To understand what’s happening in this picture I need to tell you a story. I’m going to keep it as brief as I can, but in reality, this is a long story that spans two hemispheres, three continents, four marriages, and more than forty years.
Imagine for a moment that you’re going about a very ordinary day when you get a call from someone you know. “I don’t think your Dad is your biological father. I think I know your biological father, and he’s living in France.” That’s essentially what happened to Monika, a friend of mine from Australia.
Monika was born in 1977 in Vietnam. The Vietnam war had ended but the region was still perilously unstable. Thousands of people were being executed and around a million were sent to ‘re-education’ camps where many died.
The volatile situation led Monika’s grandfather to decide to take his family and flee the country, joining a mass exodus that was going on at the time. The only route of escape was by boat, and the journey was extremely dangerous.
Of the estimated 1.5 million people who took to the waters to escape the troubles, many died. The Australian Immigration Ministry estimated that somewhere between 200,000 to 500,000 people either drowned or were attacked by pirates, murdered or sold into slavery and prostitution.
Monika’s family were among the lucky ones who managed to make it as far as Australia, a country that was, at the time, open to immigrants that were referred to as “boat people.” She was barely five months old when her family were re-settled in Brisbane, Queensland.
Living the usual western way of life you would expect in a developed country like Australia, Monika went through the motions of growing up much the same as any of us have. As a teenager, she had the usual precarious relationship any teenager has with their parents, but nothing was out of the ordinary. Nothing, that is, apart from something her mother said to her when she was 14 years old.
After arguments with her father, Monika wondered how the two of them were so absolutely different. What teenager hasn’t asked that question? However, her mother made an off-the-cuff remark about Monika’s father not being her actual father, and that her real dad lived in far away. The comment was very strange and confusing, and unsurprisingly it stayed with her.
Back in Vietnam in the mid 1970s, before she was married, Monika’s mother had a relationship with a young fisherman whom she called her ‘first love.’ It was, however, a hopeless love, doomed to fail because her family didn’t approve of the young man. In the end, she married a boy from a well-off family, but not before one final romantic encounter with the fisherman who wanted her heart.
Shortly after Monika was born, her mother ran into her ‘first love’ by chance while she was out. The two spoke for a while, and he held her baby. She asked him if he would consider being Monika’s godfather, and he said he would. However, they never saw one another again because just days after that encounter, Monika’s family fled Vietnam.
The story could have ended there, and perhaps Monika’s mother wishes it had, but now nearly forty years later, Monika is in touch with a man who thinks he might be her biological father. That man is her mother’s first love.
He left Vietnam in 1979 and now lives in Paris, France. He came to know about his alleged long-lost daughter through his sister who met her when she was a teenager. Back then, she thought that her brother’s resemblance to Monika was striking, but it wasn’t until Monika’s parents divorced that she decided to approach her with her suspicions.
In June this year, she raised the question over Monika’s heritage. It might have been a shock to anyone, but as soon as the question was raised Monika remembered that strange remark about her dad not being her biological father.
Initially, her mother reacted by saying it was a subject she had hoped to leave until she was on her “death bed”, which is far from a resounding denial. Since then, both mother and daughter have been on a rollercoaster of emotions, and if her mother knows the answer then she’s reluctant to reveal it, or at the very least, accept it.
And so we come to today’s picture, taken in a Vietnamese restaurant late on a Paris evening. It’s barely six in the morning in Melbourne, Australia, but Monika is wide awake and messaging back and forth with me on WhatsApp. Across the table from me, wearing a brown t-shirt and glasses is the man who first loved her mother more than forty years ago.
At her request, I’ve come to help and witness the man who might be her father provide a DNA sample for testing. He’s polite, but our conversation is limited as he only speaks Vietnamese. He seems somewhat nervous and I can only imagine what he must be thinking. Apparently, he’s been married three times, and this week he was in court in the midst of his third divorce. The stress of that, as well as this fatherhood question, seemed evident on his face.
I handed him the swab which his colleague explained he had to put inside his cheek for thirty seconds. We sit there in silence while he swabs the inside of his cheek as his colleague watches the seconds tick by on his watch. Two samples are collected, then some papers are signed, and that’s it. I take a few pictures for Monika, then we shake hands and I leave with the DNA samples.
For now, Monika has decided to keep this from her dad until such time as there is certainty. That conversation will surely be a difficult one to have. Her mother is keen for the result, whatever it is, to remain a secret and definitely not to get out into the Vietnamese community she lives in. As for Monika, she is looking at unknown territory and facing the question of what happens to her history and her heritage if her biological father is a man she’s never known.
In a few days, the DNA samples I collected today will be heading to a lab in Australia. Before the end of the month, the tests will answer one question. More may very well follow, and for those questions, there can be no science to provide a clear answer.
A few days after the lab in Australia received the DNA samples from Paris, Monika learned the results of the test. Her mothers ‘first love’ from when she was a teenager back in Vietnam, is indeed Monika’s father. It was the result Monika had expected and her mother had feared.
“In my heart I knew it had to be true.” Monika told me. Her, now confirmed biological father was very pleased to have found a long-lost daughter. Plans are now being made for the pair to meet, probably in Paris in the coming months, then perhaps “Papa France,” as Monika calls him, will travel to Australia in August 2017.