In 1975 as the Vietnam War was ending, Mai Thi Kim sent her seven- year-old daughter Mai Thi Hiep, later known as Heidi from that war-torn country to the United States in “Operation Babylift”. This operation saved many Vietnamese children’s life and gave them an opportunity to grow up and out of post-war chaos. This happened to Heidi, as she explains in the film “Daughter from Danang”, in which 22 years after she was given up for adoption, decides to go back to Vietnam and meet her biological family. However, the theme of culture shock is explored in depth in Daughter from Danang, as Heidi finds herself adrift in an unfamiliar culture and failing to communicate and the unable to cope with reality. In “Operation Baby Lift,” many of the children weren’t actual orphans–bereaved of both parents and all other relatives. Most children were told, “You have to remember who you are,” by mothers and other family members who relinquished them for adoption into North America.
During the episode of “Operation baby lift”, American women from the adoption agency, who were all white with long blond hair and condescending English spoke to Vietnamese women holding their children, telling them in deliberately slow speech, “Don’t worry, I’ll give your daughter a good home”. Aslo, in another instance, when a Vietnamese woman decided to give her son to a white woman, she responded, “You have done a good thing for your son. You should be proud.” White women, presented as “saviors” came to coax these children from Vietnamese women whose babies were mixed of mixed race. This episode blatantly displays three key concepts of: ethnocentrism, stereotypes and prejudice from chapter 8. The white women from the adoption agency presented an ethnocentric attitude by evaluating the Vietnamese culture, according to the standards of their own culture.
These women possessed standardized and simplified conceptions that taking these babies away from their biological parents and birthplace and to America was the best opportunity for them. This episode also display the utilization of stereotyping because these white women have assumed the the biased perspective that America is more advanced and will offer these babies more economic prosperity and opportunities. Here, these white women would be viewed as normal and superior, belonging to the “in-group”, generally the dominating group that they already associate with, or aspire to join. An out-group is simply all the other groups. They are seen as lesser than or inferior to the in-groups. The language, dialogue, and slow speech towards the Vietnamese parents on the white women’s behalf also displayed prejudice, which can be characterized as an unfavorable attitude towards a social group and its members. Heidi was one such child that was saved from “Operation Babylift”.
As Heidi’s birth mother, Mai Thi Kim, says that Vietnamese women who gave birth to mixed children – babies who were born from sex between an American military person and a Vietnamese woman – were told that their babies would be taken from them because of their being “illegitimate” children, soaked in gasoline, and burned alive. Kim was scared of this fate for her daughter, thus giving her up made the most sense to her. Hiep was adopted by a single woman, given the name Heidi, and raised in the South. Not looking very Asian, Heidi was accepted in the community of Pulaski, Tennessee, home of the Ku Klux Klan. Various friends and relatives speak of her upbringing and she herself proudly claims to be 101 percent Americanized. By the time Heidi was in her twenties, Heidi’s relationship with her adoptive mother has ended in a swift and irreparable separation. She decides to search for her Vietnamese mother and the unconditional love she expects to receive from her. She also wants to get in touch with her roots.
Heidi finally connects with Mai Thi Kim, her birthmother who has been trying to find her for years, through Tran Nhu, a consultant to the original “Operation Babylift” and a translator. She volunteers to accompany Heidi on the trip back to Vietnam and the reunion with her birth mother in Danang. The first meeting between Heidi and Mai Thi Kim at the Danang Airport is a highly emotional moment for the two women who have not seen each other for 22 years. Heidi is delighted to meet her birth mother and half-brother and half-sisters as well, The reunion continues with elaborate meals and a journey to the place where Heidi was born and the shrine of her deceased ancestors. But she grows more and more ill at ease with Vietnam and the customs of her relatives. Culture shock overtakes her in an episode where she is in a market; she is overwhelmed by the heat, smell of the fish, and high context behaviors and communication. She declares she wants nothing more than to go home as soon as possible.
Heidi is seen being suffocated by her biological mother who continuously hugs, kiss her and touch her. In addition, her mother took every opportunity to show Heidi to people living in Danang. The concept of intercultural intimate conflict obstacles is displayed here. Heidi is conflicted and is uncomfortable to the intimacy of spaces and high-context communication style.This feeling of disconnection from her Vietnamese family continuously grows and comes to a climax in a farewell party where her half brother speaks directly to a subject that Heidi does not want to deal with at all. It was at this moment that Heidi’s “brother” asked her to send money intermittently back from United States to support her family, saying, “Now we hope you’ll assume the filial responsibility a child has toward a parent.” This episode displays the key concept of intercultural individualism-collectivism relationship expectations. Heidi fails to understand that obligations are at the core of traditional Asian moral codes. She brings an individualistic attitude from America that money matters are best not talked about and can only interfere with genuine family relationship.
What rapidly followed was powerful: the first time Heidi was able to express her need for space: “Don’t touch me! Get away!” through tears, as her brother followed her after she left the kitchen where the request for financial support was posed. Here in this scene, the concept of relationship conflict resolutions occurs. Heidi’s blood relatives in Vietnam react to Heidi’s hurt at the request for money. A male sibling says, “We’re trying to understand your situation and we hope you’ll try to understand ours. Let’s just be happy. Yes, let’s just be happy. Don’t try to force anything.” Heidi’s biological mother remarks, “We don’t speak the same language so it’s not clear. What does she know about the Vietnamese notion of love and emotion?…She doesn’t understand , it’s not good to force her. She’s still in shock. I’m afraid when she goes back, she’ll be angry….It’s hard. Poor thing, she thinks I’m asking for money.”
Her mother continues, “And all I know is how much I love her.” Another man in the room chalks it up to, “This is all just a misunderstanding.”To Heidi, she feels that her family are trying to impose financial obligations onto her being that she is a privileged American woman with a better quality of life. She grows to resent them when she leaves Vietnam. In the end of the film, Heidi is shown back at home in Tennessee, with her two daughters and husband. She seeks comfort in her grandmother’s home, leafing through photographs, looking through the fridge for food. Heidi’s grandmother urges her to re-visit Vietnam, to be open-minded about it. Heidi pushes back, “But you’re who I know” and confesses in a closing interview to closing the door on the biological family.
Dolgin, G., Franco, V., Roberts, K., Griffin, B. Q., Pérez, H., Van-Anh T. Vo., WGBH (Television station : Boston, M., & PBS Home Video. (2003). Daughter from Danang. [Alexandria, Va.]: Distributed by PBS Home Video Ting-Toomey, S., & Chung, L. (2012) Understanding intercultural communication, (2nd edition). New York: Oxford University Press.