You Can't Go Home

by Gabriel Urbina


A television film and a documentary describe the experiences of foreign-born Americans who return to their native countries for a visit.

In 1982, Telly Savalas, remembered as a detective in the television series Kojak, played the part of Peter Panakos, in an episode of American Playhouse, broadcast by PBS, titled My Palikari. Savalas plays a middle-aged Greek immigrant who, after many years of residence in the United States, takes a trip to his native village, accompanied by his American-born son.

Palikari is a Greek word difficult to translate; its meaning depends on what context it is used. In the context of the story, it would mean a lad, a youth not yet an adolescent. Thus, the title would mean "my childhood." Indeed, the character Peter Panakos has returned to the place of his childhood.

Peter Panakos is a very likable man who is curious about all his relatives in Greece, some of whom he has not seen in decades, and some others whom he has never met.. That is the reason he returns to his native village for a visit. Peter goes through a process of disillusionment; what he remembers as a great place to live, now appears to him as a desolate, small village. He has idealized his homeland, setting aside the reasons he emigrated to another country.

Something else is in store for Peter. For the first few days, everyone is very friendly to him, and there is a lot of happiness in this encounter; but afterward resentment begins to appear in the attitude of some of his relatives, which is also expressed very explicitly in the dialogue. Part of the resentment is based on the fact they no longer see Peter as Greek, but as an American. Since they see all Americans as well-off, if not rich, their perception creates a bigger resentment toward the visitor. Panakos genuinely wanted to see his relatives, and his native land, but this positive feeling is met with rejection, because the villagers see him as an American "showing off." Ironically, Peter's American-born son, really likes his ancestral land, and he doesn't encounter the conflicts his father does.

A real life story of someone living in the United States, who returns to the country of origin, is presented in the 2002 documentary film Daughter from Danang, first presented at the Sundance Film Festival; and broadcast by PBS in 2003 as an episode of their American Experience series. It is the story of Heidi, who was born in 1968 in Vietnam, and who was brought to the U.S.A., as part of Operation Baby Lift in 1975, an evacuation from Saigon, as the war was coming to an end. It was an effort to resettle orphan Vietnamese children in the United States, and several other countries, including Australia, and countries in Europe.

The Operation Baby Lift was controversial, because not all of the children were orphans. Heidi was in that situation; she was not an orphan. Her mother was Vietnamese, and her father was an American soldier. Her birth name was Mai Thi Hiep. She was adopted by a single woman, and raised in Tennessee. Her adoptive mother made a rigorous effort to erase the child's Asian past, and Mai Thi Hiep became Heidi Neville. She was raised by a very strict religious person to become a "one hundred and one percent American."

As a young adult, already attending college, she begins to make inquiries with agencies involved with the adoption process of Vietnamese children. She discovers her biological mother is alive and well. She travels to Vietnam, accompanied by a Vietnamese journalist who serves as an interpreter, because Heidi does not speak a word of Vietnamese. She meets her biological mother, and numerous other relatives.

As it happens to the fictional Peter Panakos in My Palikari, there is much happiness during the first couple of days of this reunion. Then the situation changes drastically. The head of the family, a half-brother, tells Heidi she should take her mother to America, which she, through her interpreter, says it not feasible. Then her blood relatives begin to tell Heidi that she should help her mother financially, as well as all her relatives, because that's the way it is in the Vietnamese culture; you are supposed to help your relatives. All the gifts she brought to them are not enough. She is caught by surprise by this, and besides, she does not have the financial resources to be able to help her mother and her relatives, to the degree that is expected by her biological mother, and her relatives.

The loving encounter goes sour, and Heidi never recovers emotionally for the remainder of her visit. Back in the United States she states that she doubts she will ever go back to Vietnam.

Heidi's experience was more brutal than that of the fictional Peter, because she was raised as an American from early childhood. But Heidi and Peter have many things in common. They had to face cultural differences, the customs of distant lands, the hidden and overt resentments, the perception of them as Americans, and the overall impression the hosts have of Americans. All of this is conducive to a process of illusion based sometimes on an idealized vision of the past, which turns into a crashing disillusion, leading to the cruel realization, illustrated by the fictional narrative, as well as the real life story, that individuals like Peter and Heidi no longer belong in their native lands.

Heidi got married, and became Heidi Neville Bub. She had two children. She never went back to Vietnam.

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