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'Babylift' brought them to the U.S., then to each other | (KRT) SEATTLE Chris and Kelly Brownlee step into a Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle's International District and quietly wonder to themselves if anyone can tell they are different. Sure, they look like everyone else slurping down bowls of pho - the same warm olive skin, almond-shaped eyes and straight dark hair.

But the Seattle couple is different. The 28-year-olds were just infants when they were flown out of Saigon as part of "Operation Babylift," a plan to airlift some 2,700 orphans to the United States and thousands more around the world during the waning days of the Vietnam War. Most of the adoptees grew up in white suburban families, estranged from such Vietnamese staples as pho, a beef noodle soup.

As Vietnamese expatriates around the world marked the fall of Saigon last month, the Brownlees looked back to a moment of their history as they navigate their own future and dream of raising a family steeped in a culture they're still trying to understand.

Like so many others, the Brownlees don't define themselves as among the thousands of tiny, fragile children severed from a culture and language.

"It is something that is highlighted and highlighted and highlighted again in mythic proportions," Chris Brownlee said. "While it's important, and we always need to acknowledge and understand our past, it's a small aspect of our lives."

It's difficult to say how many babylift adoptees live in the state or even the Puget Sound region. The Brownlees, who helped start a national networking group for them in 2000, estimate there may be only a handful in the state.

For many, life began the same. In April 1975, panic and confusion set in as Communist troops made their way into Saigon.

Thousands of abandoned children were taken to orphanages, some with leg braces and birth defects, others fathered by American soldiers. President Gerald Ford ordered the children taken out of Southeast Asia.

Kelly Brownlee - born Thi Anh Tuyet - was among 226 children from orphanages sandwiched into tiny cardboard boxes on the first flight out of Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon. At 4 months old, she barely weighed 10 pounds. Ticks embedded themselves into her body and ravaged her. In France, the Roux family anxiously awaited her as their new daughter. They were going to name her Ina, after the woman who took care of her in the orphanage.

Minutes after takeoff, an explosion blew out the rear doors of the C-5A Galaxy cargo plane, sending it plunging 23,000 feet into a rice paddy.

Kelly Brownlee was riding in the upper compartment, where many survived. Most of the 154 passengers in the bottom compartment died in the fiery crash, including 76 children 2 years old or younger.

For reasons that have never been clear, Kelly Brownlee was rerouted to San Francisco and eventually to the Jackson family in Renton, Wash. Another plane carried 4-month-old Chris Brownlee, born Tran Quoc Tuan in a maternity hospital in downtown Saigon, to a small town just 20 miles west of Boston.

Like other adoptees brought to the United States, the pair lived in loving homes and prospered in Western culture - going to school dances, eating cheeseburgers and listening to rock music.

But life wasn't always easy. Kelly Brownlee remembers becoming conscious of being an adoptee when her mother, Kay, would take her to the school where she taught first grade.

"The kids would say, `Is that your daughter? She doesn't look like you,'" Kelly Brownlee said.

Chris Brownlee remembers being one of only four Asians in his town.

"I had a major complex growing up as a kid because I thought I was really ugly. I would stare for hours at myself as a kid wishing my nose was more narrow, wishing my eyebrows weren't the way that they are," he said.

He admits he was a pretty angry teen. He shaved his head and joined a heavy-metal band to defy as many Asian stereotypes as he could. Then in 1992 he began working with kids in inner-city Boston. He couldn't communicate with anyone in the Vietnamese enclave of Dorchester.

"It was very frustrating to me, and I felt really inadequate. And that's the first time I started saying I really need to find out what being Vietnamese means to really figure out who I was," he said. "I knew I had to go back to Vietnam."

Years later, Chris Brownlee planned to meet with other adoptees in Baltimore on the 25th anniversary of "Operation Babylift" in April 2000. Kelly Brownlee knew nothing about the reunion until seeing a segment of "Good Morning America."

After the show, she flew to Baltimore to take part in the reunion. She remembered seeing Chris Brownlee there a few times from a distance and found him intriguing.

"We said a few words to each other. But for some reason - and this is going to sound weird and cosmic - when I talked to him, it felt like I had known him for a long time, and it felt familiar," she said. "By the end of the weekend, I couldn't imagine not seeing him again."

The two continued the bi-coastal relationship before taking a two-week trip to Vietnam together in April 2001.

The Brownlees and other adoptees stepped onto the tarmac of Tan Son Nhut Airport arm in arm, nervous and not knowing what to expect. They had left the airport 26 years ago as sickly infants but were back as strong, healthy adults.

Saigon, now officially Ho Chi Minh City, was a bustling, tropical metropolis. On the narrow streets of the city, women sold pineapples, star fruit and bananas on dusty sidewalks as children played in sundresses and shorts next to small Parisian bistros.

The marriage of Vietnamese culture, French colonial architecture and American capitalism packed the city. The third night there, Chris was squatting on a street corner smoking with cyclo drivers and drawing out conversations on the dirt when it dawned on him how his life might have been had he never made it to the States.

"I was like, `My God. This could have easily been me,'" he said. "But what shook me the most was that it felt completely comfortable."

John Aeby, director of communications for the adoption agency Holt International Children's Services, said most adoptees return to their homelands to regain a part of themselves.

"Going back to their birth county, adoptees get a sense of the culture they come from, finding out what part it has in their lives," he said. "For some, it's significant just to be in that place and to know this is where they came from."

Aeby recalled one Vietnamese adoptee who returned to find his orphanage was in the process of being rebuilt. The remaining parts of the building were a mound of bricks and rubble.

"He just went to the pile and just sat on it," Aeby said. "It was important to him because it connected him to something that had a part in his personal history."

When she was little, Kelly Brownlee always wondered who her biological family was. Her adoptive parents told her that her biological parents couldn't take care of her because of the war. "I assumed that they were both dead," she said. "You make these stories up in your mind to get you through life."

On the trip to Vietnam, she returned to the orphanage where she had stayed, and one of the nuns there thought she recognized her.

"She said, `I remember who you are. Your mom laid you down on this table right here and we took a picture of you the day you arrived,'" Kelly Brownlee said.

It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.

Even harder was that no one wanted to talk about the past. She asked another nun what it was like in the orphanage 26 years ago. The nun told her that it wasn't important anymore. "You've got a good life in America," Kelly Brownlee recalled the nun saying. "You should just be happy. Just go home."

When they returned to the States after the Vietnam trip, Chris Brownlee was hired as a King County juvenile probation counselor and moved in with Kelly, who works as a job counselor at The Art Institute of Seattle.

The Brownlees married in August and are planning to start their own family. The prospect is exhilarating - this is where their biological family history begins.

"You spend your whole life looking in the mirror and knowing that you look like no one else in your family and you just live with that and accept that," Chris Brownlee said tenderly. "For the first time, we're actually going to have kids that will have their mother's eyes and nose."

The difficult task is figuring out how they are going to pass on Vietnamese culture to their children so that they feel comfortable in their own skin.

"For us to teach our kids about Vietnamese culture, it would be kind of like playing dress-up. It wasn't ours. We didn't absorb that through osmosis growing up," Chris Brownlee said.

"You see adoptive parents during Tet with their children dressed in ao dais (traditional Vietnamese dress) and the parents are dressed up, too.

"It's all the trapping and nuances of Vietnamese culture, but is it yours? Our experience was different than that. But I think that there isn't a single Vietnamese-American identity. We're challenging the idea of what it means to be Vietnamese."

It takes the couple several minutes to think about the significance of "Operation Babylift" in their lives. For many in the United States, the babylift represents the only good thing that came of the Vietnam War.

For Kelly Brownlee, it's much more special.

"The babylift for me was one of many turning points in my life. I was born and I was found. I met my husband because of the babylift in a weird way," she said.

"It's interesting to track how many ways my life could have turned out. It was an event that changed my life in many different ways, not just evacuating me out of a country."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services