The Two Worlds of Tiana Mykkeltvedt
How an orphan from Vietnam wound up reconnecting with her heritage
Published in 2021 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on February 12, 2021
Updated on February 18, 2021
In April 1975, Atlanta-based World Airways participated in Operation Babylift: a U.S. government effort to evacuate more than 3,000 orphans from Vietnam before Saigon was captured in the closing days of the Vietnam War. On the flight to the States, the babies were kept in boxes and fed by flight attendants. Tiana Mykkeltvedt was one of those orphans.
“I joke that other babies were delivered at the hospital and I was delivered in the airport,” she says.
Her adoptive parents were waiting for the flight to arrive holding a photograph from a relief organization. “My parents wanted to have more children,” Mykkeltvedt says of her adoptive family. “I have one older brother. But local adoption in Georgia was very limited at the time.”
Growing up in suburban Atlanta, Mykkeltvedt had a happy childhood and didn’t think much about connecting with her Vietnamese heritage. “I grew up in a very white suburb of Atlanta,” says Mykkeltvedt, now a commercial litigator at Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore. “It wasn’t an especially diverse place. It’s actually changed quite a bit over the years. But in my high school it was just me and Eleanor Wong who were the only Asian kids.”
In 1997, while studying political science at the University of Georgia, she signed up for a three-month study abroad program to Vietnam—a rare opportunity, given that the country had only recently opened its borders to travelers and tourists. She chose Hanoi over Saigon because it sounded more interesting. She wasn’t disappointed—loving the city’s crumbling colonial architecture and swarms of bicycle commuters.
“We’d get around by bike and taxis, but in a way that I would probably strangle my children for today—riding on the back of a stranger’s motorbike with no helmet.”
Many Vietnamese people she met were mystified by this Asian American who wasn’t fluent in the language. “They assumed I was Korean,” Mykkeltvedt says.
She learned enough Vietnamese to hold basic conversations, and she connected with the food and culture. Once, the students and some Western tourists were on a trip to the northern village of Sapa, there was a muddy road washout, and the driver of the jeep tried to pressure the group to give him a little more money to go around the obstacle. Most balked, but Mykkeltvedt and a Vietnamese-American friend persuaded them to pony up what amounted to an extra dollar or two.
“We’d been in the country long enough to understand this was how things worked,” she says.
This ability to understand a situation different from what she’d grown up with has carried into her legal career. “I always want to know the personalities and what led to the problem. Because imposing my idea of what a solution looks like isn’t always what the client wants or needs.”
In 2005, she returned to Vietnam as part of the 30th-anniversary celebration of Operation Babylift. This one was a whirlwind trip, just 48 hours in Saigon, but she got to visit the orphanage she thinks she left in 1975. “It’s now a day care,” she says.
For a time, she wasn’t part of Asian Bar associations. “There was a part of me that thought it wouldn’t be genuine for me to do that,” she says, “because I don’t have the same sort of life experiences.” But recently she became more involved with the Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association and the National Conference of Vietnamese American Attorneys. “They made me feel so welcome.”
She adds: “I feel like I have this dual identity, living in two worlds,” but she’s increasingly comfortable doing so. In 2017, she participated, alongside Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, in a UGA Law School panel, where she spoke about Operation Babylift. “I don’t feel like I have to pretend to be something I’m not,” she says. “I’m able to be more in touch with my authentic self.”
Her family, too, straddles both worlds. Via online schooling during the pandemic, Mykkeltvedt’s three children learned more about their connection to Vietnam. But when one of her sons had a special request for his birthday breakfast, it wasn’t exactly far afield. “Biscuits and gravy,” she says.