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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #31 (July 29-August 4, 2003), page 11.
Bridging two worlds
In The Arms of Grace
By LeChristine Hai
UniVoice International, 2003
Hardcover, 289 pages, $24.95
By Mike Street
After escaping Vietnam as an orphan, surviving abuse and dysfunction in her adoptive family, and rising to the top of Atlanta’s feverishly competitive homebuilding market, LeChristine Hai still felt incomplete. She had not seen her birth mother since 1972, and had few memories of the Vietnamese language and culture that had shaped her early years.
In her new book, In The Arms of Grace, Hai tells of her efforts to bridge the gap between two very different countries and cultures, in order to find her true identity as an Asian American, to unite the two halves of her personality into a wholly fulfilled one. The Asian Reporter heard the story from Hai herself, who was in town recently to share her message of tolerance, acceptance, and forgiveness.
LeChristine Hai was born Le Thi Hai in 1964, in the farming village of Nong Son, near Da Nang, Vietnam. Within four years, the escalating Vietnam War would claim her village, her home, and her father’s life. Unable to find work or shelter without her identity papers, Le’s mother had to give Le and her older brother Sang into the care of the Cam Ranh City Orphanage, run by a local minister with help from the American Air Force base nearby. Mere moments before the fall of Saigon in 1975, all one hundred orphans fled Vietnam packed in a rickety, leaking fishing boat bound for Singapore. Eventually adopted by the same family in Texas, Le became "Christi," her brother Sang became "Jason," and the two children would not see their mother or home country again for almost thirty years.
Facing anti-Vietnamese prejudice as well as marital problems within her new family, Hai found herself constantly torn between Vietnam and America, between present and past, between struggling to appear happy and feeling lost and empty inside. In The Arms of Grace unflinchingly describes her courageous battle against these forces to emerge as a successful building contractor in Atlanta. "You become part of life itself when you really start sharing and be vulnerable to who you are," she explains of her decision to tell all of her story, both good and bad. "It is in the mistakes and the vulnerability that we can connect."
Even after succeeding financially and conquering the demons of her American upbringing, Hai still felt like half a person. After much soul searching, she knew that she had to return to her native country, to remind herself of all the things she had forgotten about it, from the language to the customs, but more importantly, to find and reestablish contact with her long-lost mother. In The Arms of Grace intersperses Hai’s story in America with the story of this heartwarming reunion in Vietnam between mother, daughter, and son. It was another reminder that she is a woman torn between two different continents and families. "That trip to Vietnam was profound," Hai says. "It shook my world up, then it crystallized what I wanted."
First, she changed her name to LeChristine Hai, to show her mingled Amerasian past — "Le Hai" to honor the name her mother gave her, and "Christine" to honor her American upbringing. Next, she realized that she needed to write all of her experiences down, both to understand them herself and to share them with others. Finally, she dedicated herself to rebuilding the Cam Ranh City Orphanage and to reuniting all the orphans once living there. She says of this project, "What better way to ground and anchor something that will remind us that within this war, something good happened? We’ve actually reached full circle, to give back to the next generation." To accomplish this, she has established the nonprofit group, achild.org, which receives a portion of all the proceeds from the sale of In The Arms of Grace.
Avoiding in her book the difficult politics of the Vietnam War, she acknowledges that American soldiers were simply doing what they were trained to do. She wants to include veterans in the reunion and reconstruction of the Cam Ranh City Orphanage, and has a special connection to the soldier who is the "Grace" of the book’s title. She is searching for Airman Grace, who appears holding her in the cover photograph, to thank him as she’s thanked the other veterans. "That picture was like a snapshot of my childhood. As an orphan, I was fortunate to see the softer side, the human side, of soldiers — they’d bring gum, candy, and hugs. They were my heroes."
In addition to her orphanage work, Hai speaks across the country on issues ranging from her love of veterans, to racial identities in wartime, to the difficulties of intercultural adoptions. "I was given so much to get to this point that I want to give back," she says, then jokes, "As you can see, I’ve got nothing to do." Now a completely whole (and very busy) person, Hai is spreading her message and bringing people together in the name of love, tolerance, and forgiveness. "I’m preparing this seed right now," Hai says, "and I’m watering it, and hopefully everyone else will come nourish it with me, and it will blossom."