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Longing to return
Man raised in the U.S. now has a passion for his native Vietnam.

August 03, 2005 By Leslie A. Pappas
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

For 18 years of his life, Jonathan Groth denied who he was. Growing up with his adoptive German-Polish family in a predominantly white area of Buffalo, he just wanted to fit in.

"When I looked in the mirror," he said, "I was six foot tall with blond hair and blue eyes."

Today, he sees himself: a 5-foot-6, 33-year-old man from Vietnam.

Groth, of Doylestown, was one of the 2,547 children flown out of Vietnam 30 years ago, just before Saigon fell, in a mission now known as Operation Babylift.

Now a sales manager, married with three children, he finds himself on an emotional journey of self-discovery. And, as is the case with many of his fellow adoptees, his journey is taking him back to Vietnam.

"I know I can never be happy without going back and contributing to that culture," said Groth, who is determined to return one day for good. "I'm drawn to Vietnam. It's where I want to raise my family."

Last month, World Airways, which flew the first 57 orphans out of Saigon on April 2, 1975, commemorated Babylift's 30th anniversary by flying 21 adoptees back to Vietnam for a two-day tour of the city, now Ho Chi Minh City.

Groth was among them, on his third trip back.

He plans to go again in December to look at real estate, job possibilities, and schools for his three children. He's toying with the idea of self-employment, possibly getting started by buying a piece of property and renting out part of it.

He knows it will be a tough sell, especially for his wife.

"It wasn't a part of the marriage vows to go back to Vietnam and live with our three children," he said.

Bert Ballard, a Babylift adoptee from Denver who is vice president of the Vietnamese Adoptee Network, said it was common for adoptees to want to go back to Vietnam.

"The reasons vary with the individual, [a sense of] connection, the need to regain some sense of loss," he said. ". . . We just know we're missing something, and by going back to Vietnam you may be able to regain a piece of that." Groth said his adoptive parents are still uneasy about the passion he now has for his homeland.

When he arrived in the United States as a child, they found a Vietnamese priest who talked to him and wrote three pages of notes about his past based on that conversation. Groth told him that a priest in Vietnam had told him he would fly in a plane and go to a new family, and that he should try to love them but never forget Vietnam.

After that, he talked little about his birthplace, said his mother, Lucille Groth, now of Perkasie.

His older brother and sister quickly picked up their new sibling's favorite Vietnamese songs and phrases - ones that they would remember but he would forget.

When news about Vietnam came on television, his father, Donald Groth, would ask him whether he recognized anything. "Jonathan would always get this blank look on his face, and he would look very sad but he would never say anything," his mother said. "It was almost as though he wanted to be so much a part of us that he wanted to put other things out of his mind."

No matter how much love and acceptance they find in their new family, adoptees of a different race, country and culture often long for their birthplace, said Susan Soon-Keum Cox, a Korean adoptee who has organized several adoptee reunions.

"There is still a connection to your country and heritage that cannot be severed," she said. "You can't ignore it."

Jonathan Groth said his awakening began in college when he met the woman who would become his wife, a Korean American named Bonnie Lee. He watched her interact with her family. He and Bonnie related to each other's experience of being the only Asian face in the classroom. He realized he didn't know who he was.

They married in May 1996 and moved to Doylestown in September 2000. It was Bonnie Groth who bought the airline ticket for her husband's first trip to Vietnam in May 2001.

"I thought it was important that he see Vietnam," she said. "I just felt like Jonathan had a lot of baggage . . . and the only way he would be able to unpack those bags one day would be to go there."

She wasn't fully prepared for what happened next.

Carrying only a backpack and the notes from the priest, Groth returned to Vietnam alone. He found his orphanage. French-speaking nuns told him that he was probably one of 120 children brought there in 1972 from just north of Hue. He took a hydrofoil to Vung Tau Bay, where he had told the priest he used to swim. He wandered the Mekong Delta.

"It ignited something in me," he said. "How proud I was to be Vietnamese. And how ashamed I was that I survived." His "opulent lifestyle in Bucks County" didn't make sense when he returned, he said.

"There was this big change. It's almost as if we were given somebody else back," said Bonnie Groth. "I didn't think he would have this great longing to be there and be there full time.

"When I saw him in Vietnam this past month, he was so much more alive," she said. "I believe now that at some point in our lives, if we want to stay together, we're going to be moving to Vietnam."

Jonathan Groth feels ready. Bonnie Groth doesn't.

"If we were to pack up tomorrow and go, we would have nothing. There's not much security in that," she said.

But she knows that the issue will not go away.

"There will always be this part of him that yearns to be somewhere else," she said. "And there's nothing that I can do to help him there.

"And I think it will be the same in Vietnam. Eventually, he's going to have to unload that suitcase."

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Leslie A. Pappas Phone +1 215-266-6771
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