December 2011 Archives

Andrew Lam

Grandmother's Last Lesson -- Seeing Time As a Trick of the Mind

By Andrew Lam, Dec 30, 2011 3:30 PM

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  The year zoomed by like comet Lovejoy that went near the sun and survived. It makes one wonder about mortality and time, and one's place in the world. here's an old essay that contemplates that... enjoy and happy new year...

Grandmother's Last Lesson -- Seeing Time As a Trick of the Mind

Nearing the end of her life and plagued with senility, my grandmother fell into a strange state of grace. At 95, she believed herself a young woman again living in her hometown in the Mekong Delta. One day when I visited her in her convalescent home in San Jose, California, where she had lived for the last decade or so, I asked grandma to name the names of her four children and she looked a bit astonished: "Children?" She said in her frail, hoarse voice, "Mister, but I am only 17."

Receding from her memories are the years in America, years full of longing and grief for her lost homeland. Lost, too, mercifully, are her memories of the war and the incredible suffering it had caused her. The garden outside her window teamed with life, butterflies and bees hovering over gardenias and roses, but her vision had begun to travel far beyond its walls. In her mind, Grandmother had already gone back to a happier time, rowing her boat down the river in the old country, singing some folksongs, watching white cranes fly above the green rich rice fields, celebrating Tet with relatives and neighbors -- to an unhurried world of long ago.

My parents and aunts sighed and shook their heads whenever they visited, feeling guilty for not being able to care for her at home, sad that their mother no longer knew them. I, on the other hand, took a different attitude altogether. I saw that there was a mixed blessing in her senility and forgetfulness. After all, grandmother had, in her own way, managed to conquer time.

Years ago, when she was still lucid, Grandma bought a wooden clock carved in the S shape of the map of Vietnam from a Vietnamese store in Little Saigon in Anaheim. Above her bed, the clock ticked mournfully, a constant reminder of how long she'd spent away from her home and hearth. Sometimes she would watch that clock tick as she counted her rosary and then cried silent, bitter tears.

Indeed, America's concepts of time only helped to confuse her. She did not know why, for instance, a grandson had to leave home at 18. When I left home for college, she wept. I overheard her protesting to my mother in an incredulous voice: "How can you let him go? He 's immature at 17 and now he's 18, somehow he's mature? Not everyone is a real adult at 18 or 21 either. It's not so simple."

Once, I remember, she asked me how far Vietnam was from California. I shrugged, "Well, I guess it's about 18 hours." Hearing this, grandma, made a scowling face and snapped: "If our country is only less than a day away by your measurement, then tell me how come I've been waiting for 15 years, seven months and eight days now and I am still here in America?"

If since her exile to America at the end of the Vietnam war time had been her enemy, telling her how long she'd been away from the country of her birth, it finally lost its grip on her that last year. That year before she died, she was no longer ruled by the clock. She traveled freely most of the time to the distant past and she seemed, if not happy, then at peace.

The last time I saw her alive, we held hands. Perhaps grandma thought I was a beau from the next village come courting or a distant relative, but she blushed when I told her that she was beautiful.

"Let's hurry," she said, her eyes staring at an impossibly far away place, "we're going to be late for the celebration at the temple."

Perhaps she is there now. As for me, since she passed away I am, I must say, not as fearful of old age as I once was. When I grow old and senile, I, too, should like to forget all the sorrow and sadness in my own life. Memories of heartbreaks and great losses will be dissolved like smoke in the morning wind. Like grandma, I'll relive instead all the moments of intense happiness: walking with my first love down Bankroft Street in Berkeley at dusk; singing silly songs with my siblings on Christmas eve when we were kids; luxuriating in my mother's arms as a child after a warm bath; watching the moonrise with my cousin over the ocean on a tiny island in Thailand.

And above all, I should like to return to that windblown pine hill of Dalat, Vietnam, a plateau of forests high above the sea where I grew up. I will sit again with my best friend in fourth grade, the two of us leaning against a pine tree and looking up at the clouds drifting by, our sweaters and hair stuck with pine needles after a game of hide and seek.

It was on that same hill that I later lost my first watch, a Mickey Mouse watch which I got for my seventh birthday, Mickey's arms pointing at the hours and minutes that slowly led me away from my childhood wonders and eventually my homeland. I had cried for days afterwards, but I now think that it's apt that the watch should lie decaying somewhere on that lovely hill.

For perhaps there is something that the adult forgets and only the very young and very old could know: That time and space are an illusion, a trick of the mind...

See me then as a starry-eyed child among pine trees, staring at the shifting sky, enraptured by an impossible sense of beauty, delighting simply to be in the world.

Andrew Lam is author of
Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.

Andrew Lam

Christmas in Dalat, Christmas in San Francisco

By Andrew Lam, Dec 23, 2011 8:39 PM

I wrote this a few years back but since it's Christmas time, here it is again.. enjoy..

 Wild orchids and colored, painted pine cones – these things I remember of Christmas in Vietnam. It was in Dalat, the mountain city with its persistent fog and whispering pine forests, that I first celebrated Christmas. My father had been transferred there after the 1968 Tet offensive, and he brought the entire family with him.

The distant bombing and the tropical heat of Sadec in the Mekong Delta were replaced by Dalat’s cool fresh breezes and romantic lakes. I was 5 years old, a child running free on fallen pine needles and tall green grass in the forest as I searched for wild mushrooms, pine cones and orchids for Christmas decorations. My older brother, sister and I would each carry a wicker basket and eventually fill them with all that nature had to offer. Those days we never bought any Christmas decorations.

We used to sing. And by singing, I mean spontaneously. As children we were not at all self-conscious and sang with gusto and often off key, but always with gusto. In the woods, early in the morning, we sang Christmas carols and chased each other, and sometimes the neighborhood kids would join in. Afterwards, our sweaters and hair would be embedded with pollen and pine needles. Dalat was a sparsely populated town then, and our laughter and singing echoed and resonated in the dew-covered forest.

At home we helped our mother decorate the Christmas tree. Its fresh pine fragrance brought the whole forest inside with us. My mother would roll cotton into shapes of little chicks and angels with wings and place them on the tree. The cones and mushrooms she painted green and red and blue and hung them everywhere in the living room. These ornaments were all the decorations we needed.

When my paternal grandmother came downstairs all dressed up in her ao dai dress, she would take us to mass. She held my hand and led me and my siblings on the dirt road to a local church whose bells rang out in the air. Though I wasn’t a Catholic, I remember feeling a spiritual devotion in that church. Everyone was smartly dressed and smiling. People sang and read their psalms. Afterwards the priest distributed candy for the children. I remember it was early evening, the sun had sunk behind a bank of fog as we walked home, the world was glowing in a lavender hue.

But before going home we would stop by the Hoa Binh market to buy some fruit and baguettes. Children with pink round cheeks held their mothers’ hands, and young adults in their best clothes walked around to show off their attire. The strawberries and plums we would eat on the way home.

At home, the best part of the Christmas dinner was dessert. My mother, a consummate baker, would make the traditional buche de Noel, a chocolate covered cake in the shape of a log with a tiny Santa Clause sitting on top. Then my father would open the champagne and pour each of us a glass. We didn’t receive any gifts as children did in America, but we didn’t need any and never felt the loss.

That was my favorite memory of Christmas in Vietnam. If you think that such a memory is out of place for a country whose image is full of conical-hatted figures working in the rice fields, then you haven’t been to Dalat. Dalat, built by the French as a hill station resort, was for the most part a peaceful town, until near the end of the war. For those of us who had the fortune to live there, the war was often at a distance. Unlike the popular American belief shaped by Hollywood films, Vietnamese did not always live under constant terror and in half-burned villages. Instead, what we had in Dalat was a gentle, small town life that I haven’t found again living here in America.

These days our Christmas is a big celebration in the San Francisco Bay Area. My paternal grandmother is long gone, but the Christmas trees are heavy with trinkets and baubles at my siblings’ households. We vie to show off to one another how well we decorate our homes. Santa on the roof; reindeer on the lawn. Our Christmas dinner is often replete with seafood and my father’s favorite dish, bouillabaisse, and, of course, roasted turkey and wines and champagnes. It is a testiment, I suppose, to how well we have fared in the land of plenty.

So many years have passed since the war ended, yet it is not the horrors of war that dwell now in my mind during Christmas time. It’s the transcending peace in a tranquil world that is now lost.

Dalat, too, like the rest of Vietnam, is crowded with people and the trees are fewer and the forests thinned. Even the weather had changed, growing warmer with fewer trees.

Still, I bet there are children running and laughing, as before, among the pine needles and singing brooks on that high plateau I once called home.

Andrew Lam is author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" and the upcoming "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres."  

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Learning about Christmas and Santa through the claymation classics-Adventures in Multicultural Living

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, Dec 23, 2011 8:55 AM

Asian American journalist Lisa Ling once said onThe View that as a child she thought Santa liked Caucasian children better than Chinese children because he always left much better and bigger gifts, like stereos, for her Caucasian friends, whereas he only left small gifts, like batteries and toothbrushes, in her stocking.

Cheryl Aguilar

Alabama Families Rally Against Immigration Law

By Cheryl Aguilar, Dec 21, 2011 9:35 AM

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- With the holiday upon us, more than 2,500 Alabamians, activists and leaders from across the nation came out to Montgomery, Ala. streets to rally and march to repeal anti-immigration law HB 56 as their holiday wish to call for an end to racial profiling, separation of families and to build a better Alabama.

Marisa Treviño

New Latino Literary Magazine Breaks Ethnic and Gender Stereotypes

By Marisa Treviño, Dec 15, 2011 7:21 AM


How many Latino writers are there in the United States?

It’s a question that many of us would answer with two hands since it seems that it’s only a handful whom mainstream publishers continually recognize as having any talent. Yet, there are so many more talented Latino and Latina writers who, try as they might, just can’t break down the glass walls of mainstream acceptance.

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