Andrew Lam

Remembering A Broken Romance on Valentine's Day

By Andrew Lam, Feb 14, 2013 1:48 AM

 What do you do when you graduate from Berkeley with a broken heart and a B.A. in biochemistry? You break your immigrant parents' hearts and become a writer.

In my freshman year at Berkeley I fell hopelessly in love; in the year after I graduated my heart shattered. While working at the cancer research laboratory on campus I took to writing, in part, in order to grieve. Daytime and I bombarded the mammary tissues of mice with various carcinogens to see how they grew; nights and I gave myself to memories, to heartbreak. I typed and typed. I got good at writing, bored with science, so I dropped the test tube and kept the proverbial pen.

Berkeley had indeed radicalized me. But I do not mean that in a political sense. No, the quiet, bookish, apolitical, obedient boy who didn't date in high school left his Vietnamese household and found sexual liberation in college, found carnal pleasure.

More important: I fell in love with "M." In "M's'' embrace and kisses, what I had thought important until then turned out to be trivial. My desire to please my chronically unhappy mother was trivial, good grades were trivial, the path toward medical school, too, was trivial. "M," whose smile made me tremble, who was all there was, stole me away from my familial sense of duty. I found a new country, a new home.

What I remember, too, was an incident during my freshman year that, over time, marked me. A studious Chinese student tried to jump from the Campanile. He was from my dorm unit. He wanted to kill himself because, well, so went the gossip, he had never gotten a B before, until chemistry or some such difficult class overwhelmed him. I remember the entire dorm talking about it. I might have been momentarily horrified. But I was too busy being in love to let it really register. I do, however, remember thinking, and not without a certain vanity, that he wouldn't have considered jumping had he discovered love instead.

Other bubbles are coming up randomly now from under the deep dark waters of my college life: Professor Noyce in organic chemistry dragging on his thin cigarette, the smoke twirling in the air as he draws the nicotine molecules. "Don't ever smoke," he admonishes his audience. "It's bad for you." My roommate, Tony, who plays trumpet in the band, coming home from the big game, '82, crying with happiness. The Bears have just trampled the Stanford Band to score that spectacular and bizarre turn- around in the last seconds. I am walking down Telegraph Avenue at two in the morning and the street cleaner is spinning like some lazy grazing animal and the mist is rising at my feet. The bells of the Campanile ring out one humid afternoon and for no reason at all, I drop my backpack and, while spectators look on, dance.

Above all, though, the salty scent of "M."

Then "M" was gone. And my heart was broken.

Wasn't it then that I began to write? Wasn't it then that I began to bleed myself into words?

Yet it was not the larger world, nor my Vietnamese refugee experience, nor the Vietnam War that I wanted to address. I wrote about my unhappiness. I tried to capture what it was like to lose someone who had been my preoccupation throughout my college life; who was, in fact, my life then. Yet I was too close to the subject, too hurt to do the story justice. But the raw emotions unearthed another set of older memories simmering underneath. When one loses someone one loves, with whom one shares a private life, a private language, a private world, one loses an entire country, one becomes an exile.

But hadn't I been exiled before?

I had. The brokenhearted adult slowly found himself going back further, recalling the undressed wounds of the distraught child who stood alone on the beach of Guam, the camp with its khaki-green tents flapping in the wind, the child missing his friends, his dogs, fretting about his father, whose fate he had no way of knowing, and wondering if he 'd ever see his homeland again.

My sadness opened a trapdoor to the past. A child forced to flee. The long line for food under a punishing sun. People weeping themselves to sleep. The family altar, where faded photographs of the dead stared out forlornly, the incense still burning but the living gone. A way of life stolen, a people scattered. I yearned for all my memories. I wrote some more. I began to go back.

Some years passed...

"These are Andrew Lam's awards," said my mother one after- noon to her friends when I was visiting and eavesdropping from upstairs. Sometimes my parents wouldn't say my Vietnamese name to their guests. "Andrew Lam" became someone else-- related but somewhat remote, and yet important. For visitors, especially if it was their first visit, there would be an obligatory walk by the bookcase before sitting down for tea. On it were the various trophies and awards and diplomas, but chief among them, Andrew Lam's journalism awards.

"My son the Berkeley radical" became my father's favorite phrase when he introduced me to his friends. "Parents give birth to children, God gives birth to their personalities" became my mother's oft-repeated phrase, as a way to explain her youngest son. I don't take offense. I take it that this was their way of accepting how things can turn out in America, which is to say, unpredictable and heartbreaking.
 
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I can't remember for sure how long he stood up there, or how he was talked down, that studious Chinese boy from the dorm. I do remember that around that time they put up metal bars on the Campanile so that no one else could jump.

A few years ago, after having revisited the Berkeley campus, where I was invited to give a talk about my books, my writing life and about my various travels as an author and journalist, I had a dream. In it, it is me who finds himself atop the Campanile alone at sunset. I hesitate butI am not entirely afraid. I am not gripped by fear. Below, people are gathering. Before me: a beatific horizon. I leap. And soar high over the old campus before heading out to where sky kisses sea.

I haven't landed yet.
 



New America Media editor, Andrew Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" (Heyday Books, 2005), which won a Pen American "Beyond the Margins" award, and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres" where the above essay was excerpted. His latest book, "Birds of Paradise Lost," a collection of short stories about Vietnamese immigrants struggling to rebuild their lives in the Bay Area after a painful exodus, was published March 01, 2013. He has lectured and read his work widely at many universities.

Amanda Peterson Beadle

New Report Shows That Border Benchmarks Already Have Been Met

By Amanda Peterson Beadle, Feb 1, 2013 4:30 PM

ImmigrationImpact.com

As the components of what should be included in an immigration reform bill take shape, border security, along with enforcement, is proving to be a key part of the framework. Eight senators released a bipartisan proposal earlier this week that included a path to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States. The catch is that implementation of this provision is “contingent upon our success in securing our borders and addressing visa overstays.” The day after the senators presented their framework, President Obama laid out his vision of what should be included in immigration reform legislation during a speech to labor leaders in Nevada. The president called for a clear path to citizenship that’s not contingent on securing the border, but he said the nation needs to stay focused on immigration enforcement. “That means continuing to strengthen security at our borders,” Obama said during his speech. “It means cracking down more forcefully on businesses that knowingly hire undocumented workers.”


Allen Jones

Another Name for SFO

By Allen Jones, Jan 28, 2013 4:24 PM


On its face renaming San Francisco International Airport after slain gay rights activist and former city council member Harvey Milk makes total sense. In a city known worldwide as a “gay mecca,” it was Milk who in many ways led that charge.

The council will meet Tuesday to vote on the proposal, which right now looks likely to fail.

Still, as a homosexual black man and a native of the city, my own life’s journey has drawn inspiration from other sources apart from Milk, names not as well recognized though no less meaningful.

Mary Giovagnoli

Senate's Symbolic Bill Rings Opening Bell on Immigration Reform

By Mary Giovagnoli, Jan 25, 2013 2:31 PM

ImmigrationImpact.com

This week, the White House revealed that President Obama will lay out a proposal for immigration reform at a speech in Nevada next week. The visit to the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid may reflect the strong support Reid and Nevada Latinos have given to Obama. It also follows Senator Reid’s clear message this week of his ongoing intent to press for immigration reform by putting it at the top of the Senate legislative priorities list for the 113th Congress. Although symbolic, the first bill introduced in the Senate this year, S. 1, is a bill to reform America’s broken immigration system or “The Immigration Reform that Works for America’s Future Act.” It contains ten principles for reform that reflect much of the common wisdom on what is needed to create a working and productive immigration system. Now, all we need is the actual bill.


Erika Andiola

Erika Andiola: No More Broken Families

By Erika Andiola, Jan 14, 2013 10:00 AM

In an open letter to Arizona Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, undocumented immigrant activist Erika Andiola calls for immigration reform that keeps families together. Andiola's mother and brother were arrested last week in an immigration raid on her home. They were released from immigration detention the next day.

Dear Senator Flake and Senator McCain,

Thursday night I heard a banging knock at the door. I looked through the window and immigration agents asked me to open the door because they were conducting an “investigation.”

Marisa Treviño

More Young Voters Have No Party Preference

By Marisa Treviño, Jan 12, 2013 8:49 AM

LatinaLista

As the nation prepares to swear in Barack Obama as the 45th U.S. president, he will have the distinction of being the 15th Democrat (of those presidents specifically identified as Democrats) to hold the highest office in the country.

But a new study on young voters in California highlights a possible change when it comes to future elections — it will be less about Democrats and Republicans and more about the candidates.

Leslie Berestein Rojas

Who Had the Longest Wait for an Immigrant Visa This Month?

By Leslie Berestein Rojas, Jan 9, 2013 12:05 AM


Multi-American

It's a brand new year, but the wait for family-sponsored immigrant visas is about where we left it a month ago. As usual, brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens from the Philippines are enduring the longest waits, followed by these citizens' adult married sons and daughters. Hopeful immigrants from Mexico follow in line.

Mark Trahant

Behind Door Number Three: Calamity

By Mark Trahant, Jan 7, 2013 9:26 AM


The goal of this blog is to help tribal leaders, and tribal communities, prepare for the austerity ahead. Over the next few weeks I want to explore how tribal governments might adapt to this cycle. And look for ways for tribes to mitigate the worst of shrinking budgets.

As I have been writing the choice ahead is severe austerity or austerity light. Either way it's going to be rough on the poorest communities in North America.

Today's post is about the worst of austerity.

Mary Giovagnoli

DHS Publishes New Provisional Waiver to Help Some Families Stay Together

By Mary Giovagnoli, Jan 4, 2013 12:20 PM

 
Immigration Impact

Some families facing long separations from their loved ones because of U.S. immigration laws will have an easier time of it in 2013. Thanks to a new regulation from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), immediate relatives of U.S. citizens will be able to complete part of the processing of their immigration cases without leaving the country. The “Provisional Unlawful Presence Waiver of Inadmissibility for Certain Immediate Relatives” rule, often referred to as the new family unity rule, will be published tomorrow (January 3, 2013) and become effective on March 4.

Mark Trahant

A Context for the Budget Fights Ahead

By Mark Trahant, Jan 3, 2013 1:22 PM


It's important to remember that austerity is a global trend, not a national one. Countries across the globe are spending less on government, laying off public workers, and, generally, shrinking economies.

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