Vietnamese-American Dreams

Vietnamese-American Dreams

Journalist Andrew Lam introduces his first book, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.

If you can lose a country just like that, in any relationship you have, you know that it can be gone just like that as well.

The course of Andrew Lam's life changed drastically because he fell in love at 17.

He had been studying for the MCAT, the entrance exam for medical school, when the formative relationship ended. Suddenly, he found himself immersed in loss and in exile for the second time in his life.

Lam explained his relationship to loss, the past, fiction, and journalism Nov. 29 at a Center for Southeast Asian Studies event to launch his first book, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.

Lam's experience with exile began two days before the fall of Saigon in 1975. He was eleven years old, and his father was a South Vietnamese general. His family fled home in Vietnam on a cargo plane headed for Guam. What took him farther from his homeland, he explained, was his rebirth in America, where he acquired a new language and a hyphenated identity.

So when he faced the loss of the love of his life as a teenager, Lam decided that medicine was no longer his path. He decided to become a writer so that he could communicate his longing for the past.

"The personal and the historical are never really far apart," he said. "If you can lose a country just like that, in any relationship you have, you know that it can be gone just like that as well."

In his 12-year-career, Lam has been a decorated journalist, an essayist for the National Public Radio (NPR) program All Things Considered, an editor for the Pacific News Service, and a syndicated writer. He is also the founder of the large ethnic media collective New California Media. Perfume Dreams is a collection of republished essays and fresh material written between 1997 and 2001.


The collection touches on a much longer history. Rife with literary technique, Perfume Dreams visits the Vietnam of the present, the United States as seen through the eyes of an immigrant, and a past Vietnam reconstructed through the testimonies of Lam's family and the memories of a boy who used to sail down the lotus-infused River Perfume to visit his father stationed in the Imperial City.

In "Child of Two Worlds," Lam recounts dinnertime conversation with his mother in California. Her nostalgia for autumn in Vietnam and memories of uncles and cousins incarcerated or killed could not deeply preoccupy "a scrawny refugee teenager living in America." What could he do, Lam asks, but "pretend amnesia to save himself from grief"?

In "Accent," a 1999 essay he wrote for NPR, Lam tells of an uncle who came to the States, attended law school, but could never find employment in his field because of his thick Vietnamese accent. Lam, as a young man, practiced away his accent. He would enunciate words in the mirror before he went to school in the morning. It returns when he is nervous, he told the audience, becoming thicker the more anxious he feels.

When Lam returned to Vietnam in 1991 for the first time since he fled, the customs officer "read his American passport like a comic book," he said. He's been to Jordan and Morocco for conferences, and reported on boat people in Hong Kong and housing issues in San Francisco. He discovered that Vietnam houses a kind of dual personality: while Vietnamese souls are tied to the homeland, the desire to escape is pervasive. On the street people thought that because he was American he could fulfill their wish lists, he said. They thought, as he did as a young boy in Vietnam, that America was a land of fantasy.

At the same time, Vietnam is a place of tremendous change. In their memories of war, exile and loss, Vietnamese people have a quality of sadness or "melancholia." But the country's population has boomed since the end of the war, from 30 to over 80 million people. Most people in Vietnam have no memory of the Vietnam War. "We go back and we think about Vietnam, the memory, the loss," Lam said. "But the people of Vietnam do not think that way. They think of MTV, they think of Disneyland. They want something futuristic, and we are always longing for the past."

Lam is currently finishing a collection of short stories that he hopes will come out in 2007. Completing his first book was like losing his virginity, he joked. "The next one is going to be so much better."

Published: Thursday, December 01, 2005