Leftovers: Survivors rise above to bury hate

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They’re called Bui-Doi
The dust of life
Conceived in Hell
And born in strife

They are the living reminder
We can’t forget
Must not forget
That they are all our children, too

— “Miss Saigon” lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr.

Marla’s dog Henri (Marla is not the woman’s real name, but the dog is indeed named Henri with an i) is a playmate of Mellie, our Portland Phoenix office dog. Also known as the director of morale, Mellie is celebrating her “gotcha-versary,” having been adopted one year ago this past Sunday. I’m sure LinkedIn will take note and update the occasion.

Henri and Marla joined us by chance at Quarry Run Dog Park on Ocean Avenue on Saturday. The humans sat together while the canines rolled in massive mud puddles, celebrating the infamous season. Having never conversed with Marla beyond the perfunctory hellos, we had a fascinating conversation about her background and she agreed to let me run to the car and grab a notebook. 

Marla, 48, is the daughter of an American G.I. who served in Vietnam and a Vietnamese mother she doesn’t remember. Adopted at 2 through a U.S. government effort called Operation Babylift, Marla was severely undernourished and spent a month in the hospital upon arrival in America.

Raised by American parents in Houston, she had a happy childhood and considers herself a Texan. She eventually landed in Portland while completing a residency, met her husband, and decided to stay.

“We love the ocean and my work is satisfying,” she said. “It’s been a good place to raise our son.” 

Marla never looked for her biological parents, believing it would be hurtful to the large family that raised her.

“I am a war statistic, you know?” she said. “There were thousands of children of American G.I.s and local women who were either prostitutes or believed they were in love. They were poor and scared, I imagine. So, I have nothing but good feelings about the woman who gave me up for adoption. It must have been very hard.” 

Her real-life story reminded me of the award-winning play, “Miss Saigon,” which is based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera Madame Butterfly, and similarly tells the tale of a doomed romance involving an Asian woman abandoned by her American lover. 

A nurse and babies arriving in San Francisco as part of Operation Babylift in April 1975. (Courtesy Atlas Obscura/National Archives)

Our chat turned to the events of the day, and I asked Marla if she felt compelled to attend the Stop Asian Hate Rally being held in town. She shook her head no, said she promised her son she wouldn’t go, and had no desire to go.

“I’m on call tomorrow and he’s worried about violence, even at work,” Marla said. “He’s the spitting image of me and has taken an activist stance in New York, where he lives. In Houston, there is a much larger (Vietnamese-American) community than Portland and when I was young, my parents would take me to functions and holiday celebrations so I could learn about the culture and see other kids like me. Then, we’d go home and watch football.” 

Marla would not agree to a picture taken with Henri.

“He’s caked in mud and my son and husband would not be happy,” she said. “This Asian hate is not new, and I’ve been lucky to experience little of it personally. My skin is thick around name-calling and I laugh that people think the virus could have originated with a Vietnamese-American from Texas. People become anxious when they don’t understand something.” 

She phrased it far kinder than I would have as Henri and Mellie continued to play-fight over a torn tennis ball. 

Marla stepped away to answer a phone call and I started thinking about the Jewish holiday of Passover, which began that evening. The story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt to escape slavery has been celebrated since the 5th century BCE, but there’s still as much anti-Semitism as ever. How do people have the time and energy to hate so many epistemic communities different from themselves?  

Doesn’t everyone just want to get someplace where they are free to be themselves, honor what they believe, and can be part of a productive, democratic society? At that moment in Quarry Run, it seemed all of this had gone to the dogs. 

Marla came back calling out to Henri who continued to ignore her. Sitting again, she told me one thing she did before the pandemic was take a series of weekend-long Vietnamese cooking classes in New York with her son.

“Like pho?” I asked. Considered Vietnam’s national dish, pho (pronounced “fuh”) is a soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, varieties of herbs and sauces, citrus, meat, and sometimes chicken.

Laughing she said, ”Of course, pho is delicious but mostly an at-home or street-vendor food. I learned how to make a great broth and we had a nice time. The classes will resume in July, we hope. But I’d give anything for chicken-fried steak with my dad’s gravy.” 

On the way home, I was looking forward to celebrating Passover with my BFF and her family. We’d be having matzah ball soup instead of pho, and brisket instead of chicken-fried steak.

But most importantly, I needed to bring Mellie a taste of leftovers. Our office dog was adopted from Mississippi but prefers chopped liver to catfish.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].