The Vietnamese countryside gets quiet in the middle of the night. So quiet, that early on the morning of May 23 the night watchman outside the Tam Ky orphanage had drifted off to sleep, only to be awoken by the squeal of a motor scooter’s tires as it drove off.
The bundle that scooter left behind, at the gates of the fenced-in compound, down a narrow dirt road on the fringes of a dusty little town outside of Danang, is the reason David and Chanin French have journeyed more than 8,000 miles from their home in Jackson Heights.
Whether from grogginess, the shock of having discovered a three-day-old baby -later named Oliver - outside his gates, a lack of protocol, or some combination of the three, Tam Ky’s watchman failed to make a note of the occurrence in his logbook. Because of this oversight, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) have been questioning how Oliver arrived at the orphanage. The logbook entry would have qualified Oliver for orphan status, there would be no cloud of suspicion surrounding the legality of the adoption, and the Frenches would already be home with their son.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) does not dispute the actual adoption and as far as the Vietnamese are concerned, David and Chanin are Oliver’s legitimate parents.
Yet a missing entry on some page in some notebook has been enough to deny the child a visa and put all homecomings on hold, forcing the Frenches and their new son into a legislative and bureaucratic tug-of-war hinging on what David French considers “a bewilderingly minute point.”
The Frenches are sharing an apartment in Hanoi with another couple that has adopted a Vietnamese baby. Like David and Chanin, the other couple has been caught in the web of an alleged crackdown on baby selling and has encountered problems obtaining a visa for their child.
One of them had an Irish passport though, and was able to get the child a visa to Ireland, where they will await entrance into the U.S.
David estimates the amount he and Chanin have spent so far on legal fees for both their American and Vietnamese counsel, the cost of running two households and money spent on airfare, if invested, would be enough to cover Oliver’s college tuition in 20 years.
Adding to the difficulty of their situation is the fact that David, a freelance arts writer, has no income right now and Chanin, a lawyer on maternity leave from a Manhattan firm, is scheduled to return to work the first week in January, when the lease on their Hanoi apartment is up. Chanin may return to Queens alone to work and David may end up staying in Vietnam to take care of Oliver, find a new apartment and look for a job of some kind.
“There’s the frustration at being put in this guilty-until-proven-innocent situation,” David wrote in an email from Vietnam recently, “and the fact that we have to explain the boat we’re in to everyone we know, everyone we talk to, as if we’ve committed some crime that we need to explain away.”
Alone in his new Jackson Heights apartment recently when he returned for a 10 day trip to check up on the dogs and pay some bills, David marveled at his situation.
“We’ve lived in Hanoi longer than we’ve lived in Queens,” he said matter-of-factly.
David and Chanin moved to Queens from Park Slope, Brooklyn, in anticipation of needing more space after they welcomed a child into their lives. Now it seems the move may have been premature as the couple has been in Vietnam for over two months. There is a chance those two months could turn into two years if Oliver’s case is not overturned; after two years of being in David and Chanin’s physical custody, David explained, Oliver would qualify for an IR-2 visa and would finally be able to come home. By then he would be a toddler.
“The big irony is that we set out to do the whole thing not because we were infertile but because we wanted to do a little bit of good in the world,” David said. He and his wife were drawn to the idea of adoption because they knew how many parentless children there are in the world.
Fearing the worst, but adapting to the circumstances, David has begun taking Vietnamese lessons. “We just want to come home to Queens and pick up with our lives and the life we planned for Oliver before all this happened,” David said.
“The other day we were delighted to find bagels and Philadelphia cream cheese in a grocery store here that caters to Westerners. Inevitably it was the worst bagel of our lives - tasteless, with no texture and the cream cheese mealy and runny, but it was nice to go to bed looking forward to having a bagel for breakfast for the first time in months,” he said.
While there is no telling when it will happen, David and Chanin French are ready to show Oliver what a real New York bagel tastes like.
“Becoming parents is a great experience in and of itself,” David said, “but becoming Oliver’s parents - that is a joy that I wish I could share with everyone in the world.”