Entries by Andrew Lam

Andrew Lam

Two Years on, Remembering The Fukushima Disaster

By Andrew Lam, Mar 11, 2013 10:39 AM

Two years ago the Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami devastated the region. They seriously damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant, sending radiated fumes into the air and leaking radiation into the waters. Nearly 16,000 people were killed by the earthquake and tidal waves, and 2,600 others were missing.

The letter below, written in Vietnamese by an immigrant who was working in Fukushima as a policeman to a friend in Vietnam, was published in newspapers and circulated on the Internet a week or so after the incident. It is an extraordinary testimony to the strength and dignity of the Japanese spirit, and an interesting slice of life near the epicenter of Japan's current crisis, the Fukushima nuclear power plant. I translated and published it on New America Media two weeks after the disaster struck on March 11, 2011. It was subsequenlty translated into at least a dozen other languages and went around the globe. I am reposting it here on the occasion of the two-year anniversary of the Tohoku disaster.


Brother,

How are you and your family? These last few days, everything was in chaos. When I close my eyes, I see dead bodies. When I open my eyes, I also see dead bodies. Each one of us must work 20 hours a day, yet I wish there were 48 hours in the day, so that we could continue helping and rescuing folks.

We are without water and electricity, and food rations are near zero. We barely managed to move refugees to one place before there were new orders to move them elsewhere.

I am currently in Fukushima, about 25 kilometers away from the nuclear power plant. I have so much to tell you that if I could write it all down, it would surely turn into a novel about human relationships and behaviors during times of crisis.

The other day I ran into a Vietnamese-American. His name is Toan. He is an engineer working at the Fukushima 1 nuclear plant, and he was wounded right at the beginning, when the earthquake struck. With the chaos that ensued, no one helped him communicate with his family. When I ran into him I contacted the US embassy, and I have to admit that I admire the Americans' swift action: They sent a helicopter immediately to the hospital and took him to their military base.

But the foreign students from Vietnam are not so lucky. I still haven't received news of them. If there were exact names and addresses of where they work and so on, it would be easier to discover their fate. In Japan, the police do not keep accurate residential information the way they do in Vietnam, and privacy law here makes it even more difficult to find.

I met a Japanese woman who was working with seven Vietnamese women, all here as foreign students. Their work place is only 3 kilometers from the ocean and she said that they don't really understand Japanese. When she fled, the students followed her, but when she checked back they were gone. Now she doesn't know if they managed to survive. She remembers one woman's name: Nguyen thi Huyen (or Hien).

No representatives from the Vietnamese embassy have shown up, even though on the Vietnamese Internet news sites they claim to be very concerned about Vietnamese citizens in Japan - all of it a lie.

Even us policemen are going hungry and thirsty, so can you imagine what those Vietnamese foreign students are going through? The worst things here right now are the cold, the hunger and thirst, the lack of water and electricity.

People here remain calm - their sense of dignity and proper behavior are very good - so things aren't as bad as they could be. But given another week, I can't guarantee that things won't get to a point where we can no longer provide proper protection and order. They are humans after all, and when hunger and thirst override dignity, well, they will do whatever they have to do. The government is trying to provide air supply, bringing in food and medicine, but it's like dropping a little salt into the ocean.

Brother, there are so many stories I want to tell you - so many, that I don't know how to write them all. But there was a really moving incident. It involves a little Japanese boy who taught an adult like me a lesson on how to behave like a human being. Last night, I was sent to a little grammar school to help a charity organization distribute food to the refugees. It was a long line that snaked this way and that and I saw a little boy around 9 years old. He was wearing a t-shirt and a pair of shorts.

It was getting very cold and the boy was at the very end of the line. I was worried that by the time his turn came there wouldn't be any food left. So I spoke to him.

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He said he was in the middle of PE at school when the earthquake happened. His father worked nearby and was driving to the school. The boy was on the third floor balcony when he saw the tsunami sweep his father's car away. I asked him about his mother. He said his house is right by the beach and that his mother and little sister probably didn't make it. He turned his head and wiped his tears when I asked about his relatives.

The boy was shivering so I took off my police jacket and put it on him. That's when my bag of food ration fell out. I picked it up and gave it to him. "When it comes to your turn, they might run out of food. So here's my portion. I already ate. Why don't you eat it."

The boy took my food and bowed. I thought he would eat it right away, but he didn't. He took the bag of food, went up to where the line ended and put it where all the food was waiting to be distributed. I was shocked. I asked him why he didn't eat it and instead added it to the food pile. He answered: "Because I see a lot more people hungrier than I am. If I put it there, then they will distribute the food equally."

When I heard that I turned away so that people wouldn't see me cry. It was so moving -- a powerful lesson on sacrifice and giving. Who knew a 9-year-old in third grade could teach me a lesson on how to be a human being at a time of such great suffering? A society that can produce a 9-year-old who understands the concept of sacrifice for the greater good must be a great society, a great people.

It reminds me of a phrase that I once learned in school, a capitalist theory from the old man, Fuwa [Tetsuzo], chairman of the Japanese Communist Party: "If Marx comes back to life, he will have to add a phrase to his book, Capital, and that 'Communist ideology is only successful in Japan.'"

Well, a few lines to send you and your family my warm wishes. The hours of my shift have begun again.
- Ha Minh Thanh

The above letter 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".

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.



2013-01-29-BirdsofParadiselostcover.jpg

Cover of Birds of Paradise Lost

Andrew Lam

Nói Chuyện với nhà văn Andrew Lâm

By Andrew Lam, Mar 7, 2013 3:38 PM


Anna Challet, New America Media

Andrew Lâm, tác giả của cuốn hồi ký "Perfume Dreams: Những Phản Ánh Về Người Việt Hải Ngoại," và biên tập viên thuộc hảng New America Media một thời gian dài hai mươi năm, đã làm nên tên tuổi của mình là một nhà báo và nhà bình luận, nhưng trong cuốn sách mới nhất của ông, quá khứ của mình là một người tị nạn Việt Nam thông qua những câu chuyện ngắn về các nhân vật chạy khỏi Việt Nam và làm lạI cuộc sống mới tại Vùng Vịnh. "Lâm đã ngay lập tức thành lập mình là một trong những nhà văn viễn tưởng tốt nhất của Mỹ,” lưu ý tác giả Robert Olen Butler, trong khi nhà văn Oscar Hijuelos quan sát cho rằng " văn chính xác của Lâm được xuất hiện trong nhiều câu chuyện mê hoặc; và bộ sưu tập là một cương lĩnh hùng vĩ.”

New America MEdia đã nói chuyện với anh Andrew Lâm về việc thu thập, Birds of Paradise Lost (Red Hen Press, 2013), trong tháng này.

Birds of Paradise Lost là cuốn sách đầu tiên tiểu thuyết của anh- làm thế nào anh đến để xuất bản một bộ sưu tập tiểu thuyết sau nhiều năm làm một nhà báo?

Tôi đã viết truyện ngắn cho hai mươi năm nay, từ khi còn học trong chương trình văn bản sáng tạo tại San Francisco State University. Mặc dù sau này tôi tìm thấy một sự nghiệp làm nhà báo và một nhà viết tiểu luận, tiểu thuyết là tình yêu đầu tiên của tôi và tôi không bao giờ bỏ nó, mặc dù đã có không có cách nào dễ dàng để kiếm sống viết tiểu thuyết. Bộ sưu tập này là một lao động của tình yêu và sự tận tâm, và bất cứ khi nào tôi tìm thấy thời gian không bận rộn từ công việc báo chí của tôi, tôi làm việc viết tiểu thuyết hay cách khác, phác thảo về các nhân vật của tôi, và các vấn đề nghiên cứu khác nhau liên quan đến tình huống khó xử của nhân vật của tôi. Sau hai mươi năm và ba mươi câu chuyện, cuối cùng đã được lựa chọn 13 bài và bộ sưu tập đã được sinh ra. Cho đến nay các lời ngưỡng mộ từ Maxine Hong Kingston, Gish Jen, Robert Olen Butler, Oscar Hijuelos, và những người khác rất là khuyến khích.

Anh đã viết nhiều bài tiểu luận cá nhân và tác phẩm phi hư cấu về đến Hoa Kỳ từ Việt Nam. Cảm giác thế nào để mang lại kinh nghiệm đó vào cuộc sống của các nhân vật hư cấu của bạn?

Vâng, tôi luôn luôn nói rằng văn bản phi hư cấu so với viết tiểu thuyết là như kiến trúc so với hội họa trừu tượng. Trong phi tiểu thuyết, bạn phải ở lại đúng với sự kiện lịch sử, có thể là cá nhân hoặc quốc gia... Trong tiểu thuyết, nó là như bạn nhập vào một thế giới trong mơ mà bạn tạo ra, nhưng nhân vật của bạn có ý riêng của họ. Họ không làm những gì bạn muốn họ làm - họ gặp rắc rối, làm người nghiện thuốc, người chiến đấu qua những điều nhỏ mọn, và làm những điều thái quá mà bạn sẽ không muốn trẻ con của bạn làm. Nói cách khác, bạn chỉ có thể cung cấp nền tảng những hạt giống—trong trường hợp của tôi là nền tảng của người Việt tị nạn. Khi một nhân vật trong truyện linh động, người đó không giảng dạy về lịch sử của mình mà sống cuộc sống của mình, họ làm những điều bất ngờ, và làm cho bạn cười và khóc vì sai sót của và những nhược điểm của con người.

Làm thế nào bạn đi lên với tiêu đề?

Birds of Paradise Lost -- Thiên Điểu Phi Xư’- nó là tiêu đề của một trong 13 câu chuyện trong cuốn sách, và nó là một câu chuyện đề cập với cái chết và lòng thù hận và sự phản đối qua cách tự thiêu. Trong câu chuyện, người bạn tốt nhất của người kể chuyện cam kết tự thiêu tại Washington, DC và để lại một lưu ý rằng nói ông ghét chế độ cộng sản Việt Nam và mong muốn cái chết của mình để kêu gọi sự chú ý đến sự tàn ác của cộng sản. Nhưng ông cũng làm bạn bè của mình tại San Jose, California, quay cuồng từ cái chết của ông. Đó có phải là một hành động yêu nước? Một khách du lịch đi qua chụp một hình ảnh của người đàn ông trên lửa, và ngọn lửa nhắc nhở người kể chuyện của hoa Thiên Điểu - như một con chim phượng hoàng, như một ngọn lửa và một đoá hoa.

Tiếng Anh là ngôn ngữ thứ ba của anh, sau khi Việt Nam và Pháp. Làm thế nào mà anh đã đến viết bằng tiếng Anh - "lưỡi mẹ ghẻ" của anh?

Tôi có một câu chuyện vui để nói về tiếng Anh và làm thế nào tôi đã rơi vào tình yêu với ngôn ngữ. Khi tôi đến Hoa Kỳ vào năm 1975, tôi mười một tuổi, và trong vòng vài tháng giọng nói của tôi phá vỡ. Tôi đã tuyệt vọng để phù hợp và nói tiếng Anh tất cả các thời gian. Vấn đề là, trong gia đình tôi nói tiếng Anh đó là một không-không bởi vì bằng cách nào đó nó là thiếu tôn trọng để gọi cha mẹ và ông bà là "you, you" – nó có vẽ như dùng để tấn công bằng tiếng Việt. Nhưng tôi không thể nghe lời.

Tôi đọc quảng cáo như một con vẹt, tôi nói tiếng Anh tiếng không ngừng. Anh trai của tôi một đêm nói là, " mày nói quá nhiều tiếng Anh, đó là lý do tại sao các hợp âm giọng nói của mày tan vỡ. Bây giờ mày nói chuyện như một con vịt.”

Tôi nghĩ đó là sự thật. Tôi từ cậu bé Việt Nam ngọt giọng khi nói tiếng Việt và tiếng Pháp biến thành một thiếu niên lên tiếng vỡ giọng. Tôi nghĩ, "Wow, tiếng Anh là giống như ảo thuật." Nó không chỉ tan vỡ giọng nói của tôi, nó còn thay đổi sinh lý. Tôi tin rằng điều này cho nhiều tháng, tin rằng tiếng Anh kỳ diệu trong ngôn ngữ. Tôi không bao giờ rơi ra khỏi của quan điểm này .

Andrew Lam

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

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


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.
 
                            **
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.


Andrew Lam

Social Media's Reaction to Shooting in Newtown, Connecticut

By Andrew Lam, Dec 14, 2012 4:55 PM

 I've been a writer and commentator for twenty years and have published from NY Times to Mother Jones to LA Magazine, but words failed me when I heard news of the horrific massacre that took place this morning in Newtown, Connecticut, leaving 28 people dead, 20 of them children.

The conversation on social media has been mostly about guns and gun control. So I am reposting what friends are posting on facebook...  


"Too many innocent people have died over the "right to keep and bear arms". The language of the second amendment states, "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed". Ok, so this right was intended for an individual or militia to aid the military in case of defense. I haven't seen one news story about this right being used in such a manner. Seems like one reason we preserve this right is because irrational fear by gun owners. Well, if the gun owner has such irrational fear, then we can also argue some mental instability and cognitive dissonance, which should disqualify them from ownership in the first place. Then we have those who preserve this right because it is an “American Tradition”. So what if it’s an American Tradition. Slavery, indentured servants, and women’s suffrage were all American Traditions that were abolished for clearly being against the greater good. It's time for a constitutional upgrade.."


"I think a moderate gun-owner's organization could poach membership from the NRA, and also pick up people who own guns but aren't NRA members. It might well lobby against cities' attempts to ban handguns, as clear violations of the 2nd amendment. It would NOT lobby against restrictions on assault rifles, or any other astonishingly sensible gun control measure."

"If you don’t want to propagate more mass murders, don’t start the story with sirens blaring. Don’t have photographs of the killer. Don’t make this 24-7 coverage. Do everything you can to not make the body-count the lead story, not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero. DO localize the story to the affected community and make it as boring as possible in every other market. Because every time we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder, we expect to see one or two more within a week."

"There have been a ridiculous number of random public shootings this year-3 or 4 times the usual number. If I were a paranoid conspiracy theorist i would think that the government was staging these to take away guns from private citizens. Seriously, there has been a shooting every 15-30 days. Why so many more than in previous years?"

‎"If roads were collapsing all across the United States, killing dozens of drivers, we would surely see that as a moment to talk about what we could do to keep roads from collapsing. If terrorists were detonating bombs in port after port, you can be sure Congress would be working to upgrade the nation’s security measures. If a plague was ripping through communities, public-health officials would be working feverishly to contain it.

"Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not. But that’s unacceptable. As others have observed, talking about how to stop mass shootings in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings isn’t “too soon.” It’s much too late."

‎"Guns don't attack children; psychopaths and sadists do. But guns uniquely allow a psychopath to wreak death and devastation on such a large scale so quickly and easily. America is the only country in which this happens again -- and again and again."

"More than mental health issues, more than a culture of violence, it's the type of weapon used that is the difference between life and death. Guns are extremely lethal, meant for killing. They should be under extreme regulation..."


"I'm seeing FB friends posting their shock at how this is possible in America -- that we're a better people, a better country than this.

I understand this reaction, but I think we also have to get real: As much as we want to think of the U.S. as exceptional -- and yes, there are many ways in which we are -- there are things about this nation, this nation we love and love to celebrate, that are horribly and INCOMPREHENSIBLY backwards.

One of them is our fucking obsession with guns, and the vast, vile lobbying industry that has sprung up around it. These are America, at our least beautiful. When will we simply say...enough?"

"I am saddened again by the american two gun society. i can hear the NRA already...its not guns that kill children, its children who kill children...or if all the teachers and students had freer access to guns, they would have nailed the shooter before he killed so many...i mourn these children and all the children who are falling though the cracks of our very violent two gun society, and endlessly warring world.."

"Twenty-two children injured [in China by a knife wielding assailant]. Versus, at current count, 18 little children and nine other people shot dead. That's the difference between a knife and a gun.

Guns don't attack children; psychopaths and sadists do. But guns uniquely allow a psychopath to wreak death and devastation on such a large scale so quickly and easily. America is the only country in which this happens again -- and again and again. You can look it up...

...For parents, siblings, and families whose lives have been forever changed (or ended), deepest sympathies. For us as a nation .... I don't know what to say."

Andrew Lam

Welcome to San Francisco, the Asian City by the Bay

By Andrew Lam, Dec 7, 2012 10:10 AM

 On a cable car over Nob Hill one morning, I overheard a blonde, middle-age tourist whisper this confidence to her companion: "It sure ain't Texas, I can tell you that much."

"No kidding," mumbled the burly man in a Hawaiian shirt as he continued filming the city with his camcorder.

The Texan couple's sense of displacement stems, at least in part, from San Francisco's unmistakable Oriental twang. For the tourist's camcorder is sure to capture, amid the city's Victorians and scenic hills, images that confirm San Francisco's central place in the Pacific Century: Young Asian students spilling out of grammar schools, video stores displaying the latest Hong Kong and Korean dramas, karaoke bars and sidewalk stalls filled with string beans, bokchoy, ginger and bitter melons.

San Francisco is now part of a statewide trend that has resulted in majority becoming minority, with minority continuing to surge and multiply. The latest census showed that whites have slowly shrunk to 48 percent of the population in San Francisco, becoming another minority in a city that has no majority. The city's Asian population, on the other hand, has risen above the 33 percent mark. That is, one in three San Francisco residents has an Asian face. For the population under 18, the number for Asian closer to 40 percent.

Politically and culturally, the result is something of a rumbling mid-Richter scale earthquake.

So much so that the current San Francisco Magazine has an unflattering picture of Rose Pak, a political activist with strong advocacy for Chinatown, on its cover, smoking a cigar. The headline: Who Runs San Francisco?

Andrew Lam

'Shh-Thanks-Givin': My First Thanksgiving in America -- A Former Refugee Remembers

By Andrew Lam, Nov 19, 2012 1:54 PM

I wrote this piece a few years back but everyt Thankgiving, it finds meanings and renewals, sort of like that movie "It's a Wonderful Life," starring Jimmy Steward, at Christmas time. So here it is again, and enjoy. Andrew


 "Thanks-giving," said Mr. K., my seventh-grade English teacher. "Repeat after me: Thanksgiving."

"Ssshthanks give in," I said, but the word tumbled and hissed, turning my mouth into a wind tunnel. A funny word, "Ssshthanks give in," hard on my Vietnamese tongue, tough on my refugee's ears.

"That's good," said Mr. K., full of encouragement. "Very good. Thanksgiving."

As I helped him tape students' drawings of turkeys and pilgrims and Indians on the classroom windows, Mr. K. patiently explained to me the origins of the holiday. You know the story: newcomers to America struggling, surviving and finally thriving in the New World, thanks to the kindness of the natives.

I could barely speak a complete sentence in English, having spent less than three months in America, but Mr. K.'s story wasn't all that difficult to grasp. Still, I didn't particularly see what it could have to do with me.

My family and I had arrived in America several months earlier, at the end of the Vietnam War. My father, a high-ranking officer in the South Vietnamese army, was missing, having adamantly refused to join us when we fled in a cargo plane heading out of Saigon two days before communist tanks rolled in. Father -- who had stayed in Vietnam determined to fight to the end in the jungle -- was the center of our lives, and his absence left a horrible void.

We had arrived in America with nothing but rags in our backpacks and a few ounces of gold that my mother had tucked into her money belt. An impoverished aunt took us all in. Soon there were 10 people crowding together in Auntie Lisa's tiny two-bedroom apartment at the end of Mission Street in San Francisco.


Today, in her suburban condo at the edge of California's Silicon Valley, my mother is fond of referring to our first year in America as "a time of living like wandering ghosts." We had, after all, gone from being an elite family in Saigon, with three servants and a villa, to being exiles with little to our name. We did not speak English and had no discernible skills. Without Father, who was educated and spoke English, we were destined for a life of poverty.

In that refugee's broken home, there was an oppressive silence. We ate in silence in the dining room that served as a bedroom at night. We waited silently in line for the bathroom, slept silently side by side, as if saying anything would only bring us all to tears.

Indeed, Mr. K, what was there to be thankful for?

Ah, but there was.

A few days after Mr. K. explained Thanksgiving to me, something marvelous happened: My father called. He had survived, and would soon join us, having changed his mind and escaped aboard a crowded naval ship from Saigon.

When Father arrived he was skinny and haggard, no longer the war hero of my memories, but he nevertheless brought jubilation into our lives. I remember hearing my mother laugh, hearing the adults gossip and argue, and sometimes I would close my eyes, pretending that we were all still living in Saigon. One morning I looked in the mirror and was surprised to see a boy's face smiling back at me.

As the holiday drew near, I had a change of heart about Thanksgiving. If Vietnam's final act of mercy was to release its grip on my father, America was generosity itself. As in Mr. K's story, it was populated by friendly natives who helped us out. There was that businessman at the L.A. airport, a stranger, who offered to pay for my entire family's plane tickets to San Francisco when we left the refugee camp of Pendleton. In school my friends Remigio, Tai, Marvin, Wayne, Robert -- white, black, Filipino, Mexican kids -- all adopted me. Eric taught me to play baseball; 200-pound Tai protected me from the rowdy kids; and Robert, the popular blue-eyed jock, offered to take me on vacation with his family. And best of all Mr. K., ever patient and nurturing, made me his pet. Whenever I missed the bus, or even simply asked, he would drive me home after school.

That Thanksgiving my family gathered on the floor and ate two gigantic turkeys donated by religious charities. The kids fought over the food and the adults talked about job prospects. There was even talk of a possible trip next summer to the place I equated with paradise: Disneyland.

Sssthanks give in. Thanksgiving.

We have moved into the middle class since then. My father retired from his job as a bank executive, my mother from hers as an accountant. My brother and his wife are successful suburban engineers. My sister lives in a luxury condo downtown San Francisco and, not far away, I in mine. Thanksgiving at my brother's home this year will be replete with wines and seafood and crab and yes, turkey, and fabulous Vietnamese dishes. But the Thanksgiving I remember with fond memories is the first one, where we ate on the floor and wore donated clothes, and when I was just learning to pronounce the word.


New America Media editor, Andrew Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" (Heyday Books, 2005), which recently won a Pen American "Beyond the Margins" award 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.

Andrew Lam

The Post-Colonial Presidency: Our Man Obama

By Andrew Lam, Nov 7, 2012 1:26 AM

   

As a refugee from Vietnam, a country colonized by the French and then fought over by the Americans and the Soviet Union, I see the Obama presidency as spelling the end of a five-hundred-year-old colonial curse.

Decades ago, English still unruly on my tongue, I read a spin-off of Daniel Defoe’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, but I read it not as most of my American peers did. I saw myself, on one level or another, as Friday, his servant.

A British sailor participating in the slave trade, Crusoe was shipwrecked off the coast of Venezuela. He was alone for some years but managed with his guns to rescue a native prisoner who was about to be eaten by his captors. He named him Man Friday, taught him English, and converted him to Christianity. He taught Friday to call him “master.”

James Joyce once noted that Defoe’s sailor is the symbol of the imperial conquest, that “he is the true prototype of the British colonist. . . . The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.”

Likewise, all those who have been colonized and oppressed in the age of European expansionism are embodied in Friday. Indentured and “saved” by Crusoe, Friday becomes, over the centuries, a political symbol of racial injustice, of victims of colonization and imperialist expansion, of slavery. Friday was African, Native American, Asian, Latin American. And Friday was all the children born from miscegenation.

Andrew Lam

Vietnam, Afghanistan: War, Karma, and Peace

By Andrew Lam, Oct 30, 2012 3:59 PM

 Trying to Google news of my homeland, Vietnam, over the last few weeks has not been easy. The headlines that often showed up were about another country, not Vietnam.

Here are a few headlines from major news organizations:

- Afghanistan haunted by ghost of Vietnam
-Barack Obama must stop dithering - or Afghanistan will be his Vietnam
-The Vietnam War Guide to Afghanistan
-Afghanistan is Obama's Vietnam
-Which is America's longest war, Afghanistan or Vietnam?
-Vietnam and why we lost Afghanistan


Often times, indeed, when we mention the word Vietnam in the United States, we don't mean Vietnam as a country. Vietnam is unfortunately not like Thailand or Malaysia or Singapore to America's collective imagination. Its relationship to us is special: It is a vault filled with tragic metaphors for every pundit to use.

After the Vietnam War, Americans were caught in the past, haunted by unanswerable questions, confronted with an unhappy ending. So much so that my uncle who fought in the Vietnam War as a pilot for the South Vietnamese army, once observed that, "When Americans talk about Vietnam they really are talking about America." "Americans don't take defeat and bad memories very well. They try to escape them," he said in his funny but bitter way. "They make a habit of blaming small countries for things that happen to the United States. AIDS from Haiti, flu from Hong Kong or Mexico, drugs from Columbia, hurricanes from the Caribbean."

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
...Mexico
...Nicaragua
....Greece
...Taiwan
...Vietnam.


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

Occupy: A Movement that Didn't Satisfy

By Andrew Lam, Sep 18, 2012 1:34 PM

The Occupy Wall Street movement began in New York last September and quickly spread around the country -- then, inevitably, in the age of instant information, the world. But just as quickly, it petered out. 

 
Here in San Francisco, the protest began the same week the iPhone 4S came out and even at its peak, the number of protesters barely rivaled the number of those who stood in long lines at the Apple Store a few blocks away. 
 
The same news cycle has returned a year later: The anniversary of the 99% against 1% movement coincided with the debut of the iPhone 5. While the headlines describing the Occupy movement seem discouraging: "1 year after encampment began, Occupy Wall Street is in disarray; spirit of revolt lives on," and "Occupy Movement: Spent after First Year?" the news for the iPhone debut was all rosy: "Apple: iPhone 5 pre-orders topped 2M in 24 hours." 
 
On the other hand, noted USA Today, "As the last of its urban encampments close and interest wanes in a movement without an organizational hierarchy or an action agenda, it's unclear whether Occupy's first birthday will be its last." Perhaps it couldn't be helped. Critics and pundits alike said that there was no coherent demand, no collective goal. The movement slowly imploded instead by quarrels and quibbles that descended in many cases into fistfights and bottle throwing. 
 
 

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.




Follow Andrew Lam on Twitter: www.twitter.com/andrewqlam

Andrew Lam

Giving up a car is a new American responsibility

By Andrew Lam, Mar 21, 2012 2:04 PM

  I actually gave up my car a while back but the piece was recently published on Shanghai Daily, so here it is again on a blog, since gas prices are causing pains and sufferings....


San Francisco - For the first time in over two decades, I am no longer a driver. Facing spiking gas prices and much-needed repairs, I finally donated my Toyota Corolla to an organization that takes care of orphans.

It's an odd feeling to be on this side of being green. Without a car, my sense of time and space has been immediately altered. What was once a matter of expediency is now an effortful navigation.

"I'll be there in 15 minutes!" I used to tell a good friend who once lived nearby but who now resides, without a car, at an inconvenient distance. Going to my favorite Asian food market suddenly has turned into another arduous chore: Once a 30-minute event, it has become a two-hour ordeal, with bags in hands, and bus transfers.

Indeed when I came to San Francisco from Vietnam with my family at the end of the Vietnam War, I remember such delight when my older brother bought his first car. We were still sharing an apartment with my aunt and her children, but as we cruised the streets at night, it felt as if we were becoming Americans.

The automobile, after all, is intrinsically American, and owning one largely determines how we arrange our daily lives; it is as essential to us as the train and metro are to the Japanese or Europeans. Indeed, a car is the first thing an American teenager of driving age desires; to drive away from home is an established American rite of passage. Even the working poor are drivers here.

For immigrants, the car is the first thing we buy before the house. Vietnamese in Vietnam marvel at the BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes that their relatives drive in America, and no doubt the sleek photos sent home cause many to dream of a life of luxury in the United States.

It seems a natural progression that the housing crisis should quickly lend itself to a car crisis. Both were readily available at one time, with easy loans and cheap gas. But now, with skyrocketing gas prices and faltering mortgages, many have had to give up one in order to keep the other.

Not surprisingly, the car is often the last thing that downtrodden Americans let go. "I can see losing my house, but I can't imagine losing my van," one unemployed friend told me. "I can live in my van. But not being able to get where I need to go would be worst than not having a house."

Mobility defines us far more than sedentary life, thus, the car is arguably more important than the house. Americans, despite accepting global warming as de facto, are still very much in love with the automobile. On average, we own 2.28 vehicles per household.

Addiction

Our addiction to the automobile is as much a symptom of our nomadic culture as it is a matter of necessity: Urban sprawl, combined with little public transportation, makes the car essential. A job seems almost always to require it. The distance between here and there is daunting without a vehicle at one's command.

The car, culturally speaking, is mobility and individualism combined. It is sex, freedom and danger. Thelma and Louise escaped from urban ennui by hitting the freeway with the wind in their hair, the horizon shimmering chimerically ahead. They found romance on the road. Indeed, their final moment approaches the mythic, as the blue Thunderbird Convertible flies across the Grand Canyon, taking the notion of freedom beyond any open road.

Our civilization, too, is driving toward an abyss. The covetous American way of life in the age of climate change and dwindling energy resources has become unsustainable.

Former Vice President turned eco-activist Al Gore called for a radical change in our collective behavior a few years back. He wanted us to completely replace fossil fuel-generated electricity with carbon-free energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal by 2018.

"The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk," he said. "The future of human civilization is at stake." We are now being called upon, the Nobel Prize winner told us, "to move quickly and boldly to shake off complacency, throw aside old habits and rise, clear-eyed and alert, to the necessity of big changes."

I wish he were exaggerating, but my gut tells me that the green guru is pointing us in the right direction. How and if we'll ever get there, how we'll find a collective will to act, I have no idea. But I do know this: Humanity has arrived at a historic juncture and it now seems that a drastic shift in the collective behavior is called for. If this means finding the will to be frugal and give up certain luxuries, then so be it.

Disposable

America was built on the premise of progress and expansion. Yet our vision of a future of unimpeded opportunities and comfort is now in conflict with the health of the planet. The consumer culture requires continuous acquisition, and it is built on the concept of disposable goods. And it's unfortunate that consumer culture now that defines much of the world. Our way of life has created an unprecedented crisis on a planetary scale.

I can tell you from experience, however, that being on the right side of the green divide is not easy. As I trudged to work this morning, a 40-minute trek, I dearly missed my car. As I budget my time and memorize bus routes and timetables, it seems as if I am returning to my humble immigrant beginnings, repudiating some notion of being an American.

But I'm not. Because I can, giving up the car is my new American responsibility.

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

Andrew Lam

Lessons of Anime--How to Cope with Japan's Tragedy

By Andrew Lam, Mar 11, 2012 11:13 AM

It's been a year since the tsunami and earthquake created havoc and destroyed part of the Japanese coast and set the nuclear reactor in Fukushima to burn uncontrollably. This piece, written last year, is reposted here as it remains relevant.

Andrew Lam

--

In Japan’s most popular cultural genres known as manga (comic books) and anime (animation films and series), there’s a recurrent theme in which the country is routinely devastated. 
 
Tokyo, home to more than 30 million people, is destroyed so often in the Japanese collective imagination there’s an alternative version of the ultramodern mega-metropolis: one made of shattered concrete and glass debris.
 
Take the popular animated film Akira, for example. “Tokyo is destroyed by an apparent nuclear explosion, leading to the start of World War III.” So goes Wikipedia’s note on the world-famous manga series turned anime. 
 
Wikipedia goes on, “Thirty-one years after Tokyo's destruction, Neo-Tokyo, a new metropolis built on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay, is gripped by political strife, anti-government terrorism and gang violence.”
 
Or take Desert Punk: “After a global nuclear catastrophe Japan has been reduced to a desert and the surviving humans seek out a meager living in the hot sands,” goes the description of the anime series.
 
“A devastating war fought between two major nations with ultra-magnetic weapons far greater than anything seen earlier brings about total chaos and destruction throughout the world, resulting in several earthquakes and tidal waves,” begins the plot description of the anime Future Boy Conan, in which humanity is on the brink of extinction. 
 
The examples are endless, but you see the point: Nihilistic themes dominate Japanese narratives of itself. 
 
Now try this scenario: Japan has fallen apart. Its towns and villages devastated by such a massive earthquake that the earth’s axis itself is affected and by the subsequent tsunami, its nuclear reactors exposed, sending radiation into the atmosphere. Millions live without water and electricity. Millions more live in panic and fear as the tremors continue and radiation leaks into food and water and land. 
 
Japan is facing a crisis it hasn’t seen since World War II.
 
This, alas, is no scenario at all, but a reality. So, what purposes do these apocalyptic stories serve? And how does one watch these animes, now that their visions have become prophetically superimposed on the real world?
 
I write this as someone who was born into a world devastated by war. As a South Vietnamese soldier’s son – an army brat -- I witnessed much destruction and suffering at a very young age. I saw dead bodies strewn about in rice fields, burned out villages, maimed survivors, homeless refugees trudging along highways, and many begging on the streets of Saigon. 
 
As a teenager in America, I was enthralled by Bugs Bunny and Disney movies showing children laughing. In this world, evil is always conquered. The princess marries the prince, and everyone is guaranteed a happy ending. That is, I bought into the American optimism, bought my own ticket on the little train that could.
 
Now, however, as an adult, as a seasoned journalist who has witnessed tragedy after tragedy around the world, I find myself drawn back to the Far East, and increasingly drawn to Japanese manga and anime. I watch them religiously in middle age.
 
Why? Because many of these stories, albeit far more complex and enticing, are similar to the folktales my Vietnamese grandmother told. On those frightful nights when the bombs fell in villages and their reverberations shook the city, Grandma’s ancient stories with their ambiguous if flat-out unhappy endings were strangely soothing.
 
The princess died and her heart turns into a ruby, which was then carved into a teacup. The fisherman, her true love, came back and cried and his tear fell in the cup, which melted into blood.
 
Or she’d tell of a younger brother, who gave up his love for a beautiful woman so that his older one could marry her. The younger man went to the forest and died, turning into a betel tree. Then the older brother searched for him, died and turned into a limestone. The wife followed, and sat leaning on the tree, when she turned into a vine. When chewing betel nut together with the vine leaf and limestone, your spit will turn into the color of blood.
 
A few years ago in Japan, I interviewed professor Koike Kazuo, the celebrated author of the Lone Wolf and Cub manga series. It is the story of a samurai who walked the path of death while pushing a small cart in which sat his little boy. Their entire clan had been massacred. 
 
The boy watches undaunted as his father stabs and slices their enemies. In the final episode, the boy’s father is killed by their ultimate nemesis, an old man who has masterminded their clan’s destruction. Undaunted, the little boy picks up his father’s spear and rushes to drive it through the old man, who, recognizing the boy’s samurai spirit, embraced him in death, calling him “Grandson of my heart.”
 
I asked Kazuo sensei why such a tragic ending would be considered children’s entertainment. He thought about this for a while before answering, “On the deepest level, serious mangas are about spiritual drama and love.”
 
This struck a chord in me. Despite the age of high-tech wizardry, manga/anime continue to distill an ancient ethos of the Far East; a shared cultural matrix between Japan and East Asia, in which fatalism informs the floating world. It teaches that life is precious, and spending time serving the greater good may be the only control one has in the face of unpredictable calamity and uncontrollable and often violent cosmos. 
 
When one lives life for the sake of others by protecting what one considers precious, then one will achieve his human/spiritual truth regardless of the outcome. 
 
Indeed, if American fairy tales are in the business of protecting children from the reality of a cold and belligerent world, Japanese fairy tales told through certain genre of mangas and animes are doing quite the opposite: preparing their charges for the day in which their normal and seemingly sunny life may be abruptly thrown into complete chaos and destruction. Thus, hidden behind those round eyed and perfect-faced cartoon characters are stories of human sufferings and survival rivaling the tragedy of Job.
 
No wonder these Japanese genres are rivaling the church of Disney, and anime continues to enthrall children and young adults across the globe. It is in part because they don’t belittle their viewers but treat them as adults to be.
 
Now, as I watch in horror the story of Japan in the aftermath of the huge earthquake and devastating tsunami, I see their points more clearly. My grandmother’s old fairy tales, with their countless wars and natural disasters, evolved over the millennia and merge with anime as warning, as an admonitory mythos, and as a way to prepare the next generation for cataclysm and grief.
 
Here’s another inspirational and true story with anime sensibility. The story, which has been widely distributed on the Internet and global media, is told by an immigrant in Fukushima, where the nuclear reactors continue to send radiation out of their broken roofs and walls.
 
A nine-year-old boy watched as the tsunami swept away his father from the balcony of his school. His sister and mother, too, were presumably swept away with their house near the beach. Yet, despite such losses, when given a bag of food, he went to the front of the food line and gave it back to the food distributors. He told the astonished man who gave him the food to nourish himself, “I see a lot more people hungrier than I am. If I put it there, then they will distribute the food equally.” 
 
The adult who told this story wept, “Who knew a boy in the third grade could teach me a lesson on how to be a human being at a time of such great suffering?” The boy, having no superpower, having lost his family, nevertheless becomes a kind of anime hero, someone who sacrifices for the greater good and achieves human truth.
 
A year after the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City were destroyed by terrorist attacks, I visited Ground Zero. There were many visitors and gawkers about, and next to me were a few teenagers with their charming Midwest accents, snapping photos. As they surveyed the terrible destruction before them – shattered concrete and melted steel of what was once an ivory citadel -- one of them said, with reverence in his voice, “Man, this is, like, right out of Akira!” 
 
I watch anime nightly along with news of Japan’s unfolding devastation, and the story lines ring truer now. In this post 9/11 world, where war drones fly and preemptive strikes and revolutions are the norm, where ominous storms keep gathering and growing stronger -- if not at our shores then in our collective unconsciousness – and where the earth keeps trembling, it may very well be that those apocalyptic narratives are the very medicine that could assist us all. Adults and children alike, in Japan and elsewhere, now bear witness to the churning tides.
 

New America Media editor Andrew Lam is the author of East Eats West (Heyday Books, 2011), his new collection of 21 essays. His previous book, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora won a Pen American award in 2006. 
 
Listen to his radio commentary here.

Andrew Lam

Letter From Fukushima: A Vietnamese-Japanese Policeman's Accounty

By Andrew Lam, Mar 10, 2012 11:38 PM

On the occasion of the first anniversary of the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, i am reposting this piece, translated a year ago... I wonder how that little boy is doing?

Andrew Lam 


Editor’s note: This letter, written by a Vietnamese immigrant working in Fukishima as a policeman to a friend in Vietnam, has been circulating on Facebook among the Vietnamese diaspora. It is an extraordinary testimony to the strength and dignity of the Japanese spirit, and an interesting slice of life near the epicenter of Japan’s current crisis, the Fukushima nuclear power plant. It was translated by NAM editor, Andrew Lam.

Brother,

How are you and your family? These last few days, everything was in chaos. When I close my eyes, I see dead bodies. When I open my eyes, I also see dead bodies. Each one of us must work 20 hours a day, yet I wish there were 48 hours in the day, so that we could continue helping and rescuing folks.

We are without water and electricity, and food rations are near zero. We barely manage to move refugees before there are new orders to move them elsewhere.

I am currently in Fukushima, about 25 kilometers away from the nuclear power plant. I have so much to tell you that if I could write it all down, it would surely turn into a novel about human relationships and behaviors during times of crisis.

The other day I ran into a Vietnamese-American. His name is Toan. He is an engineer working at the Fukushima 1 nuclear plant, and he was wounded right at the beginning, when the earthquake struck. With the chaos that ensued, no one helped him communicate with his family. When I ran into him I contacted the US embassy, and I have to admit that I admire the Americans’ swift action: They sent a helicopter immediately to the hospital and took him to their military base.

But the foreign students from Vietnam are not so lucky. I still haven't received news of them. If there were exact names and addresses of where they work and so on, it would be easier to discover their fate. In Japan, the police do not keep accurate residential information the way they do in Vietnam, and privacy law here makes it even more difficult to find.

I met a Japanese woman who was working with seven Vietnamese women, all here as foreign students. Their work place is only 3 kilometers from the ocean and she said that they don’t really understand Japanese. When she fled, the students followed her, but when she checked back they were gone. Now she doesn't know if they managed to survive. She remembers one woman’s name: Nguyen thi Huyen (or Hien).

No representatives from the Vietnamese embassy have shown up, even though on the Vietnamese Internet news sites they claim to be very concerned about Vietnamese citizens in Japan - all of it a lie.

Even us policemen are going hungry and thirsty, so can you imagine what those Vietnamese foreign students are going through? The worst things here right now are the cold, the hunger and thirst, the lack of water and electricity.

People here remain calm - their sense of dignity and proper behavior are very good - so things aren’t as bad as they could be. But given another week, I can’t guarantee that things won't get to a point where we can no longer provide proper protection and order. They are humans after all, and when hunger and thirst override dignity, well, they will do whatever they have to do. The government is trying to provide air supply, bringing in food and medicine, but it’s like dropping a little salt into the ocean.

Brother, there are so many stories I want to tell you - so many, that I don’t know how to write them all. But there was a really moving incident. It involves a little Japanese boy who taught an adult like me a lesson on how to behave like a human being:

Last night, I was sent to a little grammar school to help a charity organization distribute food to the refugees. It was a long line that snaked this way and that and I saw a little boy around 9 years old. He was wearing a t-shirt and a pair of shorts.

It was getting very cold and the boy was at the very end of the line. I was worried that by the time his turn came there wouldn’t be any food left. So I spoke to him.

He said he was in the middle of PE at school when the earthquake happened. His father worked nearby and was driving to the school. The boy was on the third floor balcony when he saw the tsunami sweep his father’s car away. I asked him about his mother. He said his house is right by the beach and that his mother and little sister probably didn’t make it. He turned his head and wiped his tears when I asked about his relatives.

The boy was shivering so I took off my police jacket and put it on him. That’s when my bag of food ration fell out. I picked it up and gave it to him. “When it comes to your turn, they might run out of food. So here’s my portion. I already ate. Why don’t you eat it.”

The boy took my food and bowed. I thought he would eat it right away, but he didn't. He took the bag of food, went up to where the line ended and put it where all the food was waiting to be distributed. I was shocked. I asked him why he didn’t eat it and instead added it to the food pile …

He answered: “Because I see a lot more people hungrier than I am. If I put it there, then they will distribute the food equally.”

When I heard that I turned away so that people wouldn't see me cry. It was so moving -- a powerful lesson on sacrifice and giving. Who knew a 9-year-old in third grade could teach me a lesson on how to be a human being at a time of such great suffering? A society that can produce a 9- year-old who understands the concept of sacrifice for the greater good must be a great society, a great people.

It reminds me of a phrase that I once learned in school, a capitalist theory from the old man, Fuwa [Tetsuzo], chairman of the Japanese Communist Party: “If Marx comes back to life, he will have to add a phrase to his book, Capital, and that ‘Communist ideology is only successful in Japan.’”

Well, a few lines to send you and your family my warm wishes. The hours of my shift have begun again.

- Ha Minh Thanh



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


Andrew Lam

Avian Flu Crisis - A Question of When

By Andrew Lam, Jan 4, 2012 10:30 AM

 A man recently died from the Bird Flu, known as the H5N1 virus, in Shenzhen, China, raising the spector of a pandemic, given the strain is known to be deadly, with a high fatality rate somewhere above 60%. The country is now on high alert. Here's an old interview that may be useful to those wanting to know a little more about the virus.   

Q&A: Avian Flu Crisis - A Question of When


Interview with Dr. David Relman, professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University

By Andrew Lam, New America Media

The avian flu virus, H5N1, has the potential to kill millions once it learns how to jump from human to human. So far, most people who become infected have worked with live chickens. But scientists say it's a matter of time before avian flu makes the leap. The virus most recently surfaced in Indonesia, where four people have died.


Sep 22, 2005

NAM: Should we ask if avian flu will jump from animal-to-human transmission to human-to-human transmission -- or is it a question of when?

DR: It probably is a question of when, not if. This virus is progressing right down the path you would predict for a virus that will eventually become quite good at human-to-human transmission.

NAM: Is there a timeline?


DR: That's the hard thing. Some people say it could be as early as this winter. Those of a more optimistic sort say maybe two years, or five. I think the really important question is, when it acquires that capability (human-to-human transmission), what will it cost the virus? Most people think it won't be as virulent.

NAM: Since the number of people who have died so far is small, can we really speculate about the number of fatalities avian flu could cause?

DR: Right now, of the known cases of avian flu in humans, it has killed about 50 percent. The big question is, are there others out there walking the streets, sitting in their homes, eating dinner and talking to their family members who have become infected and didn't even become sick? I don't think there are many. There are some surveys out there of blood from people who are healthy to see if they have evidence of exposure to this virus, and there haven't been many episodes or incidences of that. But it's still possible.

NAM: How will it be transmitted among humans? I imagine if it is airborne, like SARS, it is going to be very contagious.


DR: Correct. It almost certainly will behave just like all the influenza viruses before it, meaning that it will be aerosol-transmitted. In fact, the current human-to-human flu viruses that we all experience each winter are more transmissible than SARS. They actually become transmitted easily through fine-particle aerosols, person to person. SARS required large droplets or even direct contact.

NAM: I was traveling in Asia near the beginning and at the end of the SARS epidemic, and the attitude regarding SARS, especially in big cities, was one of sheer panic. Yet with avian flu the attitude is 180 degrees different. In Hanoi friends said to me, "Oh, it's just farmers who get it, so just don't eat chicken now and you'll be OK."

DR: It probably reflects something about human nature. At the time you're talking about, during the height of the SARS event, there were a lot of people who were sick. There were hospitals that were shut down. There was already a fairly substantial impact on the health care system in a few major world cities.

We're not there yet with Avian flu. I think the inevitable course will be that this virus will become better at human-to-human transmission, and when it does that, SARS unfortunately may look like quite a small little blip.

NAM: What about the new vaccine being developed against avian flu?

DR: The vaccine does appear to induce what should be protective immunity in humans. That's the good news. The bad news is that even with the prototype vaccine in hand, we still don't have the production infrastructure to make enough doses quickly. If every vaccine producing factory in the world were devoted solely to the purpose of making this new influenza vaccine, at current levels of production we would only have enough for maybe 50 to 100 million doses worldwide, for a whole population that needs 10 times more doses.

NAM: Why do you think the last few diseases of concern -- SARS, avian flu and now swine flu -- all seem to originate from one particular area, either Southeast Asia or South China?

DR: For reasons that are still unclear, influenza, even yearly, seems to evolve out of the bird population of Southeast Asia. Nobody knows why. SARS seems to also have found a natural home in animal populations of China, and then moved into humans when those animals were moved about. But every continent has its sites for the origin of a new emerging infection.

NAM: But are there common conditions that promote the development and spread of such viruses?

DR: Where you see emerging infections around the globe, you see dislocations of animals, you see disease in animals because of crowding, you see displacements of humans, crowding of humans, poor sanitary conditions, poor hygiene, war, famine -- anything that perturbs what might have previously been a fine-tuned balance in nature.

NAM: Has our changing relationship with animals encouraged the rise of new diseases?


DR: There have been major changes in the way we manage animal populations. One of the most important in the more developed world is the rise of very large-scale, industrial scale livestock management, farming that involves populations of hundreds of thousands of millions of animals all packed together. It's easy to see where an infectious agent might have lived and died within a small population of animals, but now has the opportunity to move within millions very easily.

We also move animals about the globe in ways that we never ever did ten, 20 years ago. Look at monkey pox, which showed up in the United States two years ago. How did it get here? We are importing millions of exotic strains and species of animals that have no place being in North America, due to Americans' desires for exotic and unusual pets.

NAM: So basically the rise of new diseases, or a lot of them anyway, are the direct cause of our human behavior?


DR: Correct. We are at fault in many ways.

NAM: But with technology we are also quicker in defining and isolating the cause of diseases.

DR: Yes, you have to hope that on the one hand, while we're the cause of many of our own problems, we are also the potential solution.



Lam is author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,"  and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres." His third book, "Birds of Paradise" is due out in 2013.

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