Overly enthusiastic fans of musical theater have been known at times to call a night at the theater a "life-changing experience." It is, clearly, a bit of hyperbole.
When Kim Delevett says it, though, she means it. Literally.
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Seeing "Miss Saigon" on Broadway started the San Jose woman on a quest that took her 18 years to complete. It ended this summer when Kim finally tracked down the man she credits with helping her escape from Saigon as a little girl in 1975 and giving her the life she has today.
Kim was a college student in 1992 when she went to see the play with her future husband, Peter.
The plotline of war forever separating a mother and her child struck a nerve with Kim. "As soon as the play was over," Kim says, "I remember telling Peter, who was my boyfriend at the time we need to go back to Vietnam. It's time."
Before that night, Kim had given little thought as to how she ended up living in the United States. In fact, she did her best to shun her heritage and history. Kim was adopted by a family in Florida and grew up in a community with few other minorities and a lingering suspicion of anything Vietnamese due to the recent war."It was really hard on me growing up," Kim recalls. "I dreaded talking about where I was from."
That all changed that night on Broadway. Two years later Kim and Peter made their first of what turned out to be many trips back to Vietnam. Relatives she still had contact with in the United States wrote out a letter of introduction in Vietnamese and scratched out a handwritten map of where they believed some of their family used to live.
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Following that map on a trip in 1994 Kim knocked on the door of what turned out to be an uncle.
"Pandemonium was happening,"Kim told NBC Bay Area in 2010. "Everyone was crying and cheering and screaming. It was homecoming I had always dreamt of but never thought I would have." Still, it wasn't all good news. Kim learned from those relatives that her mother was supposed to leave Saigon with Kim and her brother, but she traveled to say goodbye to relatives first and didn't get back to the city in time. She missed the flight that took her children to the United States.
Unbeknownst to Kim, her mother continued her effort to get to the United States, but died six years later in a Malaysian refugee camp one day before she was to fly to the US. "I still feel sadness and there is still a hole, but I know that she made the ultimate sacrifice for me and my brother to have a better life in America."
It was one of those trips that Kim first heard the name Jim Smith. She was told that Smith was an American living in Saigon near the end of the war.
It was "Mr. Smith," Kim learned, who made the arrangement for her family to be flown out of the country. Still, Kim had no idea who this man was, why he did what he did, and whatever became of him.
Finding the answers to those questions is what Kim and Peter set out to do. If still alive, they wanted to thank Smith for what he had done. If not, Kim wanted to pass those thanks on to his family and learn more about the man. "It would be another dream come true if I were to find him," Kim said in 2010.
Years of searching military records, the Internet, and any other avenue they could think up turned up many promising leads but each one leading to a dead end. That is, until Kim's adoptive father in Florida uncovered a dust-covered folder in his attic. Inside was an address in Odessa, Fla.
That was the key clue that ending up confirming they had found the right Jim Smith, buried in a Florida cemetery since 1980.
"My dream came true after 18 years of trying to find Jim Smith," she said. "We had."
Kim learned that Smith was a civilian contractor who had lived, on and off, in Vietnam since the 1960's. Kim's mother was Smith's housekeeper and the entire family lived in Smith's Saigon apartment. Kim learned more about herself as well. She was told she was a premature baby and that Smith went to great effort to make sure she got the care she needed as a baby. "This man actually saved my life twice," Kim now says.
Though her search was ultimately successful, it wasn't entirely satisfying. Kim learned that Smith's only son is still alive, a man in his 70s living in Florida. Kim has exchanged a few email with the son but, for reasons that aren't entirely clear to her, he has declined to meet.
"It was disappointing for me not to have all my questions answered after all these years," Kim says.
Overall, though, Kim is grateful to learn what she has. It means she is able to share a more complete family history with her five-year-old son, James. She and Peter were even able to take James with them on their last trip to Vietnam and visit Smith's old apartment.