Category: East Asia

Ghost Author

Immigration Stories That Will Belong to America

By Ghost Author, Sep 10, 2013 11:38 AM

 

by Anna Challet



Birds of Paradise Lost
by Andrew Lam
Red Hen Press, 2013

For the refugees who left Vietnam on boats and in helicopters, the journey home has been long and strange, if home has been found at all. It has been almost forty years since the fall of Saigon, when Andrew Lam and his family left Vietnam on a cargo plane—a passage that would take them to Camp Pendleton and then to San Francisco. In the time since that passage, Lam has become an award-winning journalist and written three books.

The thirteen stories in Lam’s most recent collection, Birds of Paradise Lost, are populated by refugees of the Vietnam War who came to the Bay Area, as well as their children and friends—but each story is a world unto itself. Lam’s characters are haunted by what they have lost, transfixed by embers that still cloud the air with smoke. What Lam explores is the question of whether they can conquer the ghosts, or at least learn to live with them peacefully.

I met Lam about a year ago, when the collection was in its final stages of editing, and was immediately struck by his disarming sense of humor, with its mischievousness and sharp edge. His stories are informed by the country that he lost, but his lightheartedness buoys words that weigh heavy on the heart. With the knowledge that everything familiar can disappear all at once, he smiles with ghosts and laughs in darkness.

And if humor and loss are bound up in each other in Lam’s work, no story in the collection illustrates this better than “Grandma’s Tales.”

In “Grandma’s Tales,” the parents of two teenage children go to Vegas for a vacation, leaving the boy and girl with their grandmother—who promptly dies. In what seems like a natural move at the time, the kids decide to “ice” her:

She was small enough that she fit right above the TV dinner trays and the frozen yogurt bars we were going to have for dessert. We wrapped all of grandma’s five-foot-three, ninety-eight-pound lithe body in Saran wrap and kept her there and hoped Mama and Papa would get the Mama-Papa-come-home-quick-Grandma’s-dead letter that we sent to Circus Circus, where they were staying, celebrating their thirty-third wedding anniversary.


Now, Grandma has lived a hard life—she has endured three wars and the deaths of four children and twelve grandchildren. To survive all this only to be shoved into the freezer by her American grandkids may be the ultimate injustice. But then, in what seems like a natural progression, she rises from the dead, leaving a trail of water throughout the house. Our narrator, the male child, shows less anxiety than one would expect over this turn of events. Grandma refuses to wait for the parents to come home and give her a proper funeral, and she leaves to travel the world, planning to make a stop at her old home in Hanoi.

Lam never mentions anything about the resurrection having been a dream. We are both sure and unsure. Following Grandma’s disappearance, the family is in mourning:

While the incense smoke drifted all over the house and the crying and wailing droned like cicadas humming on the tamarind tree in the summer back in Vietnam, Grandma wasn’t around. Grandma had done away with the normal plot for tragedy, and life after her was not going to be so simple anymore.


They heard cicadas buzz when Grandma died—the cicada itself a bug of resurrection.

Grandma won’t stay in the freezer and wait for her own funeral, and Lam won’t be held captive by his own experience of Vietnam. He too does away with the “normal plot for tragedy.” He is not imprisoned by his own past or by the label of being an immigrant writer. His memories may provide the fuel, but each story is a very different flame—some burst with unexpected colors, while others are quiet and send up a trail of black smoke into the sky.

In the latter vein is the titular “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a story of self-immolation at the heart of the collection. The narrator’s best friend sets himself on fire in Washington, D.C., to protest Vietnam’s communist regime. The narrator and his adult son get into an argument over what the act meant, his son believing that his father’s friend must not have been “of sound mind” to do such a thing. After they exchange words in the car on the way to Thanksgiving dinner, the narrator, an old man, gets out of the car and walks alone down the twilight streets:

My son’s question plagued me. Where should love for country end and where should common sense begin?


Could I pour gasoline on myself and light a match? Should I? Why should I?

… A car approached. Its bright headlights woke me from my torments. I squinted and thought for a second that it was my son coming back for me, but it passed by without slowing. When it was gone, I felt so disappointed that I nearly wept.


What has it all meant—the leaving, the suffering, the sacrifice? Has it meant anything at all? The self-immolation of the narrator’s friend provides no answers, and the narrator is left wanting only to be with his son. It’s the tension of simultaneous belonging and alienation; the narrator chooses to walk away from his son, and yet longs for his son to come find him. He wants to stand with his friend who has seemingly given his life for his country, but he questions what the act even meant. Home is far away but his son is somewhere nearby. He must keep walking; he must learn to let go.

When I interviewed Lam about Birds of Paradise Lost for a piece in New America Media (the ethnic news organization where he is an editor and I am a reporter), he told me that he writes “with the confidence that these stories, written from the heart, will belong, in time, to America.” In this vein, Lam writes in English, which is his third language (after Vietnamese and French).

Lam’s readiness to “give” these stories to America stands in contrast to much of our public discourse on immigrants. In Lam’s stories, hearts may wander from one place to another when the only option is to survive, but the characters are fully engaged in building on top of the ashes. The most heartbreaking of these stories often involve the separation of parents and children; when Lam and his family left Vietnam in 1975, when he was eleven, they had to do so without his father, a general in the South Vietnamese army. Their family was reunited later that year. There is a depth of understanding in Lam’s stories about parents and children having to leave each other (both literally and figuratively), and about the joy and grace of their reuniting and moving on.

In many ways, isn’t this life as anyone might understand it? We leave, we come home, and we find home is not as it once was. We fear, we hold tightly to the people we love, we learn how to live a different way.

I am hopeful that these stories of America will soon “belong to” America as well.

Anna Challet is a reporter for New America Media in San Francisco. This review originally appeared on Tikkun.org.

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.

2013-03-10-Japan2011Tsunami.jpg

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

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.

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