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Amerasian children's long journey to America

''The first thing I knew about all this was three weeks ago,'' said the mother of one Amerasian child as we sat in the Bangkok airport waiting for their flight to the United States.

Like most of the Amerasian children's relatives waiting to leave here, she requested that neither her name nor her child's be published.

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''The local authorities called me round to their office and told me I had an appointment with an American immigration official. The official told me I'd be leaving soon, and then things happened so fast that I barely had time to buy my daughter new clothes and say good-bye to people at home.''

Her wait, though, had been a long one. Shortly before Saigon collapsed in April 1975, her husband, a civilian contractor with the office of the American defense attache, left. She and her young baby stayed behind, unsure what would happen next.

''A little while after the surrender, some liberation cadres came round to my house,'' she said. ''They asked a lot of questions and took lots of notes - just like you. And then they left. That was it. Things were just normal after that. They didn't bother me, and I didn't get involved in politics.''

But though life was ''just normal,'' in her mind the woman was already living in the US. She made no secret of her marriage to an American - ''after all, it was a legal marriage'' - and she continued to correspond with her husband. And she gave her daughter, a light-skinned, brown-haired little girl of about seven or eight, a full American name - no Vietnamese equivalent, a clear sign that they were just passing through the new regime.

In 1979, the woman received sponsorship forms from her husband. ''I took them to the local authorities. They didn't say I should go, didn't say I should not go. They just said they'd look at them.''

By that time her daughter had reached school age. Did she have any problems?

''No, she went to school normally. The other children teased her a little, but not too much. And the teachers were very nice: After all, they were from the old regime.''

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''How did you like school?'' I asked the daughter. She was too busy training for her new life in America - apparently losing a battle with a mouthful of chewing gum - to answer.

''Fun,'' said the kid next to her. Light-skinned and brown-haired, she was also waiting to leave for the US. She had just started her second year.

Will she miss her Vietnamese friends? ''Yes.'' Was she looking forward to the US? ''Yes.''

What will it be like? The question moved her to unaccustomed eloquence. ''Lots of money. Lots of cars. Fun.'' Like the rest of the children in the group , she spoke no English.

For children like this, with a stable family background and a support system of relatives, life was no harder than it was for the average Vietnamese trying to make ends meet in an economy still perilously close to collapse. The children , or rather their relatives, just bided their time and counted the days till they could leave.

Some could not wait. A member of one family - four children, two of them fathered by a Hispano-American - said their life had been generally quiet. The children had attended school without incident. The family, who lived several hours' drive from Saigon, got by day to day.

''But our brother went into the Army and was sent to Kampuchea (Cambodia). He deserted, and now he's stuck in a Thai refugee camp. Do you think the American government will get him out for us?''

Although some of the children were the product of long-term relationships, sometimes even marriages, many of the Amerasians were born on the fringes of the old society. Their mothers were often bar girls or prostitutes; their fathers perhaps unknown. With the change in regimes, they slid even further to the margins. They joined their older brothers and sisters on the streets. They become the hustlers, cigarette sellers, and panhandlers who hang around the hotels in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), telling their stories to, and making a living from, foreign visitors.

Or like many Saigonese, the families of Amerasians had been relocated in the countryside after the Communist takeover - and had quietly crept back into the city later. Once back, though, they were nonpersons; they no longer were registered as inhabitants of the city, and thus had no rights to things such as schooling. Lack of papers, rather than the nationality of their fathers, seems to have led to problems for many of the kids.

Others suffered not from political, but racial, discrimination, like the little girl at the airport who said she left school after three years ''because of the teasing.''

Unlike the light-haired kids who had enjoyed school, this little girl's father was clearly black.

Children with Caucasian features in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia are often considered to be exotically beautiful. Plastic surgeons used to do a thriving trade in Saigon, duplicating Western noses and eyes. Some are said still to be active today. For children of black origin, though, it is a different story. Their features make them look very much like the tribesmen in the central highlands of Vietnam, who, like the minorities of the rest of Southeast Asia, are still the butt of racism. In Vietnam the common term for these minorities, a term frowned on for years by successive governments, is moi - savages.

Until very recently the Vietnamese government policy has been that the children were victims of the war - Vietnamese children whom the government wanted and who themselves preferred to stay in Vietnam. One Vietnamese official appeared angered, apparently genuinely so, when it was suggested that Amerasians might be subject to discrimination.

Vietnamese policy changed sharply a few months ago, however. A senior Vietnamese diplomat told visitors last August that, though Vietnam had done its best for them, the problem of Amerasian children was ''a burden.'' Their living conditions were worse than other Vietnamese children, the diplomat added, because their families did not have a father as breadwinner. Those children and relatives who wanted to leave could do so. ''Our general view is that it is better if they go to the United States,'' the diplomat said.

When the first group of Amerasians was ready to leave in late September, the Vietnamese attitude had become even more clear-cut. Vietnamese officials told the representatives of American voluntary agencies who went to Ho Chi Minh City to take delivery of the children of Hanoi's interest in a ''comprehensive solution'' to the problem. Many of the children and their close relatives wish to leave, the officials said.

Hanoi's new open policy shifts the reponsibility squarely onto Washington's shoulders. It is likely to cause quite a few problems for American officials.

The latest Vietnamese estimate is that there are between 16,000 and 20,000 Amerasian children and close relatives in Vietnam. Most of them, the Vietnamese say, probably want to leave, and some 3,000 to 4,000 have already petitioned to do so.

So far, only a relative handful of the Amerasians are documented American citizens - that is, their paternity has been acknowledged by Americans.

''That means that their American fathers have shown a willingess to help with their documentation,'' an American aid official in Bangkok explained, ''not that the father is willing to take the child.''

The private voluntary agencies most involved with the Amerasians so far - among them the Pearl Buck Foundation and Church World Service - hope to set up an office in Ho Chi Minh City to trace and document Amerasian children. The agencies still have to discuss with Hanoi whether or not they can have American staffers in the office, but they are hopeful that Vietnam will approve the idea.

The other key objective of the agencies is to persuade the US government to be as flexible and generous as possible in their approach to the Amerasian children.

Legislation giving Amerasian children preferential treatment in immigration was signed into law by President Reaganin October. The bill is designed to help children abandoned by or unknown to their American fathers. Under the bill, an Amerasian may not have to be openly acknowledged by his or her American father, though some form of paternity evidence will have to be produced. The child also must be sponsored by an American family or a private charitable agency for at least five years. The new law makes no provisions for the admission of a child's mother or half-siblings, however. The State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service will spend the next six months or so drafting regulations for implementation of the new law.

''The implementation regulations are the key,'' said a voluntary agency representative here.

If the regulations are worded flexibly, work on the Vietnamese program for the orderly departure of US-related refugees can start immediately with 1,200 cases. That leaves about 16,000 to go.

''The Vietnamese have finally moved on this,'' said an agency representative here. ''Now we have to persuade our own government to acknowledge responsibility for these kids.''

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