"Like the delayed rays of a star": Photographs of Eurasian women “repatriated” to France (1947-2020)
The mother-daughter bond through the test of time
No one explained to the young girls who were wards of the FOEFI the sacrifices their mothers had made, rejected by their families and community and agreeing to entrust their daughters to the FOEFI for their own good. Thus, the girls were left to wonder why they had been “abandoned.” It was not until much later that they came to understand their mothers’ total selflessness, sometimes not until they themselves had children and realized that they would not have had the courage to do the same thing, not even for the good of their children. This initial sacrifice by their mothers was not made explicit at the time, but the idea of something being for their own good was used, over and over, to justify the obligations, interdictions, and punishments imposed on them. This implied absolute obedience and acceptance of the decisions that the FOEFI and the nuns made on their behalf. During the 1970s and 1980s, some of the young women, already young mothers, began returning to the abbey to spend a few days in a cabin reserved for this purpose. These visits were sometimes an opportunity for them to find out more information about their mothers, their fathers, and, above all, their siblings in Vietnam. Some developed a tradition of coming together as a group, including with their spouses and children, as in this photo, taken in front of the crypt in the early 1990s (fig. 50). Some of the most critical former boarders never wanted to go back, since they had too many “bad memories,” which remained traumatic. Others drew a clear distinction between the house itself—which would always be theirs—and the education they received there, which they rejected.
Weddings and the birth of a child were moments conducive to reuniting with one’s mother. Monique F., who was born in 1953, arrived at Bailleul in 1959 to live with the nuns of Saint-Vincent-de Paul and remained in touch with her mother. As an adult, she repeatedly tried—unsuccessfully—to persuade her mother to come to France. She sent her mother packages in the mail, but never returned to Vietnam. She recounts that “In 1978, when I was getting married, I wrote a poem to my mother. It was published as part of a poetry competition. The poem was called ‘La jonque endormie,’ and it was a poem about life” (fig. 51). Marie-Simone L. returned to Vietnam in 1993: “my mother was expecting me, but she died of bronchitis over the course of three days, a few months before I arrived. My half-brothers didn’t tell me because they were afraid I would change my mind. I lost my mother, but I got to know a half-brother who still lives in Vietnam.” “I also found my second half-brother in 1990. He came to France in 1984 with the Red Cross.” In 2015, they met at Saint-Rambert (fig. 52). Paule Migeon, who was born in 1941 and arrived in France 1949 (she can be seen in fig. 1, second row, second from the left) is one of the few Eurasian women to have written and shared her memoirs (1). She recounts that her reunion with her mother, twenty years after their separation, did not go well, and that she cut off contact with her. Writing about her response to the news of her mother’s death, which she learned of through a letter sent to her along with a few family photos, she says: “I am not sad. But sometimes I ask myself: “what would my life have been like if my mother…?”
The yearly gatherings organized by the group Amicale des Eurasiennes at the Saint-Rambert Abbey provide an opportunity to share many photos (fig. 53). In fact, this is one of participants’ favorite activities: looking at who is who in different group and class photos, comparing what they look like now to what they looked like then…But there is reticence around mother-daughter photos, and they are not often passed around. The construction of private memory on the basis of these photos is not something that happens within the group. Paule Migeon, who is an amateur photographer, shares photos of her life during these gatherings. On this photo board (fig. 54), she has brought together portraits of people who marked her childhood: her Vietnamese mother; her father, a French solider who died in 1945; Mother Jeanne, Marguerite Graffeuil; members of her family; and a few snapshots from one of her trips back to Vietnam with some other Eurasian women.
Mother-daughter relationships endure over the generations, as can be seen in this photo of Binta/Marie-Hélène’s daughter, for whom it was important to wear an áo dài on her wedding day (fig. 55). Fig. 56 is a collage made by Marie-Dominique to highlight the resemblances between her mother and her granddaughter.