Refugee identification card of me, Nguyen Thi Kim Anh
Lost Identification Card
As Told By: Cindy Nguyen
My family possessed only one baby photo of me, the tiny photo on my refugee identity card. It was me as an infant at the Malaysian refugee camp where I was born. My mom kept that identity card in a special drawer with her other precious keepsakes. A silver rosary that my grandfather crafted, our American citizenship certificates, the expanding stack of her children’s homemade Mother’s Day cards. I was only allowed to look at the photo with permission. I would hold the identity card between my nervous fingers, glance at the three by four centimeter photograph, and wonder what the world looked like from that baby’s eyes. From my eyes. In the photograph, someone is holding a sign that covers most of my body. It reads “NGUYEN THI KIM ANH” in bold letters with my identification number “17790” and my date of birth. I would trace the edges of the photograph attached to the card with two staples, follow the peeling laminate on the identity card, and imagine that not too long ago, I was that child in the refugee camp.
When I was 12 years old, my mom declared that I was now old enough to be entrusted with the card. She gave it to me, and I too tucked it away in my own dresser with white peeling paint, in the bottom right drawer painted blue. I took out the card everyday to look at it. One day, I went to the drawer and it was not there. I lost the card. I still remember every single detail, every texture of the card, I think. The identity card had a few identifying numbers, my name “Nguyen Thi Kim Anh” and my father’s name “Nguyen Minh Trung.” The top right of the card had a hole punched out. All the refugees upon their day of departure, were required to wear their identity cards attached to their clothes. This identification card had a function, to identify refugees. Me. My mom. My dad, My sister. My brother. We all were tagged with similar identifying cards. The back side read Identification tag, with a large circular globe like logo and what appears to be a graphic of a family—mom, dad, child holding hands in the middle of this globe. The bottom text reads ICM-CIM KUL, this probably means something. An international organization maybe. Back on the front side, a quarter of the card was dedicated to a spot for my thumbprints. A 1 cm by 1 cm splotch of nearly solid filled black ink, a really horrible fingerprint given that there were no indications of the textured lines of a finger. Yet the fingerprint served some type of purpose, a remnant that someone, somewhere in a Malaysian refugee camp took the thumb of a baby and pressed it firmly onto this card. It was a fragment of a moment in time, a version of me, freshly innocent, barely existing only a few days in the world after 9 months of incubation in my mother’s small body. The thumbprint captured something that the photograph could not, the sheer tininess of the thumbprint in scaled relationship to the world. The identity card embodied something real. Something that felt so incompatible with and distant from my present realities growing up in America. The tragedy of my family’s forced departure from their homeland, the anger that they underwent so much suffering, the gratitude that they survived.
I believed that I had lost this identification card, this photograph of me forever. That only the details existed in memory. In October of 2020, I visited home in sunny Southern California, six months pregnant in the middle of a pandemic, unsure if I would be able to make another visit with my child in the near future. I needed to see my mom, I needed to see where my grandfather was buried, I needed to be full of the comforting foods of Vietnamese home cooking. I needed to be rooted home. “Do you think my baby will look like me as a baby?” I asked my mom. And she replied, “Mẹ không biết, để mẹ xem. [I’m not sure, let me go and see.]” She pulled out a worn manila envelope from the shelves in her overfilled closet. Out came that same identity card, the one that I lost. My mother had found it one day, and kept it. Not knowing that I thought I had lost this piece forever, not knowing that I thought I had lost the only embodiment of that baby version of me that existed in the refugee camps, in a world that seemed so far away from where I am today. I clutched the card to my chest, tears streaming. I look closer at the identity card photograph, refamiliarizing myself with something that had for two decades only existed in memory. I scan the photograph of the baby and realize that the photograph is not just a picture of me, a few days old with a head full of black hair, eyes closed, lips slightly in a frown. Zooming outwards, it’s a photograph of my mother, holding me. I’m in her arms, and she’s looking down towards me. Her lips are slightly opened, corners turned in a soft smile.