by Andrew Lam (@andrewqlam) in San Francisco
My mother is 82 and suffering from dementia, but the moment she heard that I was going to give a speech to Vietnamese youth in Canada, she sort of regained her full faculties and perked up.
Mind you, Mama didn’t congratulate me or say that she was proud. No, that would be unbecoming of her Vietnamese tiger-motherhood. Instead, she offered a warning: “Listen,” she said, “no matter what you tell them, don’t you dare encourage them to become a starving writer.”
“Tell them,” Mama said, “it’s never too late to study for ‘ElmerCAT’ and become a doctor.”
You see, even with dementia, my mother can’t forget my so-called betrayal a quarter of a century ago.
Like any Asian immigrant kid, I was obedient. I got good grades in high school and I got into Berkeley.
I was a pre-med student, majoring in biochemistry. I worked in a cancer research laboratory. I was going to be a doctor, as my parents wanted. I did everything that I was told to do.
But somewhere along that seemingly assured academic trajectory, life, happened. Or to be more precise: love happened.
My freshman year, I fell hopelessly in love. My new love stole me away from my familial sense of duty. But then, soon after graduation, it was all over. And my heart shattered.
While working at the laboratory on campus I took to writing, in part, in order to grieve. In the daytime I killed mice. At night I gave in to heartbreak. I typed and typed. I bled myself into words.
One day I wrote something along the lines of this passage: “When one loses someone whom he loves very much, with whom he shares a private life, a private language, a private world, a routine – he loses an entire country. He becomes, in fact, an exile.”
And upon reading it again sometime later, I broke down and wept.
I was not weeping for the broken romance, though. I was weeping because it suddenly dawned on me that my heart had been broken before.
My first heartbreak took place when I was 11 years old, a refugee boy standing in a refugee camp in Guam, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, listening to the BBC describe the fall of Saigon – communist tanks rolling into the city, the Independence Palace ransacked, panic in the streets, a city veiled in smoke, refugees setting out into the open sea.
My family and I left Vietnam just when the war ended. We lost everything when we came to America. We started over from the bottom. There was a period in which we lived as impoverished exiles, sharing an apartment with two other Vietnamese refugee families at the end of Mission Street, where San Francisco ended and the working-class neighbourhood of Daly City began.
We struggled for some time to make it to the middle class. There was a time when we were wrecked with losses and longings.
My sadness had opened a trapdoor to the past. I remember a city made of khaki-green tents flapping in the wind, the bulldozed ground under my sandaled feet, the long lines for food under a punishing sun. A way of life stolen, a people scattered.
For a long time in America I had pretended all that sadness didn't exist. I blocked it out. I changed my name. I spoke no Vietnamese. I fancied myself American born.
I wanted to forget all the sadness of Vietnam because as a teenager I couldn’t deal with such an epic loss. How to bear the burden of a history of exile? What to do with thousands of others’ loss in the South China Sea when your family barely survived as working class living in a crowded apartment?
In my teenage years I went glibly on with my American life, went to Berkeley, and I barely looked back.
But as I wrote, it all came flooding back – and I hungered for memories.
No longer did I write about the broken romance. Instead I wrote about a broken people, about people who lost family members escaping an oppressive regime, people languishing in refugee camps, people who drowned in the South China Sea, people struggling to rebuild their lives in the new country.
For the first time in my adult life I began to grieve for my lost homeland, for a defeated people. And I began to recognize that the personal and the historical are but brooks and rivers to the sea. I saw that in order to rise above one’s own biographical limitations one needs to do something beyond oneself – and that the way out of one’s own self-resenting morass, out of one’s own sadness and confusion, was not self pity, but compassion for others.
That is to say, I entered college with one particular set of blueprints and left it with a totally different sense of direction, one that for the first time in my life was something of my own choosing. I didn’t do it while being a student. I did it afterward: I started thinking for myself and critically. And I dropped the test tubes and Mama’s ‘ElmerCAT’. I kept the proverbial pen, as it were.
I struggled. I became a writer and journalist. Slowly, I found my way to the larger world.
Over the last 23 years, I have followed the story of Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora closely.
I went to refugee camps in Hong Kong in 1990, and I reported from inside detention centres. I wrote about people who committed suicide when they faced repatriation back to Vietnam in the early ’90s.
I then went back to Vietnam to report on the thaw of the cold war in 1991 and how the country was slowly turning capitalistic. I went to Cambodia to report on the Khmer Rouge giving up arms and joining the Hun Sen government, and on the corruption of the United Nation’s faulty implementation of the election.
I’ve been back to Vietnam and Southeast Asia many times since then. And each time, it’s a new world.
Some years ago, for instance, I went back to Vietnam to participate in a PBS documentary called My Journey Home, and I did the touristy thing: I went to the Cu Chi Tunnel, in Tay Ninh province, bordering Cambodia. It is a complex underground labyrinth in which the Viet Cong hid during the war many years ago.
There were several American vets in their late 60s there – they fought in Vietnam and lost friends. They were back for the first time, and very emotional.
A couple of them cried after they emerged from that visit. One Vietnam vet wept and said that, during the war, he “spent a long time looking for this place and lost friends doing the same.”
Yet the young Vietnamese tour guide, born after the war ended, did not see the past: she had a dream for a cosmopolitan future.
She told me that it was tourism that forced the Vietnamese to dig up the old hideouts.
She crawled through the same tunnel with foreigners routinely, but she emerged with different ideas. Her head is filled with images of the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, two-tiered freeways and Hollywood.
“I have many friends over there now,” she said, her eyes dreamy, reflecting the collective desire of Vietnamese youth. “They invite me to come. I’m saving money for this amazing trip.” If she could, she told me, she would go and study in America.
So there I was, standing at the mouth of the tunnel, and thinking, in the end, there may never be a final conclusion about that war.
There’s the version that we Vietnamese in the diaspora tell, in which the date marks the day we lost a country.
There are plenty of stories of Vietnamese fleeing from oppression as boat people. Tens of thousands more were sent to reeducation camps.
There are stories of young men fleeing from a war in Cambodia, in which the Vietnamese were the imperialists.
And there are, of course, the stories of the American veterans coming back to look at their losses and to make peace with the past.
But here was a young woman, born after the war ended. She looked at a tunnel that was the headquarters of the Vietcong, and what did she see? The Magic Kingdom. The Cu Chi tunnel leads some to the past, surely, but for her, it may well lead to the future.
The Vietnam War was a war with so many sides, and it’s complicated by multiple points of view. In that sense when we talk about Vietnam, we should not simplify, but expand, toward the multitudes, so much so that it becomes the story of people, of human beings rather than some purported metaphor for tragedy.
James Baldwin’s riddle is rhetorical, after all, when he asked in one piercing essay, “Which of us has overcome his past?” He promptly answered with another: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”
With due respect, one can chase Baldwin’s grim discernment with N. Scott Momaday’s astute counsel: “Anything is bearable as long as you can make a story out of it.”
The more mature response to one’s tragedy is not hatred, nor resentment, but the spiritual resilience with which one can, again and again, struggle to transcend one’s own biographical limitations. History is trapped in me, indeed, but history is also mine to work out, to disseminate, to discern and appropriate, and to finally transform into aesthetic self-expression.
These days my parents are okay with me being a writer. They are, in fact, very proud. Every time I’d win an award for journalism or fiction, I’d give it to them to put on the mantel of their living room.
My own story is that, through the years, I made my own peace with the past. We lost a great deal, but we survived and we prospered and we thrived, after all.
And though I once lost a country, and I’ve been homeless, and stateless, lost friends and relatives due to war and the subsequent exodus, and though I’ve had my heart broken, I am profoundly grateful and blessed.
Instead of running away from the past, I own it. That is, I learned to bear witness to a constantly shifting world, and found my way in life. The refugee child from a defeated war, through the act of storytelling, slowly found his way to self-liberation.
Andrew Lam first delivered this speech in Ottawa to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Black April Day at an event, "A Journey to Remember: from Vietnam to North America", presented by the Vietnamese Canadian Community of Ottawa and the Vietnamese Canadian Federation. This is a slightly edited and condensed version of the speech.
Lam is an editor with New America Media and the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. His latest book, Birds of Paradise Lost, was published March 2013.