother.
If she did meet her, Jenny’s message would be this:
“I would just tell her that it’s OK, you know? I would tell her what happened to me. That I had a good life and everything went well. That I’m not angry at her and I would just –it’s hard to tell what I would really tell her cuz you never know what emotions can overcome you.”
Readers: Tell Jenny’s story to people you know. They may tell you to talk to someone else who might know who then tells you to go talk with yet another. And who knows? Maybe, collectively, the story of Jenny’s mother–and Jenny’s mother herself–will finally appear and Jenny can get the answers she’s been searching for.
- Futrell, R. (1981). The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The Advisory Years to 1965. Office of Air Force History.
- Novio, E. (2020 Jan.). Luuk Khreung: The Vietnam War’s Forgotten Legacy in Thailand. Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. https://kyotoreview.org/issue-26/luuk-khreung-the-vietnam-wars-forgotten-legacy-in-thailand/
- Richburg, K. (1988, June 5). In Thailand, Some Vietnam Vets Are Still Missing By Choice. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1988/06/05/in-thailand-some-vietnam-vets-are-still-missing-by-choice/74128483-1054-480b-90bc-b2b331577865/
- Ruth, R. A. (2017, Nov. 7). Why Thailand Takes Pride in the Vietnam War. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/07/opinion/thailand-vietnam-war.html