Mental health professionals have long been concerned by the numbers of Vietnamese Amerasians who have had adjustment and psychological problems since moving to the United States.
Now, a new study at Ohio State University suggests that the thoughts and feelings these refugees have about their American biological fathers play a powerful role in how well they adjust to life in the United States.
The study showed that those who reported thinking about their biological father most frequently were more likely to report psychological distress and even self-destructive behavior, said Fred Bemak, co-author of the study and professor of counselor education at Ohio State.
Vietnamese Amerasians are children who were fathered by U.S. servicemen and civilians during the Vietnam War. Since 1982, about 77,000 of these children and their family members have been admitted to the United States.
Many of these children arrived in the United States with hopes of reuniting with their fathers, Bemak said.
"Most of these children didn't have names or addresses for their fathers. Often, all they had was a faded photo or stories from their mothers," he said.
"But their fantasy was that when they migrated to the United States they were going to find their dads and life was going to be good. When that didn't happen, their dreams were shattered."
Bemak conducted the study with Rita Chi-Ying Chung, assistant professor of counselor education at Ohio State. Their results were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Community Psychology.
The research involved 169 Amerasians living in 10 U.S. cities (Dallas, Denver, Greensboro, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Memphis, Minneapolis, New York City, Salt Lake City, and Seattle.) They had been in the United States an average of 13 months.
All the respondents completed questionnaires that examined psychological distress and self-destructive behavior (such as suicide attempts.) They were also asked a variety of questions about their thoughts and feelings about their biological fathers.
Bemak said he believed the refugees' thoughts about their fathers would be a key to psychological adjustment, given their upbringing as biracial Amerasians in Vietnam, which is a homogeneous and very patriarchal society. Many of these refugees had faced discrimination and shame in Vietnam because of the absence of their fathers. In Vietnamese society, fathers hold a particular importance. The children's problems were further intensified because their fathers were American.
"The fact that their fathers were absent was a significant factor in their lives, and probably fueled their fantasies about finding their father when they got to the United States," Bemak said.
The study found that 76 percent wanted to meet their father when they got to the United States, but only 30 percent even knew his name. About 22 percent had tried to contact their father and only 3 percent had actually succeeded in meeting him.
"When you go from 76 percent of these children wanting to meet their fathers to only 3 percent actually doing it, it's not hard to see where this would cause psychological problems," he said.
So it wasn't surprising that those who reported thinking most about their fathers showed the highest levels of psychological distress and self-destructive behavior. But the study also found that children who said they did not want to meet their fathers also showed higher levels of distress than did others.
"We think that these children were in denial," Bemak said. "They had lived in a patriarchal society where fathers were particularly important, but were denying they even thought about their fathers. We don't believe that."
Another telling statistic from the study was the fact that 67 percent of the respondents believed that their Vietnamese mother and American father loved each other. The results showed that, in particular, the female Amerasians who believed their parents loved each other were more likely to have psychological problems.
"The women in the study may have romanticized the relationship between their mother and biological father," Bemak said. "They developed this fantasy about their parents, and were more shattered by the fact that they couldn't even find their father."
Bemak said the findings suggest that therapists, community program administrators, and mental health professionals need to be more aware and sensitive about the significance of the American biological father for Vietnamese Amerasians.
"For many of these refugees, a key to their adjustment will be how they deal with their feelings about their biological father, especially once in the United States," he said.
Contact: Fred Bemak