Lan Thi Kim Do last had any connection with her family when she was 10 years old.
Lan, of Rochester, was living with her stepdad in a farming village outside of Saigon, Vietnam, when her mom left. She never saw her mom again or her half sisters or half brother.
Then, four decades later, Lan’s seemingly rootless life reconnected with a branch of her family tree she never knew existed.
Now a U.S. citizen and owner of D Nails on South Broadway in Rochester, Lan obtained a DNA test kit from Ancestry.com and sent a sample of her saliva to a laboratory.
She didn’t know her dad and didn’t think much would come of the test. She didn’t know his name. She had no photo or address or memories of him. She had not the slightest shred of evidence that he was even alive.
All Lan knew about him (and this is what her mom told her years ago) was that he was an American service member who had served in Vietnam during the war.
But Lan had agreed to go through the DNA test at the urging of customers and friends who had heard her story and all argued, “What the heck? What do you have to lose?”
“She was so reluctant about it,” said Beka Berhanu, a close friend and main orchestrator behind the search. “She didn’t really much believe all this.”
Then she got a match.
About six weeks after sending her DNA sample, Berhanu opened the Ancestry.com account that he had set up for Lan and read the following message: Wayne Vernon Brown is your father.
“I’m so excited. I’m so nervous. He’s coming in a week,” Lan said when asked what it was like to discover a father she didn’t know existed.
But the connection didn’t happen right away. Lan learned that her dad was living in Los Angeles, and soon after getting the match result, Berhanu began sending text messages and reaching out to Brown through Facebook. But Brown didn’t respond right away, he says.
Then he got a reply from Brown. It was a simple question. When was Lan born? And then radio silence resumed after Berhanu replied.
One day, while waiting in an airport en route to a vacation trip to Vietnam, Lan found that her dad had left a voice message on her phone. He asked her to call him back.
When they spoke, Lan told him she was heading to Vietnam for a 10-day trip. Brown told her to call him back when she got back stateside. When Lan got back to Rochester and the conversation resumed, the two talked about family, their kids, and how long Lan had been living in the U.S.
Then, Brown asked Lan if she would agree to one more DNA test to verify the results. This one would be performed at the DDC Diagnostic Center in Fairfield, Ohio. Lan recalls the excruciating wait for the results. Then Brown called.
“I picked up the phone,” Lan said,” and he said, ‘Hi con gai, how are you doing today?”
Con gai is Vietnamese for daughter. The test was a match.
The news has been overwhelming for Lan, who for much of her life has lived without a sense of belongingness or personal history to connect with. Lan’s dad is African-American and Lan’s dark skin made her an object of discrimination that set her apart from her Vietnamese peers and classmates, who teased her unmercifully in school.
“It hurt me,” she said. “I have no mom, no dad, and no thing. Anything I have came from myself.”
Some people react with surprise when they first meet Lan and hear her speak fluently in Vietnamese. They will say, “You know Vietnamese?” And she will tell them, “I was born in Vietnam.” “You don’t look Vietnamese,” they will say. And she will reply, “Oh, I’m half and half.”
Having gone from a rootless orphan, Lan has discovered not only a dad but a whole branch of a family tree to which she now belongs. Lan now knows she has four brothers and sisters on her dad’s side. And her own four children now have a grandparent.
Her unexpected success in finding her father has fueled her hopes for finding other branches. Lan hopes one day to find her mom and four half-siblings in Vietnam whom she hasn’t seen in four decades. Berhanu has contacted several churches in Vietnam to help in the search. One church from Hanoi, the Hanoi International Fellowship, has agreed to help.
But for the moment, Lan is still getting used to the idea that she has a dad and that he will be flying into Rochester and meeting his daughter for the first time in a week or so.
“I don’t know what to do. I’m so nervous. I don’t know what I’m going to do (when he arrives),” Lan said. “I’m so happy that I have my dad, that he’s alive.”