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Archive for Monday, July 29, 1996

A VISIT TO CULTURE THEY LEFT BEHIND

July 29, 1996

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A visit to Vietnam gives sisters a greater understanding of themselves and each other.

As children they came by the thousands, airlifted out of the humid jungles of Vietnam, bound for a new life in the United States, Canada and Europe.

Most of them had no record of their given name, parents' names or place of birth. Even birthdays remain a mystery.

"I think that's why my birthday is not a big deal," said Alison Doerr, who was adopted. "I don't celebrate much."

Doerr was adopted by a Kansas City couple who later divorced. Her adoptive mother then remarried a day-care director who had children of his own. Alison Doerr and her stepsister Kym Wiedenkeller met as toddlers at Kansas University's Hilltop Child Development Center, and grew up as best friends and sisters.

Today, both are 21 and college students -- Wiedenkeller at KU and Doerr at Hastings College in Hastings, Neb.

The two were among 28 adopted children and family members who recently traveled to Vietnam to visit orphanages and find out more about the culture they left behind.

"I was glad I came," Doerr said. "It was something I needed to do. I was really hoping I would be able to find out my mom's name, but all the records had been burned.

"All I know is that I was really sick and the part (of the country) I came from was the worst part. It was poor and really dirty."

Doerr was the only adopted child who brought her mom, stepdad and stepsister along for the trip. It helped to be among family, she said, but she still felt homesick.

"I called my dad and stepmom and said, 'I want to come home,'" she said. "I'm a fast-food junkie, and I lost a lot of weight there."

The typical Vietnamese diet is rice, fish and tropical fruits and vegetables. American cuisine is expensive and difficult to find.

"I didn't like seafood until I went over there," Kym Wiedenkeller said. "We had elephant fish at almost every meal. And you can't drink the water."

The food wasn't the only culture shock for Wiedenkeller. For the first time in her life, she was part of an ethnic minority.

"I stuck out like a sore thumb," she said. "It's something that can't be described. You start feeling like you wish your skin was a little darker, your eyes a little different shape. I have a greater appreciation for how my sister feels."

Wiedenkeller said visiting the orphanages was a sobering experience.

"The way they're run, they would never be opened in the U.S.," she said. "It was sad. There would be one person to care for 20 babies. You wonder what happens to kids from there. Most don't get adopted out of there."

The U.S. group spent as much time as possible in the orphanages, Wiedenkeller said. She plans to return to Vietnam in the future.

"My dad's already planning to go back," she said.

Doerr, too, said she plans to return, but not in the immediate future.

"I thought it would be emotional," she said. "When we first landed I thought, 'I'm home,' but when we were leaving, I realized it isn't my home. It's just where I was born. The United States is my home."

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