Joe Wandell on finding his mother, and writing Mekong Joe
Joe Wandell today, and with his mother in Vietnam.
Joe Wandell spent a large part of his life wondering who he was, and in his one-man show, Mekong Joe, he invites you in on the search. This isn't one of those all too common protagonist-finding-himself stories, because Wandell's story is anything but common.
In 1976, during the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, hundreds of children -- many of them AmerAsian -- were hastily flown out of the country on what was called the Babylift, and placed in the arms of adoptive American families. Wandell and his brother Tony were among those children. Tony was nine and Joe was six. He remembers learning about Santa Claus, his first exposure to American television. Though he now thinks of these events as humorous, the culture shock was acute. A large percentage of Babylift adoptions turned out badly, and this one was no exception. Wandell is no longer in touch with his adoptive parents.
As an adult, Wandell became an actor. He had little problem finding roles in film and television, but a lot of problems figuring out who he was: "It was hard enough being Vietnamese in '70s America, but then when I grew up, casting directors wanted me in gun-toting, gang-banger roles because of the way I look," he says. "L.A.is filled with young Latin actors, I'm competing against these guys, and I had to make it up as I went along. Every piece for me was a character piece. Once I was up for an American Indian role. These two Native American actors were sitting in the audition room, making comments about how they hate it when directors use non-natives for these roles, and here I am in the middle biting my lip. Everything I was doing was a lie."
One day he received a phone call from his brother, who had been researching their background and had placed an ad in the Ho Chi Minh City newspaper. "He says, 'Hey Joe, we found our mother.' I felt a vortex of emotion, all the faint memories I had as a child coming back," he remembers. "A few weeks later we get a photograph and a videotape. That floored me. My girlfriend was holding my hand and I was shaking. On the video, my mother starts crying and apologizing for sending us away. It hit me like a tidal wave."
Joe and Tony returned to Vietnam to meet their mother, accompanied by a crew from Dateline. "I had a memory of this wonderful mother, the memory of a six-year-old, and I wondered, am I distorting this?" he recalls. "When I reunite with her, she laughs and makes jokes, she considers herself to be a very lucky person: You lose your children for thirty years but you find them again. I've always loved comedy and story telling -- and I got that from someone. My mother lived a harsh life. After the war, the new government singled out people who'd been pro-American and placed them in re-education camps; they were considered the dregs of society. She saved me from that life."
After his mother's death in 2007, Wandell began thinking about putting all this together in a theater piece. He approached Steve Stajich, a writer and comic whose career began in Denver, and the two men wrote the script together, making sure that it included comic and hopeful elements. "I don't find the story to be sad or weird," Wandell says. "I don't sit there with violins playing. I just tell the story, and it ends well and it honors my mother. After being lost for so many years, I was proud to know that was where I came from."
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