Q&A with journalist Andrew Lam
Andrew Lam, journalist, essayist, and NPR commentator, came to the United States from Vietnam at age 11. He is the author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres" and "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora."
Q: As someone who arrived in the United States at age 11 from Vietnam, what do you think of the current debate over immigration in this country?
A: It’s unfortunate that the country of immigrants turned its back on immigrants. The atmosphere after 9/11 is toxic. In the war on terrorism, the immigrant is often the scapegoat. He becomes a kind of insurance policy against the effects of recession. By blaming him, the pressure valve is regulated in time of crisis. Instead of a larger narrative on immigration--from culture to economics, from identity to history--what we have now is a public mindset of us versus them, and an overall anti-immigrant climate that is both troubling and morally reprehensible. Missing from the national conversation are voices of pro-immigration reformers and civil rights leaders, who can speak on behalf of those who have no voice. Where are the leaders who can speak to the idea that it is not alien to American interests, but very much in our socioeconomic interest--not to mention our spiritual health--to integrate immigrants, that our nation functions best when we welcome newcomers and help them participate fully in our society?
Q: You have written many essays dealing with your life between two cultures. Looking back, what was the most difficult part of your adjustment to life in the United States? What was one of the easiest parts?
A: I learned English really quickly and within two years time fully integrated myself in American life. But what was difficult a few years later was to make sense of my incongruous past. How does the totally Americanized teenager reconcile with his Vietnamese childhood, one filled with extraordinary wonders and violence, with moments of high dramas—escaping from a city about to be taken over, watching his father coming home from the battlefield caked in mud, visiting scenes of battlefields in the aftermath where bodies are half-buried in rice fields, the temple dances; familial love, the insularities of clanship—all these beckon me to return. I would say the most difficult part of my Americanization process is my struggle to appropriate my Vietnamese memories. I think were it not for my abilities to render them into stories, in words, I would be an incomplete person.
Q: When you return on trips to Vietnam, what is your sense of the attitude among your relatives and others toward American culture?
A: Let me tell you a story. A few years ago, for instance, I went back to Vietnam to make a documentary called “My Journey Home” and I did the touristy thing: I went to Cu Chi Tunnel, near Tay Ninh Province, bordering Cambodia, 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. They were very emotional. They went to Vietnam to look for the meaning of the past.But the young tour guide saw it completely different: The old tunnels had mostly collapsed, she told me. It was tourism that forced the Vietnamese to dig up the old hideouts. The young tour guide then told me: “It was a lot smaller back then. But now the New Cu Chi Tunnel is very wide? You know why? To cater to very, very big Americans.” The young Vietnamese guide does not see the past: She has a dream for a cosmopolitan future. She spoke fluent English, made lots of friends overseas due to her job and dreams of Disneyland. She crawled through the same tunnel with foreigners routinely but she emerged with different ideas. Her head is filled with the Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars and two-tiered freeways and Hollywood and Universal Studios. “I have many friends over there now,” she said, reflecting the collective desire of Vietnamese youth. “They invite me to come. I’m saving money for this amazing trip.” I stood there looking at the mouth of the tunnel, and in the end there may never be final conclusion about that war. There can never be one story about that war. Here’s a young woman who looks at a tunnel that was the headquarters of the Vietcong and what does she see? Disneyland. The Cu Chi tunnel leads some to the past, surely, but for the young tour guide it may very well lead to the future. It’s complicated by multiple points of view, many-sided versions of the same thing, and many stories. In that sense when we talk about Vietnam we should not simplify but expand, so much so that it becomes the story of people, of human beings rather than metaphor of tragedy. For the Vietnamese, whose population is now 90 million and two-thirds of whom were born after the war ended, America is the future. It represents the trajectory so many of their countrymen have taken and have achieved great transformation and success. America barely registers as a war to the new Vietnam – it represents what it does to all poor countries in this world: glamour and material wealth and possible cosmopolitan conversion.
Q: What do you think about Secretary Panetta's recent trip to Cam Ranh Bay and Secretary Clinton's recent stop in Laos? How significant were these visits?
A: I suppose from the point of view of national interests, it cannot be helped. The futures of empires are in the balance in regards to the Pacific Region. The South China Sea carries over more than half of the world trade. Under it lie untold oil pockets and natural gas, the stuff that could make or break an empire for the next 100 years. It is why the United States has moved from a strategy of appeasement toward one of deterrence. Hillary Clinton said it as much in an essay last November in Foreign Policy titled "America's Pacific Century," which came with this sub-headline: "The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action." For me the developing story is one steeped in irony, and a signal for a major shift in the long, if arduous, U.S.-Indochina relations. Uncle Sam’s back! Nearly four decades have passed, but America is barely recovered from its psychic wounds. Vietnam, after all, was our "hell in a small place." It spelled America's ignominy. The country known for its manifest destiny was soundly defeated by what former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once called a "fourth-rate power." Still, here we are, at the turn of the millennia, seeking a return. For Vietnam, a country that “kicked” out the Americans the new attitude is “Uncle Sam, we need you. When are you coming back”? But such is the fate of a weak country stuck between vying empires. There can never be true independence. Vietnam has gone so far as pleading with the U.S. to let them buy high-grade weapons. In Vietnam, often I hear young people posing this question: “If we want America so badly, why the hell did we fight Americans in the first place?” It’s a question that many struggle to answer.
Q: You have a new book coming out next year. Does it touch on some of the same themes as your previous works, or are you heading in a different direction?
A: “Birds of Paradise Lost” is a collection of short stories. It’s significantly different in that it’s a genre I’m not necessarily known for, being a journalist for many years. Epic loss and American conversion. In some way it’s a meditation on losses and gains for newcomers to the new shore. It’s played out in all the characters in “Birds of Paradise Lost” as they struggle to redefine themselves in the New World. In other words, it’s a story of Vietnamese refugees going through their process of integration with various growing pains and degrees of successes. It’s different than my literary journalism because it’s all imagined, and it’s liberating for someone who had for two decades to deal with facts.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Well, I am working on a novel. And I would love to teach at some point. I’ve much to share.
Interview with Deborah Kalb, co-author of Haunting Legacy.