By Brittany Anderson
After 50 years, Tina Fretwell has finally found a piece of herself she’s been searching for her entire life.
Born in 1970 in Da Nang, Vietnam during the midst of the Vietnam War, the only thing Tina ever found out about her father was that he was an American soldier named David. It would be decades before she found more — thanks to a genealogy kit that led her to her half-siblings.
When Tina was only a few months old, her mother, Kim Tu Huynh, left Vietnam for Wichita, Kansas, leaving Tina in the care of her aunt and grandmother. Like other ‘Amerasians’ at the time, a term coined for children born of American servicemen and Vietnamese women, Tina faced discrimination for her mixed heritage, including having rocks thrown at her.
Tina even faced discrimination within her own family. Her grandfather was in the Viet Cong, and her family feared how he would take to having a half-American granddaughter with her light hair and skin.
Coupled with the fact that there wasn’t much schooling opportunity during the war, eight-year-old Tina went to live in a Buddhist Monk temple in Da Nang for ten years. There, the Monks protected her, and she was still able to visit with her grandmother every few weeks.
In 1988, Tina met her mother for the first time, who continued to live in Wichita. Then, just a few years later in 1992, Tina left Da Nang for the United States with one goal in mind: to find her father.
At the time, Da Nang’s population was just over 400,000, while the United States was around 257 million. Tina didn’t comprehend how big the United States was in comparison to Da Nang when she set out on her mission.
“I didn’t know America was so big,” Tina said. “I was born and grew up in the same town. I thought maybe it’s small and easy to find him. My family just said, ‘good luck.’”
Tina’s journey to the United States proved to be a dead end — at first. She said she spent years asking her mother questions about her father, but she would say that she didn’t remember.
“When I came here, I didn’t know where in America I had to go to find my dad,” Tina said. “When my mom didn’t know anything, I thought, ‘oh no.’”
In the years since, Tina has created a new life in the United States. Today, she is a mother of four. She has also been with her husband Ben since 2005 and has lived in Dripping Springs for nearly 20 years. The couple formerly owned and operated Tina’s Nails for many years in Dripping Springs before selling it; she now works at LK Nails.
After years of no promising leads, Ben signed Tina up for ancestry.com to try and find her father once and for all.
“The only clues we could get were from her mom,” Ben said. “She knew that he was a military man named David. I submitted Tina’s DNA to Ancestry and nothing came up. David’s not going to get you anything. Military’s not going to get you anything. So I just shut it down.”
In August 2019, Tina’s mother passed away. Shortly before she died, she told Tina that she needed to find her father.
“She held my hand and told me to go find my dad,” Tina said. “This was the first time she said anything. I was so surprised. I said, ‘Mom, I’ve tried for years, and you told me you forgot.’”
Ben believes her mother’s words were more of a ‘deathbed revelation.’
“Two years prior to that, I was upset with her that she didn’t come forward with more information because she obviously had it,” Ben said.
It wasn’t until 2021 that he decided to check Ancestry again when he found a message from a woman saying that she and Tina were related. The message had been sent in 2019 but had gone unseen.
“I was cleaning up my computer a couple months ago and I saw Ancestry and thought, ‘Let me see what’s going on there,’” Ben said. “And there it was. Somebody was saying, ‘Looks like we’re very closely related.’ That’s when we started pursuing it.”
Ben explained that in order to keep people’s expectations from getting overblown, Ancestry will put in a little less of what they anticipate for the relationship. As such, their match said they were “first cousins or closer.”
“We did some investigation, because first cousins was close enough for me,” Ben said. “Then we found out their dad was in Vietnam at the appropriate time, and coincidentally, his name was David. So they called up Ancestry. They looked back at the DNA and said ‘No, they are sisters.’”
Ben said that he sat on the information for a couple days before contacting anybody or telling Tina.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to look into it myself,” Ben said. “Then I finally said, “Look, I think I found your sisters.” She got very excited, needless to say.”
But unfortunately, Tina wasn’t able to get the chance to meet her father. In March 1994, just months away from this 45th birthday, David passed away. Natural causes were cited as the reason.
“I feel so happy in my heart [for finding my dad’s side], but I hurt for my heart too because I can’t see him,” Tina said. “I waited for 50 years and I want to see his face.”
Despite this, in July 2021, Tina and Ben still made a five-day “whirlwind” of a trip to upstate New York to meet the rest of her new family. Here, she met her step-mother, Debby, half-sisters Meranda, Airelle and Angella, and nieces and nephews.
Tina and Ben’s first stop was the cemetery to see her father’s grave in Groton. Tina admitted that she was very nervous to meet her family, but that feeling quickly wore off once Meranda met up with them.
“I didn’t know how I felt in my body,” Tina said. “I just wanted to see my dad first. After 10 minutes, my sister came. I wasn’t scared or nervous anymore. She said, ‘Give me a hug.’”
Ben said he could feel that this moment gave Tina a sense of fulfillment.
“He may be gone, but now we know,” Ben said. “She lingered at the grave site for quite a while.”
Throughout the rest of the trip, Tina got to know her new family. She found things in common with her sisters — like how her and Meranda both love to cook and garden — and that they all have dimples. She grew closer with Debby, who Ben said was a “gem the entire time.” And she said that everyone was incredibly sweet and loving towards her.
Tina also got to see her dad through many photos. After meeting up one day with Meranda and Debby at a farmers market, they showed Tina a photo that brought her to tears.
The color photo showed David in his Marine outfit (he served from 1966 to 1971) being followed by a trail of children. In the background was Tina’s great-grandfather’s house, with the name of their neighborhood, Mie Ting, written on the back of the photo.
“I looked in the background and said, ‘Oh my God,’” Tina said. “I tried to be strong, but I saw the picture and couldn’t stop crying.”
As if the photo wasn’t serendipitous enough, Ben said he spent his childhood in Elmira, New York — only an hour’s drive to Deposit, where David, Debby and Tina’s sisters were living. Ben’s parents’ graves are also only 50 miles away from David’s.
Debby believes that David knew about somebody he left in Vietnam, and both Tina and Ben believe that Tina’s mother had a somewhat lengthy relationship with him.
“He made mention of it,” Ben said. “Debby believes he either knew he had an offspring there, or that there was some kind of connection. There was a suspicion. I don’t think it was anything ever confirmed.”
Something that might confirm this suspicion is a painting of a Vietnamese child David made. Ben said he obviously had lingering thoughts and special memories of Vietnam.
“He painted this of me [as a child]inside his mind,” Tina said. “But I looked at it and said, ‘That’s not me! They have dark hair!’”
Ben said that Tina’s family in Vietnam, who she speaks to every week, are “crazy happy” about the discovery. Although her grandmother passed away in 1995, Ben said that Tina now has a “very special relationship” with her grandfather in Vietnam, who is 100 years old. The family even brought up the fact that Tina’s oldest son looks similar to David after Tina sent them photos.
“Now, all my mom’s side say I look like my dad,” Tina said. “They said I don’t look like a Vietnamese kid; that me, my son and my dad have the same face.”
Tina also talks to her new family almost everyday, and said that she and Ben hope they will be able to come visit Texas in the fall.
After years of uncertainty, Ben said that this discovery has changed something in Tina.
“There was always something missing … this little piece of her life missing,” Ben said. “She’s happy all the time because her life is kind of complete.”
“No more complaining,” Tina said. “I’m so happy.”