During the Vietnam War, Suzanne Thi Hien Hook, who was then a baby, was found on the street and placed in an orphanage. She’s Amerasian; with a Vietnamese mother and an African-American soldier father.
At the age of three, young Suzanne was adopted by a white English family and moved to the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the happy childhood expected. Despite an abusive upbringing, she became a trained chef, gained a business degree and started a successful beauty business.
Returning to Vietnam and connecting with her roots
In 2006, Suzanne returned to Vietnam for the first time to reconnect with her roots as well as visit the orphanage where she was left. During this time, she met with the children in the orphanage and was able to empathize with them having been in their shoes.
Arriving in Vietnam in 2006, Suzanne had hoped to find people like herself, and find that sense of belonging she craved. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
“I saw these rows and rows of Vietnamese people waiting at the airport and no one was black like me and I felt a huge disappointment because it was suddenly a shock of reality that still no one looks like me and those two weeks were an emotional journey.”
“That year I went on an emotional roller coaster of feelings of discovery of myself. And at the end of that, I actually came to terms with my past and I was actually really proud to turn around and say, do you know what my name is? Suzanne Thi Hien Hook and I’m half African-American, this is who I am.
Suzanne is now proud to call herself Vietnamese and acknowledge that her father was a black, American soldier, “I’m lots of little things and that’s what makes me unique because I am not like anybody else.”
Inspired to give back and help other children
In keeping with her ethos of bettering the lives of the children, Suzanne returned to Vietnam in 2007 to teach English and work in two orphanages.
During this time, Suzanne met Mai (name changed for privacy), a 16-year-old girl at an orphanage who was being treated as a slave and forced to take care for the other children. Mi wanted to go to school, to college and have a career in tourism but felt helpless to the point that she contemplated suicide. In a moment of desperation, she heartbreakingly asked Suzanne to take her away with her.
“I suddenly realized that I wanted to give her some hope and decided then and there that I wanted to open up my own orphanage. From there, it was a case of ‘how do I go about it?”
To open the orphanage, Suzanne sold her house, divorced her husband, sold her car and 300 pairs of shoes. And of course, she called Mai and said, “I’m coming back for you. I’ll get you away from the orphanage and into school.” She set herself a deadline of 6 months to do it and with the support of her recent ex-husband, friends and community – that’s exactly what she did.
They got Mai out of the orphanage, moved her into her own room, and supported her through school. They are still close to this day. Mai speaks fluent English and works for a leading hotel in Saigon.
“I want Allambie to feel like a home. For me being a Vietnamese orphan myself, being adopted and the fact that my adoption wasn’t great, it made me realise how important being wanted and loved is for these children. Hence, it’s very important for me to create a warm and homey environment for these kids so they know they’re safe, loved and that they belong. It’s very important for me.” admits Suzanne.
“A lot of people ask me, was it something that I’d always wanted to do? And the answer truthfully is no. But I realized that there were so many children still being abandoned. The first time I walked into an orphanage, it was like somebody had smacked me in the face because it was a sudden reality that, oh my God, this was me all those years ago” says Suzanne.
Being abandoned and adopted
Suzanne was found underneath a bush as a baby by a policeman shortly after she was born in 1969. She was then taken to the nearest orphanage. Till today, Suzanne doesn’t know her real birthday or who her birth parents are. All she knows is that her father was a black soldier and that her mom is Vietnamese.
She was later adopted by a British family and arrived in the UK in 1972 when she was just three years old. Unfortunately, it was not the fairytale adoption you see in movies. Suzanne explains, “Growing up, my parents were very religious and I would say fanatical to the point where religion was everything.”
Despite their piousness in public, the reality was very different.
“My mum in public would call me Suzanne but at home, she would refer to me as a ‘devil child’. Every time that I would upset her, she would tell me I’m a devil child and that my mother didn’t want me because I’m mixed race and ugly.”
On top of being called a ‘devil child’, Suzanne was constantly reminded of how her parents ‘saved her’ and that she should be thankful and grateful. Sadly, the abuse was not just mental but also physical and Suzanne often found herself at the mercy of her mother who would chide, hit and even starve her. The abuse ended when Suzanne turned 18 and ran away from home.
Despite being abused by her adopted parents throughout her life, as a testament to Suzanne’s inner strength, she nursed and cared for her mother when she was diagnosed with cancer and stayed with her until the day she passed away.
“I just thought, if my mum knew that the ‘devil’s child’ was the only person who took care of her and the so-called Christian people in my family didn’t, I wonder what her reaction would have been.”
This is what drives Suzanne to constantly remind the kids in her orphanage that they are loved.
“I always make sure I tell them they are beautiful, handsome, clever and that I’m proud of them although they might not do well in school. It’s very important because what I do with my Allambie kids is literally everything that I had wanted from my adoptive parents.”
Suzanne did try to find out her birth parents through DNA testing and investigation but to no avail. She also wasn’t prepared for the emotional rollercoaster it would be, trying to track down her parents so she has tabled the idea for now but may return to it in the future. “It’s like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box” she explains.
“Even though my childhood was crap, I was still given a home, roof over my head and a chance of an education. And years later I took that and turned it around. For that, I am grateful to my Vietnamese mother for leaving me because if she hadn’t, I don’t know where I would be” says Suzanne.
The nurses that flew out into a war zone saved my life. It wasn’t my adoptive parents that saved my life. I always say that it was the nurses that saved my life and gave me that second chance.”
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