February 2013 Archives

Andrew Lam

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

By Andrew Lam, Feb 21, 2013 10:40 PM

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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 lived out the remaining years of her life, 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.
The above essay was originally published in New America Media where Andrew Lam is one of the editors. He 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". 2013-01-29-BirdsofParadiselostcover.jpg Cover of Birds of Paradise Lost 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 recently published by Red Hen Press. He has lectured and read his work widely at many universities.

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.”


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