Category: Arts & Entertainment

Andrew Lam

Remembering A Broken Romance on Valentine's Day

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

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 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.
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.

Andrew Lam

Birds of Paradise Lost: Stories about Vietnamese Immigrants in California

By Andrew Lam, Dec 27, 2012 12:03 PM

 The thirteen stories in Birds of Paradise Lost shimmer with humor and pathos as they chronicle the anguish and joy and bravery of America's newest Americans, the troubled lives of those who fled Vietnam and remade themselves in the San Francisco Bay Area. The past?memories of war and its aftermath, of murder, arrest, re-education camps and new economic zones, of escape and shipwreck and atrocity?is ever present in these wise and compassionate stories.

Andrew Lam

If It's Bleak On Earth, Look Up To The Heavens

By Andrew Lam, Dec 24, 2012 10:34 AM

 Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for getdata.asp.html.jpeg  This Christmas season that bright distinctive star that once led the three wise men to Bethlehem takes on an extra meaning. Some astronomers have over the years speculated that the star might have very well been a comet, as comets can be extremely bright and visible for months in the night sky, moving against a background of stars. But none until now thought that it could also be the source of life itself -a cosmic pollen carrying possible genetic and organic materials; the primordial soup.

Latest scientific discoveries in astronomy suggest conditions for life is rife everywhere. The more science discover, the deeper the mystery of the universe,

Consider: A few years ago NASA’s press release on the comet dust brought back to Earth by the space probe Stardust: °These chunks of ice and dust wandering our solar system appear to be filled with organic molecules that are the building blocks of life.”

The finding surprised scientists because many predicted that the space probe would find mostly ice. Instead, the finding could lend support for the belief that comets could have “seeded” life on our planet as well as others.

Such a statement would have been unimaginable only a few decades ago. Traditionally humans have an egocentric tendency to explain our place in the universe.

But as astonishing discoveries are being made, that sense of self- importance had given way to a more humble assessment of our place in the cosmos.

Everywhere we look, peering as far as we can into our universe, we find tantalizing evidence that supports conditions for life. From evidence of water once flowed on Mars to ice on the moon or a giant ocean found on Titan, Saturn's moon.

Add to these findings the continual discoveries of exoplanets- those that orbit stars - a total of 854 such planets as of 2012, some in "habitable" zones where conditions are ripe for life.

In a sense, Science chips away at our ancient myths only to reveal even greater mysteries. The more science reveals, the more mysterious the revelation. Science, in other word, is at its best when it evokes, like art, the experience of wonder and awe.

War and strife seem endless on our little blue planet, but up above the heavens is sublime. We look at the Christmas star might very well be a comet whose dust might be full of the stuff that creates life. This gives new meanings to a very old story, and it leaves some of us who gaze upward breathless. 

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 where the above essay is excerpted, and “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.” His next book, “Birds of Paradise Lost” is due out in 2013. He has lectured and read his work widely at many universities.

Louis Nevaer

Mo Yan on Bullfighting

By Louis Nevaer, Oct 24, 2012 1:21 PM

In 2011, Chinese author and recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mo Yan, was invited to speak before the Cervantes Institute in Beijing. Mo chose to speak about a Chinese view of something emblematic in Spanish/Hispanic society, namely bullfighting.

Andrew Lam

Salad Days: Becoming A Vegetarian To Remember Grandma

By Andrew Lam, Oct 23, 2012 10:11 AM

 SAN FRANCISCO -- For a period of a month sometime ago I became a vegetarian. Some people won't eat meat because they think it's cruel to animals, or because of health concerns. My reason is a little different: it is love.

I simply wanted to honor my grandmother's memory by not eating meat. A devout Buddhist, grandma spent a large part of her life as a vegetarian, and some of my fondest childhood memories in Vietnam were sharing a meal with her.

In fact, as a child, I learned how to appreciate food not from fancy dishes my mother regularly whipped up, but from the simple meals my grandmother prepared. In her presence a piece of crunchy green pickled eggplant was incredibly delicious, and fried tofu dipped in sweetened soy sauce delectable.

Andrew Lam

Ode to the Bay: My Life as a Vietnamese Immigrant in California

By Andrew Lam, Oct 18, 2012 4:32 PM

 My first California moment: I am 12 years old. I do not yet speak English, only Vietnamese and French. Fresh from the Pendleton refugee camp, I am quickly enrolled in an ESL class in summer school in Colma, south of San Francisco. On our second day we all learn to parrot this phrase: I am from... Thus, shyly, in various accents, the world introduces itself...

...the Philippines

For the summer 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 in my mouth and chew.

Spicy. Sweet.

Three decades later I can finally say what I intuited at that piquant instant: to live in the Bay Area, where I am now from, is to live at the crossroads of a global society. It's many a tourist's mistake to define the place materially, and it is true that the things it is known for -- arching bridges and grand ports and famed high-tech companies -- evoke, in many ways, what often transpires here: the ability to span distances and transgress borders.

A magnificent terrain, certainly, and full of golden promises, but so much more: a place where human restlessness and fabulous, alchemical commingling are becoming increasingly the norm. The entire world comes to the Bay Area, and the Bay Area, in return, assimilates the world. The Central Pacific Railroad ended here, but more than a century and half later, the majority of the construction of that far-reaching new undertaking, the information highway -- Yahoo, Google, IBM, eBay, Sun Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Craigslist, Apple, Pixar, Netscape, Intel, Oracle and a myriad of others -- while centered here, is everywhere, virtually.

Gertrude Stein once observed about Oakland, where she spent her childhood, that "there's no there there." But having grown up here and traveled the world, I'd like to add this corollary: nowhere is as both here and there as the Bay Area.

Go to the San Francisco Airport on any given day and you'll see what I mean. A world in motion, in flux: the number of people who pass through those gates at SFO each year exceeds the entire population of the Golden State. At last count there were 112 languages spoken in the Bay Area. On warm summer afternoons, Nob Hill, where I live, turns into the modern tower of Babel. The languages of the world -- Chinese, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Vietnamese and many more I do not recognize -- waft in through my open windows, accompanied by the cable cars' merry cling-clanging bells.

These days Shanghai, Bombay, Cairo, Paris, Buenos Aires and the likes are much closer to the Bay Area than we ever thought possible. There's a transnational revolution taking place, one right beneath our noses. The teenage girl in Marin County is flirting in the chat-room with the teenage boy in Islamabad. The Chinese businessman in Silicon Valley is talking to his grandmother in Guangdong on his cell, while answering e-mails to his business partners in London and Rio de Janeiro. And when a woman at a cocktail party told me casually that she was bicoastal, she did not mean the tired New York-San Francisco trajectory. She summers in San Francisco but winters in Shanghai.

Or try on this scene, another California moment: in their high-ceilinged SoMa flat, two friends of mine are conversing with the world. An Austrian H1B Silicon Valley computer wiz chats with his parents in Vienna on his webcam; his Singaporean boyfriend, who is holding his hand, is gossiping in mixed Mandarin and English on his cell phone with his sister in Melbourne. On TV, which neither one is watching at the moment, characters from their favorite Japanese anime are fighting a bloody battle in some futuristic metropolis.

California's diversity is, of course, nothing new. Multiracial, multicultural and multilingual -- even if differences were not historically celebrated, all these delineations were part of the Golden State from the get-go. Latin and Anglo America came to an epic collision, and California was the result.

Long before Webster acknowledged the word, globalization had already swept over the Bay Area. Gold made the state famous around the world, and the world rushed in and greeted itself, perhaps for the first time. Since then, layers upon layers of complexity -- tastes, architecture, religions, animals, plants, stories, music, languages -- have been piled onto the place, making it in many ways postmodern even before the rest of the world struggled to enter the modern era.

Before I came to San Francisco, I too knew it, as most East Asians knew it, as Old Gold Mountain, with the Golden Gate as the entrance to a wondrous America. Living on that mountain now, I too have seen my share of the gold rush made new by microchips and startup companies. "Try to imagine," a Vietnamese American entrepreneur friend of mine, once a refugee, tells me. "A new wave of Indians and Chinese and Vietnamese software programmers building the information highway, and you have the repeat of when poor Chinese laborers were building the railroad." Except for this: he retired at 38, having sold his startup company, and now manages his portfolio and collects art.

Diversity may not be new, but it has certainly been intensified by the degree of interactions, and by the rate of change we are all experiencing due to the forces of globalization. And new too is the way our society has gone from being overtly xenophobic -- many Chinese railroad workers were murdered when they finished building the railroad -- to celebratory about our differences. While racism will always lurk in many a resenting heart, and fear of the other will always be part of the human condition, cultures that were once considered proprietary have spilled irrevocably into the mainstream, mixing with one another, transforming the landscape.

Think about it: three decades ago, who would have thought that sushi -- raw fish -- would become an indelible part of California cuisine? Or that Vietnamese fish sauce would be found down Aisle three of Safeway? Or that salsa would replace ketchup as the most-consumed sauce?

We slowly give up blandness to savor the pungent lemongrass in our soup, feel that tangy burn of red curry on the tongue. Tomorrow's classics are today's bold experiments: tofu burrito, hummus guacamole, spring rolls with salsa dipping sauce, lamb in tamarind sauce, lychee martini, wasabi bloody mary.

Andrew Lam

Aging and My Traveling Life

By Andrew Lam, Oct 9, 2012 3:10 PM

 Two passports -- one new, the other old -- arrived in the mail the other day. The new, with its tough, blue covers and pristine, rigid pages that still resist my prying fingers is a stark contrast to the ink-stained, mud-smeared epic next to it, now punctured by the passport agency and rendered obsolete by the State Department.

In the old passport, I am a young man looking out to customs officers everywhere with a kind of trusting optimism. The skin that glows, the red lips, the dark, wavy hair that draped over my brows all convey something of innocence; a young man on a quest.

In the new passport, the photo shows someone else entirely; a weathered man in middle age with a sad smile and fine wrinkles around his eyes, and worse, a receding hairline. I look at this photo, myself in the present, and wonder: where did the time go?

Every man is vain, and I, of course, am no exception. In my late 20s, I was often mistaken by college students as their classmates and not their guest lecturer. And was it only a few years ago that a new intern at my news service mistook me for a fellow intern and not her editor? Then -- who knows when exactly, and which sun-drenched country was I traveling through -- the wrinkles came and the hair fell and fell.

Still, aging or not, I continue to go abroad. I do not know where the impulse to travel comes from but I have always had it, bad, ever since I was four or five. A Vietnamese child living in the Mekong Delta, I remember listening to my French educated father's stories of snow. Snow on the gilded bridges across the Seine and in the well groomed parks of Paris, snow across his bunker's window when he was a military exchange cadet in Denver, Colorado and snow on barren trees and moss strewn rock gardens and temple roof tops of fabled Kyoto.

Andrew Lam

Buddha in the West: Even Bill Clinton Turns Toward Meditation

By Andrew Lam, Aug 21, 2012 9:19 AM

Buddhism made a bleep in the news early this month when the Times of India, and other news outlets, citing an unnamed source, reported that Bill Clinton, has turned to Buddhism for mental and physical well-being. The former president went so far as hiring a Buddhist monk to teach him the arts of meditation.

This may come as a surprise to some but to many others it's only a natural course of how things transpire in the globalized world. In the last half of the 20th Century, America cunningly exported itself overseas, marketing its images, ideologies, products and religions with ingenuity and zeal, but what it has not been able to fully assess or prepare for are the effects in reverse. For if Americanization is a large part of globalization, the Easternization of the West, too, is the other side of the phenomenon.

I take it as some cosmic law of exchange that if Disneyland pops up in Hong Kong and Tokyo, Buddhist temples can sprout up in Los Angeles, home of the magic kingdom. Indeed, it comes as no surprise to many Californians that scholars have agreed that the most complex Buddhist city in the world is nowhere in Asia but Los Angeles itself, where there are more than 300 Buddhist temples and centers, representing nearly all of Buddhist practices around the world.

In October of 2009, CNN reported that, "programs and workshops educating inmates about meditation and yoga are sprouting up across the country." There are more than 75 organizations working with some 2,500 people, most of them prisoners, and they inspired a documentary called "The Dhamma Brothers." where inmates reached inner peace and spiritual maturity through meditation and the practice of compassion.

This was the same year that Thomas Dyer, a former Marine and one-time Southern Baptist pastor, became the first Buddhist chaplain in the history of the U.S. Army and he was sent to Afghanistan to administer to Buddhist American soldiers.

Over the past quarter-century, Buddhism has become the third largest religion in America behind Christianity and Judaism, according to a 2008 report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Evidence of Buddhism spreading deep roots in America is abundant. The UT San Diego newspaper estimated that there are at least 1.2 million Americans who are buddhist practitioners, the majority of whom live in California. Other scholars estimated that number to be as high as 6.7 million.

Even if small in population, the influence of Buddhist ideas are clearly strong on the cultural spheres. When the Dalai Lama visited the US three years ago, for example, he was a celebrity at every American institution. One scene in particular remains memorable: the most famous monk in the world sat on the dais, lecturing on wisdom in the modern world and exploring the concept of the soul, as hundreds of enthralled monks and laymen look on below. The scene harks back to the golden era of Tibet, with the halls festooned with hundreds of strings of colorful Tibetan prayer flags, except the event took place at American University.

Yet, despite Buddhism's message of inner peace and compassion, it, in its own way, is a very radical spiritual practice for its refutation of the existence of a creator. In essence, the serious practitioner aims to extinguish the self by defeating his own ego and, thereby, seeing beyond the illusion spun by the ignorant mind.

The ultimate Buddhist experience entails neither god nor self, neither "out there" nor "in here," for that membrane that separates the practitioner's being and that of the world, upon awakening, has been lifted. All that remains is - ohm - absolute awe and bliss. Imagine, if you will, Moses not turning his face away from the burning bush that is god but approaching it then fully merging with that terrifying fire. To reach spiritual maturity, the I must, at least temporarily in meditation, be dissolved.

"Buddhism," writes Diana Eck, professor of comparative religions at Harvard University, "challenges many Americans at the very core of their thinking about religion -- at least, those of us for whom religion has something to do with one we call God."

As ties deepened between the two continents, as immigration from Asia continues unabated, and as the Dhamma [Buddha's teachings] spreads beyond all borders, we are entering what many thinkers and philosophers call the second axial age, an age of pluralism where the various spiritual traditions co-exist.

In these global days, no single system can exist as a separate entity, nor can its borders remain impervious to change, all exist to a various degree of openness and exchange. And the old Silk Road along which so many religious ideas traveled has been replaced by a far more potent thoroughfare: unprecedented global migration, mass communications, and the information highway, which transcends geography.

I once kept on my study's wall two very different pictures to remind me of the way East and West have changed. One is an issue from a Time magazine on Buddhism in America. In it, a group of American Buddhists sits serenely in lotus position on a wooden veranda in Malibu overlooking a calm Pacific Ocean. The other is of Vietnamese-American astronaut named Eugene Trinh's space shuttle flight. The pictures tell me that East and West have not only met, but also commingled and fused. When a Vietnamese man who left his impoverished homeland can come very close to reaching the moon, while Americans are becoming psychonauts - navigators of the mind - turning inward, trying to reach nirvana with each mindful breath, I think that the East-West dialogue has come a long, long way.

New America Media's editor, Andrew Lam, is the author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres," and "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora." His next book, "Birds of Paradise Lost," is due out in Spring, 2013.

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Stephanie Espinoza

Expediting Graduation by Cutting Arts and Language

By Stephanie Espinoza, May 4, 2012 4:24 PM

The board of Kern High School District recently approved a “permissive law” that aims to give students more options for completing their graduation requirements. The move is part of Assembly Bill 1330, which is designed to offer students greater flexibility in choosing classes that will count towards graduation.

Jacob Simas

CA Youth Document Launch of Lady Gaga's New Foundation

By Jacob Simas, Mar 6, 2012 12:03 PM

Last week, Lady Gaga launched her new Born This Way Foundation with a massive kickoff at Harvard University in Cambridge. A number of celebrities turned up for the pop star’s big event -- Oprah Winfrey was on hand, so you know this was big – and hundreds of youth leaders were assembled from across the county, including four youth reporters from California representing New America Media.

The foundation, led by Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia Germanotta, was created last year with the objective “to foster a more accepting society, where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated.” Appearing unexpectedly at a youth forum at Harvard on the day before the actual launch, Gaga described the organization specifically as a “youth empowerment foundation,” drawing loud cheers from the young audience.

“I don’t believe I have the answers,” said Gaga. “I believe you do.” More cheers.

Gaga’s down to earth conversations with the youth and her rationale for wanting to start a foundation – building a more loving and accepting world is part of the foundation’s mission statement – come across as refreshingly straightforward, intelligent and genuine, in a world of celebrity that more often than not emphasizes conformity, consumerism and superficiality.

For an in-depth peek at the events, including written reports, photos, video coverage of Gaga’s speech to the youth delegates and a panel discussion that included Gaga, Oprah, Deepak Chopra and more, you can visit BornBraveCA, a youth-produced blog facilitated by The California Endowment and created to document the experience of California youth attending the launch of the Born This Way Foundation.

New America Media congratulates the four youth reporters who represented our organization so well in Cambridge: Edgardo Cervano-Soto from Richmond Pulse;Tony Aguilar from Coachella Unincorporated; Jaleesa Vickers from The kNOw Youth Media and Luis Pacheco from The kNOw Youth Media.

Andrew Lam

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

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

  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.

Michael Barba

"Mi Nombre Es": Chilean TV Features Blackface

By Michael Barba, Dec 1, 2011 9:41 AM

In Chile, the American Idol-like television show “Mi Nombre Es” premiered this October, featuring Las Vegas style performers imitating famous vocalists from Frank Sinatra to Lady Gaga. The show entertains until it crosses comfort zones, mirroring American minstrel shows with contestants pretending to be Barry White and Ray Charles in full blackface.

Denise Chan

Culture as Costume

By Denise Chan, Oct 31, 2011 4:00 PM

Once a year, on Halloween, people seize the opportunity to dress as something “they’re not.” Everywhere you turn, there seems to be a sudden increase in the number of enlarged animals and sexy nurses on the street, usually drunk, stumbling in the darkness. But without fail, you can pretty much bet on the fact that there will be a few individuals who cross the line into cultural offensiveness.

Andrew Lam

Eating, Reading, and Writing: An Interview with Andrew Lam

By Andrew Lam, Oct 28, 2011 12:27 PM

By Noelle Brada-Williams

Award-winning author and New American Media editor Andrew Lam discusses his work, contemporary journalism, the complexity of cultural exchange, and what he hopes to see when his work is read in a classroom.

Asian American Literature: Discourses and Pedagogies: I first met you in person when you came to San Jose State to read from Perfume Dreams in April 2007. As we were leaving the reading, a woman asked you for a good place to eat Vietnamese food in San Jose. I was horrified that someone would essentialize this San Francisco-based writer as a native informant for her culinary desires. As I contemplated tackling her, you very calmly suggested several restaurants and even mentioned that you were working on a book on food. Is that a common experience for you?

ANDREW LAM: It is. I usually don't take offense. I do find, however, that it is annoying when assumedly smart, worldly editors would make that same mistake about me. As a writer, I am capable of writing about many subjects beyond the area of my own cultural background and have done so. I've written about other countries and their troubles- Japan, Thailand, Greece, etc. But when I am asked to write something, or when I am interviewed for something, it is only about Vietnam and the Vietnamese Diaspora.

That is the crutch of being an ethnic writer - one is seen as a cultural ambassador from that community, and then a writer. The only way to break out of that mold is to be big enough in the literary circle so that one can address issues beyond one's biographical limitations.

AALDP: Journalists are often expected to cover a certain beat and to thus be an expert on a particular area, while creative writers frequently assert the uniqueness of their voices or perspectives rather than their representation of a whole group. Alexander Chee in Asian American Literary Review last year comes to mind. Do you feel that these identifications are valid?

AL: I think that used to be more valid than it is now. Part of the reason has to do with the fact that the media world has gone through a major shake up and fewer newspapers exist and while some still practice traditional journalism, that space between reporter and commentator (or essayist) is blurring. Reporters have opinions, after all, and the idea that Fox network seems to spearhead with great success is because people want their supposed reporters to have opinions. The Comedy Channel proves that journalism can in fact be practiced with humor and lots of running jokes and gags and biting observations. So while we still need reporters in the traditional sense, I feel many now are moving sideways across the various spectra of journalism. I myself write news analyses, do straight-forward reporting, and write op-eds. I never feel that I need to restrain myself to one genre. I think as long as I am fair and balanced, and honest with my own biases, I fit in with the new media.

AALDP: This next question also feels old-fashioned now that you have me thinking about Fox News: how do you negotiate between being a fiction writer and being a journalist?

AL: Not an easy task. I often compare journalism to fiction as architecture is to abstract painting. In the former, one needs to have all the logic and facts at hand.

One needs to build a strong frame and foundation. One needs all the supporting arguments and examples planned out. In the latter, one immerses oneself into the imaginary - but just as real - world, and one needs to step back to let characters grow into well rounded people with their own will. One needs to accept them and then describe them. One needs to feel deeply, empathize deeply. It's very different.

For me, writing nonfiction has become routine. It is still difficult to do creative nonfiction and ideas sometimes refuse to clarify themselves, but overall the process is not daunting. Doing fiction on the other hand, requires lots of time, and solitude, both of which I don't always have since I work as a journalist and editor. Fiction writing can be a foreboding task. Yet the unfinished story calls out for attention and when neglected, characters show up in dreams, in reveries, as if asking: "When are you going to come back to let the drama play out?" They nag at the soul.

AALDP: In your essay “California Cuisine of the World,” in East Eats West, you discuss how Asian food culture has been embraced by the mainstream, at least in California. You write, “private culture has—like sidewalk stalls in Chinatown selling bok choys, string beans, and bitter melons—a knack of spilling into the public sphere, becoming shared convention” (81). You use this image of the private spilling into the public sphere at least two other times in your most recent collection. Do you think of this in terms of loss or gain—as nostalgic loss of the personal and private space or as triumphant claiming of the mainstream as one’s own?

AL: There is something gained and lost in any exchange and it's inevitable. It's a kind of cosmic law of creation. Often immigrants bring their traditional practices with them - think Chinese railroad workers who introduced bamboo and acupuncture with them in the 1800s - and they are always astounded at how quickly those private practices get adopted and transformed by others as well as by their descendants. If I do feel a certain visceral sense of loss seeing pho soup being made by non-Vietnamese I am also generous enough to know how much my cosmopolitan life is so much the richer because other cultures have been integrated into my own life. I think without that sense of generosity one cannot navigate in this complex world of ours. One would have to hide and retreat behind the walls of Little Saigon and Chinatown and treat the larger world as unknown territory.

AALDP: The title for your book, East Eats West, reminds me of listening to Richard Rodriguez speak in the 1990’s. He talked about interviewing a white supremacist about the man’s views on Mexican immigrants while the man ate a burrito. He described the encounter in highly sexualized terms of the supremacist eating the “other.” Do you see the mainstream popularity of Asian cuisine as a marker of the rising cultural power of Asians or Asian Americans, or is it just cultural appropriation?

AL: The verb “eat” is so loaded. One can swallow the other, and one can also be swallowed by the other, or be transformed by having ingested something powerful. I play with the idea that both is happening at the same time, which is the essence of my collection of personal essays: It is the story of how a refugee boy from Southeast Asia swallowed America - its myriads of food and movies and language and literature and humor - and is in turn transformed by it. Conversely the other transformation is also happening. Since my arrival in America, I have watched the American landscape be transformed increasingly by the forces of immigration from Asia.

As to your question, in the ‘80s we were terribly afraid of the rise of Japan and consequently we became enthralled with Japanese culture - even as hate crimes against Asians became endemic and that famous case of the murder of Vincent Chin (mistaken for a Japanese) united Asian Americans. I remember falling in love with sushi and Japanese anime in the ‘80s. Others I knew were learning Japanese. Nowadays, it's Korean and Chinese cultures that are becoming global phenomena.

In MBA programs, one is strongly advised to speak another language, and usually it's Mandarin. "You know your cultural heritage is a major success when someone else is selling it back to you,” a friend of mine quipped after I noted the irony that Steven Spielberg produced Kung Fu Panda, which became an all-time box-office hit in China. Kung fu and pandas are both part of China’s heritage, but it probably requires the interpretation of an outsider to make you see your own cultures in new ways.

Cultural appropriation happens both ways as well. Hong Kong used to steal Hollywood blind until they started making really original inventive films and then it was Hollywood that started copying Hong Kong. It cannot be helped. There's a lot of exciting things that can happen when things are "appropriated" because they also get reinvented in the process and newness - ideas, tastes, sounds, movements - come out of that "stealing." All writers "borrow" too from their favorite writers and then find their own voice as they grow. Again, I'd say be generous and see that nothing is really original in the first place. The idea of cultural preservation seems to me a little odd. Cultures that need to be preserved are not fluid and are pickled, as it were. The real culture is what is reinvented to fit the present time, the present palate.

AALDP: I went to high school in Orange County and graduated in 1985—ten years and a month after the fall of Saigon. The class valedictorian, David Nguyen, was perhaps the most confident person I have ever met. I have certainly seen Vietnamese Americans of the 1.5 generation do amazing things in a relatively short space of time after coming to the United States, but what amazes me about your family’s story is the fact that not only your generation but your father managed to achieve so much in such a short time: an MBA and an institutionally and economically powerful position. How did he manage to do this as an older man and recent immigrant?

AL: My father, Thi Quang Lam, is something of a super-achiever. He was a three star general in the South Vietnam Army (ARVN) and studied French philosophy. Then he spent twenty-five years in the Army. In America he also wrote three books on the Vietnam War in English (then translated them back into Vietnamese for the community). He wrote his first two while working as a bank executive and raising a family of three kids. He just finished his third at 77 last year. He always mourned the fact that he came to the US in his mid 40s instead of mid 20s- because he would have gotten a PhD at the very least and not an MBA.

One of his secrets to success in America is a military trained discipline – which never left him even though he was forced to leave it, his beloved army, at the end of the Vietnam War, which unraveled in 1975. In America he studied nightly, he got up at 5 in the morning to do homework, and exercise. He went to night school while working full time. When he got his MBA, he moved toward writing his memoir and analyses of the Vietnam War, giving details from the South Vietnamese General’s perspective. That sense of duty is chased with an iron will and became key to his success. I can still see it: my father sitting straight back, ramrod, at his desk for hours on end.

Even after retirement, he went on to teach high schools for seven years, and he taught Math, French, Physics. With a third degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, he even broke bricks in class to demonstrate he was not lying about discipline. He’s quite a self-actualized person in many ways, perhaps an exception for his generation in the US. But his generation was full of brilliant people who never got a chance to achieve their potentials because of the many wars that took place in our homeland. So many were drafted and killed. In fact, that’s one of Vietnam’s greatest tragedies the lost generations. It is no wonder Vietnamese parents in the US are so forceful about their children making it in America – they are haunted by the robbed opportunities experienced by their own generation and those of previous generations.

In Perfume Dreams, I talked about being a Viet Kieu – Vietnamese expat – in Vietnam and how people measured their lost potentials in my own transnational biographies. They touched me. They marveled at my passport and all the entry and exit stamps. I hear phrases like, “Had I escaped to California…” or “If I came to the US at your age, I would have …” all the time. Their bitterness is extra deep because they know so and so who left and achieved great success in the West. Vietnamese, if anything, are a driven, ambitious and competitive people who are cursed with bad luck for being in a place where the superpowers never left them alone to develop in peace.

AALDP: Although you wrote about your father in Perfume Dreams, I think your second book actually made me think more about your father because of the powerful scene in which you tell your family that you want to be a writer. That passage struck me as an almost archetypal image of the parent-child dynamic with you mirroring your father’s own iron will and writing ambitions even as you distanced yourself from his expectations for you.

In East Eats West you provide a great metaphor for the economic progress of your life: “I left the working-class world where Mission Street ended and worked myself toward where Mission Street began, toward the city’s golden promises—and it is in one of those glittering glassy towers by the water that I live now” (28). Readers do not need to be familiar with San Francisco’s housing market to get a sense of what an achievement this is. How do you think your own class position has affected how you view American culture? How does economic prosperity affect how one deals with issues of assimilation or identity?

AL: I came from a privileged background, growing up speaking French, and with servants, chauffeurs, lycée and country club in Vietnam. Perhaps it’s why, having that experience, I am not particularly interested in wealth and status. I have no romantic notion about wealth and status. But I also remember what it was like to go from having an upper class status to being a refugee subsisting at the end of Mission Street in Daly City with other refugee families, and surviving on food stamps and the kindness of various religious charities. In other words, I have been both rich and poor, and now, yes, I am established, with established friends and so on, and my position as writer and journalist enables me to travel the world.

Admittedly, all that makes me feel connected to the cosmopolitan world and people would often describe me as “worldly.” But I hesitate to bring class into discussion about my writing since it often makes human reality seem abstract. Looking at stories through the “class” lens often makes people jump from one ideological conclusion to another. Often enough it never gets to the real stories – the human stories regardless of your economic status– that I want to tell. Economics play a strong part of everyone’s life and yet it also restrains narrative to some ideological bend, which is not what I’m after.

Besides, cosmopolitanism isn’t part of some upper class experience anymore. The migrant who slips across borders learns new ways of speaking and of looking at the world. His children, growing up with two, even three languages in the household, navigate various cultural expectations all the time. People’s fascination seems to be transnational these days, especially among the young. Kids who want to learn Japanese because they watch anime for instance. There’s a Korean restaurant in Berkeley that’s owned and operated by Mexicans who once worked in Korea – we have become, in some way, the other.

AALDP: You have a very optimistic view of cultural hybridity in much of East Eats West. But when you mention all of the terms we now have for mixed race people, you also include terms that can be used pejoratively. Would you say that there is any negative impact from cultural hybridity? How would you characterize Vietnamese attitudes toward the Amerasian children born during and after the war? Do you have a sense of Vietnamese American attitudes toward racial and ethnic mixing?

AL: That’s quite a lot of questions woven into one. I have been accused in the past of painting a rosy picture of East-West relations, especially in the area of cultural exchanges. It is not that I am not unaware of the more sordid, exploitative side of that equation, but it is because I’m interested in what hasn’t been fully explored. Certainly as a reporter and news analyst I’ve written quite a bit on the problems of globalization – racism, exploitation, human trafficking, unfair trading practices, copyrights infringement, accelerated environmental degradation, human rights abuse and so on. But in East Eats West, I wanted to explore what is barely being touched upon –the space where East and West intersect. And I’m not interested in the parameters that the pessimists would insist upon, where the conversation should take place within certain egalitarian ideals. After all, I am westernized by experience and choice, and am Eastern by original inheritances and my marvelous Vietnamese childhood. Part of that enormous complexity came from terrible tragedies – colonization, war, exodus, life in exile. You can be bitter about it, or you can pick and choose, integrating what’s workable into your own life. It’s all about how you synthesize the differences.

Yes, there are terrible combinations of hybridity that shouldn’t even be repeated. Some food combinations are a disaster. But that said, if one frowns on the mixing, the openness to inter-exchanges, one is missing out on the energy that is fusing the major part of the 21st century.

AALDP: I first became familiar with your work through my teaching. First the two short stories anthologized in Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose (1998) and later Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora (2005). How do you feel about your writing being used in the classroom? Is that a space you envision at all when you write? What would you want students to take away from your texts?

AL: A good essay can be as much a visceral experience as it is one in which ideas are transferred. I want readers to feel what it is like to lose a country and all the cultures and societies and customs that went along with it, then have to learn a new language, a new set of behavior, and reinvent a new self, then thrive – that’s the story I want people not only to understand, but experience. But I’d be happy if students went away from reading Perfume Dreams and East Eats West understanding that identities are not fixed in stone, and that after having gone through epic losses one also gains something as well, and new ways of looking at one’s self in place of history.

Perfume Dreams is sadder because it’s closer to the refugee experience, but East Eats West is more celebratory, it’s a regard of life when East and West not only met but became intertwined, creating a hybrid space, as it were, from which new ideas emerged. It is both an internal space, within me, and a cultural and political force of the 21st century.

AALDP: Is there anything you definitely wouldn’t want teachers and students to do with your texts?

AL: Well, I hope they don’t burn them. But seriously, I think that people often see my work as particularly ethnic and on one level that’s fine. On another, however, I put a lot of effort into playing with language, and structure –and one thing I hope they do pay attention to is the various literary styles in which the essays were written – ranging from the reportorial, to the highly personal, to the little vignettes. I am always thrilled when my work is taught in a literature class because it seems to break some personal barrier for me – to be recognized as a writer in English and not just as an ethnic writer.

AALDP: I have anxiously been awaiting a collection of your short stories. Now I understand Birds of Paradise is due out next year. Will this collect your previously published fiction or will it be pieces we have not seen before?

AL: Many have been published in recent years. But there will be unpublished work as well.

AALDP: Will it include some of my favorite stories such as “Grandma’s Tales” and “Show and Tell?”

AL: I hope so but I fear they might be "eliminated" depending on the tastes of the
editor. But never fear, there are other pieces that might thrill you as well.

Andrew Lam

"Feasting Meets Philanthropy" at OneVietnam's SF Street Eats Gala

By Andrew Lam, Aug 27, 2011 3:19 PM

Foodies, techies and their friends who want to eat well and help the organization that bills itself as the "Facebook" of the Vietnamese Diaspora will be heading to the San Francisco Ferry Building for SF Street Eats on Sept 18. The charity gala will support, a global online network for the Vietnamese community.

Spearheaded by Slanted Door chef and owner, Charles Phan, the upper floor of the posh building known for its gourmet food and weekend farmers markets, will be turned into a gallery of food and
drinks galore. Participants can sample international cuisine from well-known chefs Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani of Michelin starred Ame, and ramen dishes from chef Richie Nakano of Hapa Ramen. Many dishes will be from Vietnamese chefs -- spring rolls from chef Khai Duong from Ana Mandara's and Asian flavor (guava, shiraja, durian) chocolate from chocolatier Susan Lieu, for instance. Want a Vietnamese sandwich?

Try Vietnamese banh me from the Nom Nom truck, which was featured on food networks The "Great Food Truck Race.”

"Wine and dessert will also be in continuous supply and, in addition to the company of great guests, live entertainment will also be provided," notes OneVietnam's business director, Uyen Nguyen.
"Seriously, folks, this is where gourmand meets gourmet and feasting meets philanthropy."

For more info: go to

Andrew Lam is author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.

Andrew Lam

First Woman to Achieve Judo's Top Rank

By Andrew Lam, Aug 16, 2011 4:50 PM

Among judo aficionados, 98-year-old San Francisco resident Keiko Fukuda is a legend. She is the first and only woman to hold the ninth degree in the judo world. Last week, Rafu Shimpo reports, "USA Judo promoted her to 10th dan, the highest black belt level in judo.”

The subject of a documentary by Yuriko Gamo Romer to be released next year called, “Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful,” Fukuda is the last surviving student of Jigoro Kano (1860-1938), the founder of judo in Japan. For decades she fought sexism, which prevented her from rising beyond a certain rank in the judo world. When she came to San Francisco, she established a judo club for women in Noe Valley, where she still teaches.

Andrew Lam is author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres."

According to Rafu Shimpo, a celebration of her promotion to judo's top rank will be held during the 13th annual Fukuda International Kata Championship in October at City College of San Francisco.

Andrew Lam

Documentary Commemorates 66th Anniversary of Atomic Bombings

By Andrew Lam, Aug 5, 2011 11:33 PM

San Francisco - On August 6 and 9 of 1945, the U.S. government dropped an atomic bomb each on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and 210,000 Japanese were immediately killed and many more thousands suffered and died from radiation fallout. One man, Tsutomu Yamaguchi, was unlucky enough to have been
in both cities during the bombing and lucky enough to survive both. To commemorate the 66th anniversary of the atomic bombings, New People, the nation’s only entertainment complex dedicated to Japanese popular culture, is hosting a special screening of the 2006 film “Twice Bombed, Twice Survived,” a documentary based on Yamaguchi himself.

According to Rafu Shimpo, Yamaguchi decided to participate in the documentary at age 90 in hopes
that it would help the movement to abolish nuclear weapons worldwide. Although there are other twice-bombed victims who survived and are featured in the documentary, Yamaguchi was the only person officially recognized by the Japanese government to have survived both explosions. Yamaguchi passed away last year at age 93 after being hospitalized for stomach cancer.

Located at 1746 Post St. in San Francisco, New People will screen the documentary Saturday at 2:00 p.m. Part of the proceeds will go to Friends of Hibakusha, a San Francisco organization dedicated to
supporting Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors in the United States.

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

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Resisting 'Slacktivism,' Remembering Vincent Chin, and Singing with Joe Reilly

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, Jun 24, 2011 11:48 AM

I recently interviewed for a job launching a new online literary magazine about literature and social justice activism. (The interview did not go so well, but...) What a great idea to link the glamour of novelists and poets with the purpose of social justice activism. This gives literature more weight and meaning, and gives activism more color and style.

Suzanne Manneh

Local Mexican Music Group Raises Funds for Music in Schools

By Suzanne Manneh, Jun 6, 2011 10:25 AM

The San Jose-based Grammy Award-winning Mexican music group Los Tigres del Norte will be playing a special concert June 16 at the San Jose State Event Center Arena to benefit arts and music programs in local schools, reports Univision

The concert is being organized by the Mexican Heritage Corporation of San Jose, which provides Mexican folklorico dance classes in San Jose schools and community centers.

Andrew Lam

Afghanistan Can't Wash Away Vietnam: Obama & the Ghosts of War

By Andrew Lam, May 30, 2011 6:15 PM

New America Media's editor, Andrew Lam, reads from "New California Writing" - An anthology of writing from Californian writers by Heyday Books. He is the author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres" and "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora."

This video is produced and filmed by Steven Chiem.