From The New York Times, I’m Dan Jones.
And I’m Miya Lee. This is the Modern Love podcast. Today’s essay comes from a writer named Kacey Vu Shap.
I remember when this story first came in, I was immediately taken by the power of it. It was clearly the most important story in his life. And it wasn’t about traditional romantic love, but more about self-acceptance through friendship.
Yeah, I was struck by his bravery in sharing it, and just kind of the beauty of his ability to process the trauma he experienced in childhood and come to a really positive place.
It’s called, “Why Did She Leave Me There?” It’s written by Kacey Vu Shap, and it’s read by Keong Sim.
The gate to the orphanage was smaller than I remembered. Nearly 25 years had passed since I lived there. I wondered if coming back was a good idea. My best friends, Phu, Francis and Will, had planned this trip to Vietnam and invited me to come. I met them 15 years earlier when I was in high school. They were in college and had started a support group for young gay Asian men. At the time, I was rocking blonde highlights, blue contacts and Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts with baggy ripped jeans.
Phu and Francis thought I was trying too hard, but they let me tag along. Now they had become my overprotective brothers, nagging me about everything. My friends knew I’d lived in an orphanage near Ho Chi Minh City. They suggested that we try to visit as part of our trip. And they wanted to do a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the orphans who now live there. I thought that was crazy. We were set to leave in a week. And I had no desire to return to a place I had spent most of my life trying to forget.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Francis said. “You won’t be alone. We’ll be with you.”
They were able to talk me into it. Within days, we had raised more than $5,000 to buy clothes, toys and other essentials.
The next week, we were greeted by tiny faces and bony outstretched hands as we unloaded the donations from a rented truck. We made our way inside the orphanage. How odd that I once had been among those scared, excited faces, vying for attention from a stranger like me. Back then, the big building was dilapidated, the white paint covered in dirt and the walls battered. The orphanage had since been fixed up and expanded. But one thing remained — the distinct odor of baby powder, sweat, urine, decay, hopelessness and despair.
I was five when I arrived at the orphanage. I was too small to quarter with the older children, but too big to be with the babies. So they put me with those with deformities, missing limbs or mental illnesses. The memories came rushing back as my friends and I walked inside. My eyes began to swell. My heart pounded. And my anxiety kicked in. Before long, I was fleeing to the gated entrance, my friends calling after me.
As a child, whenever I told people I was adopted, I used to say I came premade. I simply appeared on one summer night at the Baltimore airport to be greeted by my mom, dad and sister, who were bearing candies, flowers and kisses. It was easier to sanitize my story by speaking only of my life as Kacey, who is loved and wanted, than to tell people of my life as Vu, who was abandoned and undesired.
I never knew my birth mother. She died when I was two in the delivery room, along with my brother. I hardly knew my birth father. He was a migrant worker who was never around. When I was five, my older sister drowned in a river near my grandmother’s home. I watched from 10 feet away, as she thrashed and then disappeared in the murky water. I had pleaded with her to play in the river with the other children, despite my grandmother forbidding us from going when she wasn’t around. I wish it had been me who drowned that day.
Then it was just my grandmother and I living together in a poor farming village in southern Vietnam. If my grandmother were a cat, I was her tail because wherever she went, I followed. I loved being near her in the kitchen. Exotic spices mingling with seasoned meat and fresh herbs would cocoon us in their delicious embrace, as I peppered my grandmother with questions about our favorite subject: my mother.
“Grandma, you have my eyes, my nose and my cheeks,” I said. “Do you think my mother also looked like me?”
“Of course, silly. Who do you think gave you and your mother such handsome features?” She beamed her toothless grin. Then she stopped chopping vegetables and said, “Can I tell you a big secret? Your mother was my favorite of all my children. She always tried to make everyone laugh. I want you to be good like your mother, yes?”
“OK,” I said.
After my sister died, I learned that my father had died, too. And it wasn’t long before my grandmother told me to pack my things for a trip. I was delighted, having never been on a trip before.
Eventually, we arrived at a big white building full of children.
After touring the place, my grandmother seemed reluctant to leave. Finally, she bent down and said, “I’m going home, but you are staying here.” I stood there, frozen.
My grandmother cupped my cheeks with her leathery hands and directed my face toward hers, her normally fierce eyes filled with sadness. She took a floral pattern handkerchief from her neck and wrapped it around mine. It was her favorite, infused with her familiar scent.
Then she stood up and walked away, without looking back. I tried to follow, but strong hands gripped me.
I screamed for my grandmother, begging her to take me home.
After she left, I waited for days at the gated entrance, hoping for her return.
Some months later, a Jewish couple in northern Virginia was in the final stages of an adoption that fell through. They were devastated and on the verge of giving up when they received my photo from the adoption agency. They decided they wanted me as their child. It was a difficult process that took two years. I was entirely unaware of my adoption until the day I was taken to the airport. I would later learn that of the hundreds of children at the orphanage, only a handful made it to America. Most were babies. I was seven.
A quarter century has passed since my grandmother left me that day. I still carry her handkerchief, safely tucked away with me wherever I go. But her scent has since faded.
There are so many things that I’ve wanted to share with her of my American life, my loving parents, friends, dog, Los Angeles apartment and freshly minted PhD in social psychology. There are also so many questions I have wanted to ask her.
Whenever I told people I was adopted, I didn’t tell them about the day I was abandoned or of my fear that my friends and family would discover that I had been worthless enough to deserve that.
Now, my friends had seen it. They knew. When they came out and found me by the gate, they asked why I had left so abruptly.
“I knew that once you saw my orphanage,” I said, “you’d think less of me and wouldn’t want to be my friends anymore.”
“Seriously?” Phu said. “We traveled across the globe, covered in mosquito bites, soaked in sweat and you’re worried we might think less of you? We’ve been subjected to worse. There’s Kacey who’s always late, Kacey with a big head, and Kacey who chases after emotionally unavailable men. If all of that didn’t scare us off, nothing will.”
My friends surrounded me, wrapping me in their warm embrace.
“You’re family,” Francis says. “We love you. Besides, being friends with you is like catching herpes. It’s very contagious, easily treatable, but impossible to get rid of. And we’ve been treating it for over 15 years now.”
Then Will said, “And maybe your grandmother did love you. Maybe letting go of you was her final act of love so that you could have a chance at a better life.”
It’s something I had long wondered. Had she left me because I was a burden or to spare me from a brutal life of poverty?
My friends then told me that while I was outside, they had been able to find my grandmother’s last known address in the orphanage’s records. There was a chance she still might be there, only 30 minutes away. If my grandmother were still living there, I could have my answer. I thought about that and also about the love and support of my friends, family and others who had made this possible.
“No,” I said. “I don’t need to know her address. We can go now.”
For once, I could choose not to be defined by my abandonment.
With that, we left the orphanage and spilled out into Ho Chi Minh City.
The sweet scent of sizzling pork mingled with the laughter of children chasing each other, as if the streets were one giant playground.
Kacey Vu Shap is a writer, researcher and social entrepreneur in Los Angeles. After the break, Kacey talks with his friends Francis, Phu and Will.
3, 2, 1. Hey, Phu, Francis and Will. Welcome. Welcome.
Long time no see.
I’m looking forward to talking about our favorite topic — me!
I wanted to kind of start with our origin story, like who you is. How did we meet each other? Phu, you can start first.
We met at a youth pride day at AQUA booth, which is Asian Queer United for Action. Then, just, it just blossoms, friendship over time.
This is Francis. I remember meeting Kacey a few years after you and I dated. It was this 18 and up club that we went to in D.C. Remember that?
And then Kacey showed up and there was a sense of effervescence about you. You were just bouncy and —
Beautiful. Handsome. You know, I’m just filling in.
So that’s how we met, initially.
Well, I met Francis at a party. This is Will, by the way. Pronouns, any, all.
You know what’s funny, though, now that I think about it? We kind of found each other when we were all just trying to come out.
Yeah. Mm-hmm — yeah.
Like, you found Kacey and Will and I found each other when we were just trying to come out, yeah. I think when I first met you, you were struggling.
It’s so beautiful to see how much you’ve evolved from that dark space that you were at to where you are now.
Mm, thank you. Yeah, I want to talk a bit more about our trip to the orphanage and how that came to be. So what was your impetus for wanting to go to Asia?
Will, right? You and me. It was — we wanted to do an Asia birthday trip.
Yeah, it was like, hey, let’s do it.
The reason why I really wanted us to go to the orphanage was like, you said what your fondest memory of being in the orphanage is when strangers would come and give you gifts. And you light up when you say that. And my intention was, oh my God. Like, you know? Even though it was a dark time for you, you found beauty in that moment, you know? And if we could be that for those kids and give that same hope to those children, why not?
Look where you are now. We will never know what’s going to happen to those kids, but hopefully what we did sparked some kind of same feelings that you have. And you held on to those memories. Well, so I was grateful that you said yes. I know it wasn’t easy. But yeah, that was just how it all started, I think.
Yeah, and I just remember us riding to the orphanage. And my first thought was just gratitude. You walked by my side, and we would explore the orphanage together. And it was just you saw the ugliest part of my life, but yet you still didn’t care. And that’s when it was too much, and I just had to leave.
I was like, can you imagine if we left him? No, I’m just kidding.
You know what? We’ll just — bye, Will.
That was a big ploy to just bring you back to the orphanage.
And leave him there.
Oh my God.
My favorite moment had to be when they found your photo in the records. Because we were all just kind of holding our breath. We hoped, like, oh, it’s still there. And I remember as you kept flipping through it, I was hoping, too — I think we were all hoping that we would find your photo.
Yeah, and at the time, the orphanage was managed by a Christian nun group. And then when I left, they had transferred to the Vietnamese government. And it’s been 20 plus years. And the record’s probably not going to be there. And as we kept flipping through the pictures and I recognized some of the kids, and it was like, oh, they were in my village. They came with me. And I would flip through. It was like, oh, I used to hang out with this kid. And then when they flipped over and I see these vacant eyes staring back at me, and then everyone’s like, it’s you, it’s you, it’s you!
- speaker 1
Everyone’s just like, oh my God. It’s you!
- speaker 2
Wow. Oh my God. Wow. That’s so cool.
Everyone was so happy to have found it, remember? The whole room were just so happy for you. Like, there you are!
It was beautiful.
It was amazing, because seeing my photo there was validation that I didn’t make all this up, that I was there. Like, I was there. And it was just you guys sitting there with me. It was just — it’s just — that was the day I was abandoned. And it was just — I don’t know how to describe the feeling of worthlessness. But I know it’s the feeling of gratitude and also the feeling of love all in one place. And yeah, it was really just me being there, seeing that photo and then seeing you guys. And we’re all just like, it’s you! We’re here with you. You’re not alone. And it’s like, ha, OK.
I remember we ended that with a nice lunch. And we went to that restaurant. And Phu’s uncle was like, we cheers to you. Remember that?
And then Phu’s uncle was like, right now, Kacey is the happiest man in the world. And I was like, aw, that’s so true. You know?
But for you, Kacey, what about you? How has that trip transformed you?
You know, afterward, I felt like I became a better friend. I didn’t know what it was like to be there for other people in the way that you guys were with me. And I looked at how you guys were treating me and how I want to treat you guys. And I just — and had lots of therapy. And I’m so proud just that I could talk about it, that I’m not ashamed, that I can tell you about my emotions. Or I’m not ashamed about my past.
And it’s so crazy because I couldn’t get there without having you guys along with me in the journey. I am so glad I took it because I took the chance with the fear that you guys might leave me, but you guys didn’t. And then I just realized I was never abandoned. I always just loved all along, you know? Different people loved me differently. And it’s an honor to feel that we’re part of something larger and that people care about us. You know what I mean?
That’s why I had to write the story. And it’s really, I wanted to write a story that honored the friends and people in my life and that who I am today is a composite of their wisdom and the love and the kindness. And I wanted to honor it in the most meaningful way. And that trip, to me, was life-changing.
Mm. Snap, snap, snaps.
That feels so good. You have no idea. To be on the receiving end of that, you have no idea. So thank you for that, too.
You’ve been touched by Kacey.
Phu, Francis, Will, I really appreciate your time for this. And thank you so much for just being here with me and dissecting the story. And we’ll see each other again.
Love you, Kacey! Any time. Love you. Thank you.
Bye, guys. Bye. I love y’all.
Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero with help from Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Wendy Dorr, music by Dan Powell. This episode was mixed by Corey Schreppel. This week’s essay was written by Kacey Vu Shap and read by Keong Sim. Special thanks to Phu Nguyen, Francis Labra, Will Conlu, and Kacey Vu Shap. And also to Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani, Bonnie Wertheim, Anya Strzemien, Sam Dolnick, Choire Sicha, and Ryan Wegner at Audm.
I’m Dan Jones.
And I’m Miya Lee. We’ll be back next week with more stories for Modern Love.
Thanks for listening.