Vietnam News

Vietnamese-French painter spends 40 years searching for mom

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Vietnamese-French painter Rémy Gastambide’s 40-year journey to find his roots has been marked by seven trips to Vietnam and numerous DNA tests, but his mother’s identity remains a mystery.

Fifty-four-year-old Gastambide was looking through documents related to his search for his mother, a quest he holds as dear as life itself, on a late night close to Christmas.

Among the documents were his orphanage birth certificate, his childhood photos, and pictures of his father during the Vietnam War.

His gaze eventually settled on a photo of his mother, a young woman photographed in a Saigon park during a Christmas season in the late 1970s, donning the trendy look of the city’s women of that era.

The photo had belonged to his father Stewart Foster Jr’s wartime album for over 50 years, and was recently given to him in hopes of aiding his search.

“From 1991 until now, I have tried to collect info about my mother,” said Gastambide, an artist living in the southeastern French city of Nice. His mother, if still alive, would now be between 70-75 years old.

Gastambide was born Nguyen Bac Ai on Jan. 1, 1969 and sent to Saigon’s Thong Thien Hoc Orphanage when he was 20 days old. It is unclear whether his birth name was given by his mother or later by the orphanage. He was adopted by the Gastambides, a French couple, at eight months old.

He had a happy childhood with his adoptive parents, who were scientists at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

Gastambide also had an adoptive brother who was adopted at the same time from the same orphanage. He knew little of Vietnam except for the fact that the country was his birthplace.

His feelings for Vietnam ignited when he came across a photo magazine featuring pictures of the Vietnam War.

Gastambide was immediately captivated.

He felt the photos held some secrets about his origins. So, he began collecting thousands of photos, before eventually learning that his adoptive parents knew nothing of his biological parents.

“It blew my mind,” Gastambide recalled. “I thought that my adoptive [parents] had not told me the truth.”

The young man then became determined around what he now thought was his one true purpose in life: he wanted to find out who he was, where he came from, and what the place was like.

“I had just one idea,” he said. “To go back to Vietnam to research who my parents might be.”

This discovery of meaning in his life transformed Gastambide’s adolescence, but not in solely positive ways. Torn between not wanting to upset his adoptive parents by looking for his biological parents and his longing to discover his roots, he became rebellious and defiant every time the Gastambides discouraged him from investigating who his biological family was.

As the relationship between Vietnam and the U.S. moved towards normalization in the early-1990s, many Vietnamese-born in the U.S. began returning to Vietnam to search for war-separated relatives.

Gastambide, 22 at the time, first landed in Vietnam in July 1991, using two years of savings to pay for the trip. He deemed the visit a “vital need,” despite his adoptive parents’ objections.

However, the orphanage where he spent his first months in life was dissolved in 1975, leaving Gastambide unable to find any records of himself. Though he managed to find and meet the head of the orphanage and his wet nurse, he did not get any leads towards his family. Gastambide had no other choice but to leave Vietnam after six weeks.

But he has since visited Vietnam six other times to seek out his mother. He sought help through his acquaintances there, and he shared his story through French and Vietnamese newspapers to enhance his chances of succeeding.

Right when he thought the search for his birth mother would have to be abandoned out of hopelessness, news of an American friend of his managing to reunite with his family through the help of DNA rekindled Gastambide’s hope. He has since then undergone multiple tests at 23&Me, Ancestry, Familytree, and MyHeritage. These global DNA databases claim to decode people’s origins in order to connect them with their blood relatives given that they have data about them in their systems.

Results revealed Gastambide’s DNA matched that of a black citizen. Clues to his paternal family slowly unfolded as he saw more names and faces confirming their familial relationships with him.

“Each one of them was like a piece of a puzzle,” he said. “I have discovered I had a family in the U.S., and their roots were in the State of Mississippi.”

In a DNA test with a man now identified as his uncle, Gastambide identified his father as the 78-year-old Stewart Foster Jr.

Foster was shocked when Gastambide reached him, as memories of the war still haunted him nightly.

Gastambide reassured him: “I am not the war but its aftermath…I have nothing to ask, I just want to meet.”

The French painter was invited to his paternal family’s annual reunion in Natchez, Mississippi, in July 2021. He was welcomed there by his father, four siblings, numerous nieces, nephews, and relatives, who made a total of more than 60 people. At the reunion dinner, he could not help sharing his journey to solve the puzzle of his biological parents in tears.

“I have spent all my youth, from the age of 14, thinking whether I could find who my biological parents were,” he said, adding that meeting his biological father gave him hope again.

Gastambide said he and his paternal family still maintain regular contact despite the long distance.

He learned from his father that his parents met in a military zone near Tan Son Nhat Airport in 1968. Stationed in the central highlands province of Pleiku at the time, Foster transported deceased American soldiers to Tan Son Nhat for repatriation on a monthly basis. He and his mother met only twice, and when Foster returned during his subsequent duty, he could not find the woman again.

Foster now cannot remember the name of the woman. However, he still keeps a photo of her, which he cannot recall when he was given but was sure that the woman portrayed in it was Gastambide’s mother.

With this turning point, Gastambide is now re-determined to carry on his search for his mother. He does not know if she is alive or has passed away, if she is currently residing in Vietnam or abroad, where she is from, or how many children she has had. He does not know how she would react to his search either: will she meet him or refuse him again?

But he is sure about one thing: he is ready for anything. He wants to tell her that he just wishes to meet his birth mother. He does not judge her past.

“She is, like me and my dad, a victim of the circumstances of the time,” he explained. “If this [reunion] happens, I would be more than thankful to Life.”

By Phan Duong – – January 1st, 2024

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