Of Refugees and Cosmopolites
Ever since childhood, I have had an odd aversion to reading any book with the word “dream” in its title, doubly distasteful to me those penned by minoritized or “emergent” writers. Imagine my horror after being enthralled with Andrew Lam’s short stories “Show and Tell” and “Grandma’s Tales” to find his first book of essays in print entitled Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.
Andrew Lam, born 1964 and no relation of mine (other than that of honorary cousin, he teases), is a Vietnamese American fiction writer and essayist, writing primarily in English. He was born in Da Lat, Vietnam, known as a favorite honeymoon destination for its temperate climate, lovely waterfalls, and rare strawberries. There he attended the Lycée Yersin, being schooled in French arts and letters, until he fled Vietnam with his family during the fall of Sai Gon in April 1975.
The son of well-respected General Lâm Quang Thi of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (now himself a historical writer), he attended local schools and then the University of California, Berkeley where he majored in biochemistry. Soon thereafter, he abandoned plans for medical school and entered a creative writing program at San Francisco State University, still in line with our neoliberal dream fictions.
While in school he began writing for Pacific News Service and in 1993 won the Outstanding Young Journalist Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Pacific News Service spawned New America Media in 1996 for which Lam is currently the web editor. He is also co-founder of New California Media, and a regular commentator on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. His essays, often on Vietnam-related issues, have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
What the legit biography does not betray is his rogue hustler narrative persona — an antihero of sorts, like that of Joey Sands in Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters only more trickster-like, less dark and brooding. His writings query our American dreams, leaving them to smell a little off but not off-putting, and leaving us to crave bigger bites of strange fruit.
A PBS documentary produced by WETA in 2004, My Journey Home, told three stories of Americans returning to their ancestral homelands, including Lam’s return to Vietnam. Unlike the countless return and reconciliation vignettes that such public programming champions, Lam’s own writing veers toward the comical and sarcastic. It is his unique ability to never compartmentalize his life’s tragicomedies from those of our time — the anachronistic and hypocritical world we all must navigate — that attracts readers to his side.
In “Child of Two Worlds,” an essay in Perfume Dreams, he lightens the refugee load in dramatic fashion:
Then, as if to anchor me in Old World tragedy, as if to bind me to that shared narrative of loss and misery, mother insisted that I, too, read those letters. What did I do? I skimmed. I skipped. I shrugged. I put on a poker face and raked autumn in a pile and pushed it all back to her. “That country,” I slowly announced in English, as if to wound, “is cursed.”
No easy immigrant-done-good stories here. No naïve we-believe-children-are-the-future tales. Instead:
What woke the Vietnamese refugee — that fleeing princess — from her millennial stupor… was no Prince Charming kiss but the simple yet potent idea of progression…. It’s the American Dream that kissed her hard, tongued her, in fact, and in the morning she awakes to find, to her own amazement, that she can readily pronounce mortgage, escrow, aerobic, tax shelter, GPA, MBA, MD, BMW, Porsche, overtime, stock options.
While my own mother still orders “fried jacuzzi” at restaurants when hankering for some battered zucchini, Andrew Lam eschews such easy comedy to afford this older immigrant generation a sort of gravitas, respecting their experience of war, exile and melancholy. These often get downplayed by Southeast Asian American writers trying to disassociate themselves from the burden of that shared history in favor of youth activism and MFA dreams.
Five years after Perfume Dreams, Lam’s East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres treats diaspora as novel and nearly uncharted territory. As each new migration grabs media attention, our anthropological imperative kicks in and we hunger for its particular stream of knowledge, but eventually all are subsumed into a “global tribe.” Where the essays and travel narratives in Perfume Dreams go down like dry vermouth, the recent publication pours out summer lightness, still mischievous but tart.
In “Ode to the Bay,” for instance, Lam revels in the cosmopolitan lightness of the 112 languages spoken in the Bay Area, but he never fails to build up that worldliness from the hard concrete below:
For my first semester I am wedged between Mexico and Taiwan. Taiwan is timid and bookish, but boisterous Mexico, whose name is Juan, and I immediately bond. Communicating with our hands, facial gestures, and a few shared words, we manage to joke and banter. ‘I am from Mexico,’ Juan keeps whispering in various cadences, as if trying out a new song, until I fall into a fit of giggles. Mrs. H., our teacher, who is beautiful and blond, and married to a black man from Africa (she shows us pictures of her wedding the first day), makes us sit outside of the classroom for disrupting the class.
And here’s the moment: A redhead stops by as Juan continues his antics outside. ‘I’m from here,’ she says, and then she shakes our hands as if we had just landed on the tarmac. ‘Welcome to America,’ she says. She then gives us each a stick of cinnamon gum. Juan and I look at each other and shrug. I pop the gum into my mouth and chew. Spicy. Sweet.
Another literary critic and friend recently confessed that with the new book, she feared Andrew was teetering on the fence between the biting social commentary of the first collection and the model minority moments in the latter. Luckily for us, his work retains its edge.
Somewhere between a refugee and a cosmopolite stands Andrew Lam, a cool cat still shamelessly hustling his wares and over-affecting familiar affects, all in such a disarming manner that you find yourself at a clear disadvantage, yet loving every minute. The essay below was originally written for the New American Media website.
– Miriam Lam
The Education of a Vietnamese American Writer
One summer afternoon many years ago, I stole home and robbed my parents of their American Dream. I wasn’t going to be a doctor, after all. I was going to study creative writing.
When they heard the news, it was as if all the air had been sucked out of the living room. Mother covered her mouth and cried; Father cursed in French. Older brother shook his head and left the room.
I sat silent and defiant. I was only a small child when we fled Vietnam in 1975, but I remember how I trembled then as my small world collapsed around me. I trembled on this day, too, as I told my parents that I was following my passion.
At UC Berkeley, more than half of those in the Vietnamese Students Association, to which I belonged, majored in computer science and electrical engineering. These fields were highly competitive. A few told me they didn’t want to become engineers: some wanted to be artists, or architects, and had ample talent to do so, but their parents were against them. It was worse for those with family still living in impoverished Vietnam. One, in particular, was an “anchor kid” whose family sold everything to buy him perilous passage across the South China Sea on a boatful of refugees. He knew that others were literally dying for the opportunities he had before him, and failure was not an option.
Many of my friends were driven; theirs was an iron will to achieve academic success. On the wall of the dorm room of a Vietnamese friend was his painting of a mandarin dressed in silk brocade and wearing a hat. Flanked by soldiers carrying banners, the young mandarin rides in an ornate carriage while peasants look on and cheer. It was a visual sutra to help him focus on his studies.
And I, with a degree in biochemistry and on a path to attend medical school to the delight of my parents, was, in their eyes, throwing it all away — for what? I had, in secret, applied to and been accepted into the graduate program in creative writing at San Francisco State University. “Andrew, you are not going to medical school,” said Helen, my first writing teacher after reading one of my short stories. My response was entirely lacking in eloquence. “But … but … my mom is going to kill me.”
Filial piety was ingrained in me long before I stepped foot onto American shores. It is in essence the opposite of individualism. “Father’s benefaction is like Mount Everest, Mother’s love like the water from the purest source,” we sang in first grade. If American teenagers long to be free and to find themselves, Vietnamese are taught filial obligation, forever honoring and fulfilling a debt incurred in their name.
My mom didn’t kill me; she wept. It was my father who vented his fury. “I wanted to write, too, you know, when I was young. I studied French poetry and philosophy. But do you think I could feed our family on poems? Can you name one Vietnamese who’s making a living as an American writer? What makes you think you can do it?”
This was the late ’80s, and the vast majority in our community were first-generation refugees, many of them boat people who had subsisted for years in refugee camps in Southeast Asia.
“I can’t name one,” I said. “There may not be anyone right now. So, I’ll be the first.”
Father looked at me and with that look I knew he was not expecting an answer; it was not how I talked in the family, which was to say respectfully and with vague compliance. Perhaps for the first time, he was assessing me anew.
I matched his gaze, which both thrilled and terrified me. And crossing that invisible line, failure was no longer an option.
My friend with the painting of a mandarin became an optometrist and gave up art. I remember the first time he showed me the picture of the mandarin, saying “Do trang nguyen ve lang” — Vietnamese for, “Mandarin returns home after passing the imperial examination.” But the image needed no explanation, to me or any student from Confucian Asia; it embodied the dream of glorious academic achievement and with it influence and wealth for the entire family. Villages and towns pooled resources and sent their best and brightest to compete at the imperial court, hoping that one of their own would make it to the center of power. Mandarins were selected and ranked according to their performance in the rigorous examinations, which took place every four years.
Vietnam was for a long time a tributary of China and it was governed by mandarins, a meritocracy open to even the lowest peasant if he had the determination and ability to prevail.
Of all the temples in Hanoi, the most beautiful is Van Mieu, the Temple of Literature, dedicated to all those laureates of Vietnam who became mandarins, their names etched on stone steles going back eight centuries.
It was Vietnam’s first university, the Imperial Academy. That it became a temple to the worship of education seems entirely appropriate.
Under French colonial rule, China’s imperial examinations were replaced by the baccalaureate. To have passed its requirements was something so rare that one’s name was forever connected to the title. My paternal grandmother’s closest friend was Ong Tu Tai Quoc — Mr. “Baccalaureate” Quoc.
My paternal grandfather’s baccalaureate took him to Bordeaux to study law and when he returned, he married the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the Mekong Delta. And for Vietnamese in America, education is everything. So, for someone lucky enough to escape the horrors of post-war Vietnam and be handed through the hard work of his parents the opportunity to become a doctor, to say “no, thank you” was akin to Confucian sin. By refusing to fulfill my expected role within the family, I was being dishonorable. “Selfish,” more than a few relatives called me.
But part of America’s seduction is that it invites betrayal of the parochial. The old culture demands the child to obey and honor the wishes of his parents. America tells him to think for himself and look out for number one. America spurs rebellion of the individual against the communal: follow your dream. It also demands it: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Many children of Asian immigrants learn early to negotiate between the “I” and the “We,” between seemingly opposed ideas and flagrant contradictions, in order to appease and survive in both cultures.
In Vietnam, as a child during the war, I read French comic books and martial arts epics translated from Chinese into Vietnamese, even my mother’s indulgent romance novels. In America, I read American novels and spent my spare time in public libraries, devoting the summers to devouring book after book. When not studying, I was reading. If I was encouraged to mourn the loss of my homeland, I was also glad that I became an American because here, and perhaps nowhere else, as mythologist Joseph Campbell urges, I could follow my passion, my bliss.
Some years passed…
Eavesdropping from upstairs during a visit home, I heard my mother greeting friends and learned of a new addition to our family. “These are Andrew Lam’s awards,” she said, motioning to a bookshelf displaying my trophies, diplomas, and writing awards. “Andrew Lam” was stressed with a tone of importance. “My son, the Berkeley radical,” my father would say by way of talking about me to his friends. “Parents give birth to children,” adds my mother, “God gives birth to their personalities.”
Later that day, I went out to my parent’s backyard for a swim. It was in mid-September when kids were going back to school and leaves had started to turn colors. Though it was sunny out, the water was very cold. I remember standing on tip-toe for a long time at the pool’s edge, fearing the inevitable plunge, yet longing for the seductive blue water. Then, I closed my eyes, took a breath, and leapt. It was cold. But as I adjusted to the temperature and swam, I couldn’t understand why I hesitated for so long.
Finding and following my passion and path in life is a bit like that. Scary. Delightful. A struggle — to be sure. But once I dove into the pool, I took to the water. And I kept on swimming.