Danish traveler Brian Hjort didn't plan on going to Vietnam in 1992, but the trip changed his life. In a chance meeting with an Amerasian man he met in Ho Chi Minh City, a dream -- and a personal lifelong mission -- was born: helping to bring Amerasian people from all over Asia in touch with their American fathers or other relatives.
Using Internet outreach and a dedicated website, coupled with frequent trips to Vietnam, Hjort has become a kind of accidental angel helping to bring peace of mind to the adult children of American fathers who fought or served in the military in Southeast Asia and Japan.
Although he has not yet visited Japan, Hjort is aware of Amerasian adults in Japan, of course, and has been in contact with a few of them by email. He hopes to visit Tokyo in the near future in his role as friendship ambassador to Amerasian people worldwide.
It's a mission that began without a real plan over 15 years ago, and now Hjort -- who is not an American and was only four years old when the Vietnam War ended in 1975 -- plans to keep his non-profit mission alive for the rest of his life.
Born and raised on an island off the coast of Denmark, Hjort lives in Malmoe, Sweden, with his Peruvian wife of eight years and their daughter, 6. In a recent email, he explained why he has Japan on his itinerary and what he hopes to achieve there.
"Over the years, I have been involved with some cases of Amerasians from Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan, in addition to Vietnam, where this work began for me," he said. "But I have never received that many inquiries or responses from Amerasians in Japan, other than one person whose father served with the military in Okinawa. But I am aware of that there are some, maybe many, Amerasians living in Japan who might want help finding their fathers or their fathers' relatives, just to make contact and know more about their heritage."
Hjort is the most unlikely of independent international aid workers. He studied to be a blacksmith in Denmark as a teenager, but an accident that later damaged his eyes made that line of work impossible to take on. His day job now is in a furniture factory in Sweden, painting chairs and tables, and the salary he takes home allows him to provide for his wife and daughter while also keeping his dream of reaching out to Amerasians alive.
The man likes to travel. "I've been all over, to Laos and Cambodia and the Philippines, through north Africa, across the United States by bus, and down to Mexico and Paraguay and Brazil and Peru, which is where I met my wife," he said. "I spent some time in London, too."
When asked what drew him to work first with Amerasians in Vietnam, Hjort explained that he knew very little about the Vietnam War or the U.S. role in it since he was born in Denmark just four years before the war ended in 1975. But on a backpacking trip through Thailand in the early 1990s, Hjort heard that Vietnam was beginning to open up to tourists, so he arranged for a visa and flew to Ho Chi Minh City.
"I met a lot of Amerasians right away in Vietnam then, but one guy I met, an Amerasian with an American passport, started me off on my mission, in an indirect way. His name is Doan Thanh Vu, or Arnold Doan, and I first met by chance outside the Amerasian Transit Center in Ho Chi Minh City. He became my friend and helped me navigate the side streets of old Saigon, and he once sort of saved my life when a local gang was set on attacking me and taking my money. Arnold heard about the upcoming attack from his friends and arranged for a bunch of Amerasians took protect me as my bodyguards. To this day, I feel that Arnold's actions, and the group of bodyguards he assembled, saved my life, and you know, I never forgot what they did for me, and that's how I began working with Amerasians this way."
When asked what keeps him going in his outreach work, a religious faith or a personal philosophy, Hjort said it's in his blood.
"For me, all this is about a love for mankind, a caring for those who have very little and got a rotten start in life, and a feeling that one can change things from bad to good," he said. "So instead of getting angry at all the sadness and injustice I saw in Vietnam in 1992, all around me, I decided then and there to try to change things for the better, and I found that even as just one person, I could make a difference. I found out what I could do as one person."
"Amerasians need to know their father, need to try to find their fathers, and that's where I felt I could try to help, fill in the gaps somewhat. I can't save the world, but maybe I can help work with a small part of it and do my bit, and that's what my mission and outreach is all about. I hope I can help make the world at least at little bit better of a place to live in," he said.
When asked what he would say to the Amerasians in Japan when he visits Tokyo to meet Amerasian adults living there, Hjort said: "I'll say something like this: Close your eyes, and imagine that your skin is brown or that your hair is blond or your eyes are blue. Imagine that you're the only one like this among your classmates or in your town in Japan. Imagine that people are always looking at you, staring at you, sometimes calling you names and insults, hitting you, spitting on you. That's what life has been like for many Amerasians in Asia and overseas.
"Open your eyes my friends in Japan, and then you will understand a little about what it means to be Amerasian, what it means to be different, to have a different ethnic origin that separates you from others. Amerasians in Japan are the children of a Japanese woman and an American father, black or white, and remember that America is a friend of Japan, always has been. Amerasians in Japan might be invisible today, a group of people who were not supposed to exist, forgotten and disowned by their fathers overseas and looked down upon by their fellow Japanese. Is this good? Is this right?"
He adds: "Japan's Amerasians were left over from the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the bases in Tokyo and Okinawa. They are often forgotten in Japan, I suppose, and not only by their American fathers and the U.S. government, past and present, but also by the media. I'd like to address these issues in Tokyo when I visit, and even now my website is open to field questions and supply answers when we can."© Japan Today