Just under two weeks ago, we showcased a non-fiction story that captured our fascination. Orphans of the Secret War, by Bruce King, is the true story of Bruce being a baby of the “Secret War” in Laos (during the Vietnam War) and what he went through growing up. We were lucky enough to sit down with Bruce and talk more about his life and the story within his book.
Bruce King: I believe extraordinary experiences should be shared. However, the driving force behind writing my story is my children. They’re ten and six now, still too young to understand; but they have more and more questions about who their dad is. One clear example is that I was adopted from an orphanage, raised by a white Christian family– they don’t look like me, yet those are the folks I refer to as Mom and Dad. To my children, they are grandma and grandpa and they’ve often asked why.
TE: Kids are often the reason any of us do anything. That being said, let’s start at the beginning of your story. It sounds like it actually starts with your biological mother and dropping you off at an orphanage. How old were you when she dropped you off and have you ever tried to make contact with her since?
BK: My biological mother, a rice farmer, was lured into the debauchery of Udon where thousands of American soldiers were stationed during the Vietnam War. Her part in it was much darker than I portrayed in the book– most young women in that area at the time were “bargirls” or prostitutes of some sort. You can imagine the lack of contraception use at the time, it was the early 70s when sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll was the theme.
I was almost eight years old when she dropped me off at the state run orphanage. She came to visit once in two years. I was adopted from the orphanage when I was nine, brought to a little town called Walla Walla and adapted to the American life. Straight out of poverty to a warm family with promise of an education and a better life. It took me another 17 years before I returned to my village to find my biological mother, whom I am still in contact with today; although we are not close.
TE: What was it like living with other children who came from a similar background?
BK: There were nearly two hundred boys living in the desolate orphanage at the time. This was within the first decade of the occupation of American soldiers in Thailand. I’m not saying they were all orphaned descendants of the American soldiers, however the influx of sex during that time created an obvious outcome. There were many rejected “half-breed” children abandoned at the orphanages around the country. It wasn’t the children in the orphanage that made it difficult…
BK: The orphanage is now place for a child, although I must admit the free schooling was helpful even if the standards of education were minuscule. Their main purpose was to discipline the children and teach them to conform to the rules. Likely because everyone will eventually end up in the mandatory Thai military when they turn of age. When rules in the orphanage were broken, it was dreadful. We were punished for every infraction– I was caught trying to runaway one time. The punishment was a horrific beating with a solid bamboo rod in front of my peers.
The adult supervisors lorded power over the kids. Physical punishment was the norm; happening every day. Even the smallest infraction, like being late for school or forgetting to brush your teeth. That beating I received from the bamboo rod was likely the tipping point that created this deep fear and disgust I have for authority figures.
TE: That’s incredibly disheartening. I would imagine that it’s almost as bad to witness something like that as it is to receive it. How did the you and the other kids cope?
BK: Every kid just conformed and hid away out of sight whenever possible. The adults must have gotten so sick and tired of being around obnoxious kids (all boys in this orphanage). I guess they found it soothing to punish children in such a way. Or, perhaps it was that there were so many of us, the adults felt it necessary for physical and shameful punishment as that may have been the quickest way to get the kids to conform to the life they were allowed.
TE: You’ve mentioned fate bringing you to the orphanage and a miracle bringing you out. Could you further elaborate?
BK: My beginning find its roots in a Buddhist-Animist society. I became a monk’s apprentice and lived on the temple grounds in an attempt to hide from my mother. I had just lost the family’s water buffalo– the primary tool to survival as a rice farmer. In my fear of my mother’s wrath, I took refuge in the local orphanage where the abbot taught me about spirits and the invisible realms in which we, as humans, can find help. From the monk, I learned about fate and, most importantly, to reach out to the unknown, the spirits, and to God.
There was a volunteer, a Christian, working for a charity called Pear S. Buck Foundation who made it possible for my adoption to happen. The miracle– well, that’s only a matter of one’s perspective, but it happened in such a way that I can’t deny that there is a God.
TE: You certainly have lived an interesting life. How long were you a monk’s apprentice and did your mother find you? Or did you willing go back?
BK: That’s the funny part in the book, so I won’t give it away. What I can say is that she knew where I was the entire time– the temple was practically next door. She avoided me because there wasn’t anything she could do as long as I was in a monk’s robe– it’s a big “no-no” for Buddhist women to touch men or boys in a monk’s robe. Even so, part of being a monk is walking through the village each morning to receive alms (food) from the community. Our concession passed the front of my house every day. It was a small village, so any news is big news!
She eventually came to talk to the abbot, the head monk, to convince me to come home. And after that, straight to the orphanage. The story leading up to this incident is worth a laugh, but it’s a part of the story I don’t want to reveal. If you ever wonder how people survive on less than a dollar a day, well my story will tell you.
TE: Your story seems to hit on everything from drama to comedy. Did you ever consider any other forms of media to share your story?
BK: I did, but because of its length and background, it turned into a book. I plan on a follow up to this that covers the topic of adoption and the type of people who are compassionate enough to adopt a child and raising them as their own. My parents adopted four children, all of whom were the result of war and prostitution.
TE: We’ve been so focused on a small part of your life, that we haven’t even touched on your adoption and coming to America. Was it difficult to accumulate to this new American way of life?
BK: I was adopted from the orphanage when I was nine. Coming to America was like landing in heaven and it is a fact that I take pride in being an American, even in the face of judgmental friends half way across the Pacific, many of whom regard America as the “world police”. I won’t sidetrack into that now, but being that I adapted into the American life during the most impressionable time of my life, my mentality is American. Sometimes this gets me into a little bit of trouble for believing in certain things Americans do; freedom of speech and expression, for example.
TE: From the sounds of it, you’re back in Thailand. What’s it like being back near where it all started?
BK: Thailand is a wonderful country, in a class of its own. Thai people are the most accommodating and the happiest people on Earth… as long as you don’t step the line. There are many pros and cons about living here, but I can tell you that the benefits outweigh everything else. That being said, I do wish to get back to Seattle some day. That’s just a goal I’ve set for myself, especially now that I have two daughters of my own in elementary school. I would rather have them get a better education in the U.S; we’ll see where God takes us next.
TE: Before we let you go, you mentioned on you website (http://secretorphan.net/) that you are, in a way, reaching out to your American father, whom you’ve never met– if you could say something to him right now, what would it be?
BK: I have to tell him thank you. He donated half of my chromosomes– not all of it is good, nonetheless, my genes make me what I am today. One could only be thankful for that!
We’d like to thank Mr. Bruce King for taking time out of his day to sit down and chat with us. His story, chronicled in Orphans of the Secret War, seems to be packed full of everything you could want from a movie, let alone a book. Be sure to click the link to purchase his book today.
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