The year the Berlin Wall fell and Chinese students were massacred at Tianamen Square in Beijing and San Francisco was hit by the Big One was the year that I decided to become a journalist. Before that I, having graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in biochemistry degree, was working in a Cancer Research Lab killing mice and bombarding their mammary cells with carcinogens. Then I got accepted to San Francisco State creative writing school, and within the same semester I started freelancing for Pacific News Service, and tasted a little fame, and thought I could become a writer.
That year I wrote a satirical piece about a bill to penalize dog eating – and why it was unfair to legislate against those who eat dogs and but not against not those who eat cats or horses or pet goldfish – which got me tons of hate mail and when the Sacramento Bee called to interview me about it, the townhouse I lived in shook, and the chandelier swung like in the movies, and the building across the street swayed and their glass panes fell out and descended like guillotines to shatter like a million diamonds on the courtyard.
The earthquake hit hard, and the city seemed to have fallen apart – a segment of the bridge collapsed and the freeway overpass in Oakland fell down and killed dozens of people in their cars and the electricity was out and everywhere there was an eerie silence.
I remember driving up to Twin Peaks and looked down at a city in total darkness and, with the exception of a few scattered fires, it was like watching San Francisco before the industrial revolution, except from time to time an aftershock would send car alarms going off in the darkness. The world shifted in 1989, and for me it shifted literally and I couldn’t help but take it as signs of my own transformation.
Later we called it the end of the cold war and beginning of globalization, which soon after became a household word and I started traveling. It was first in Hong Kong where I watched boat people in the then notorious Whitehead Detention Center donned their Whitehead bands – what Vietnamese wore at funerals – and fought the Hong Kong police who rounded many up. They were being force repatriated back to Vietnam, where they, and I, came from. Only I was luckier because I left years earlier at the end of the Vietnam war and became American, whereas they came at the end of the cold war, and lost their status as political refugees and had nowhere to go but home.
Two years after that and I went to Vietnam, my homeland, which was accessible finally after all those years in exile. And I wrote about an elephant that had recently died in the Saigon Zoo and how the zookeepers, being so poor, sliced it up and sold it by the kilogram and people lined down the street to buy elephant meats. I thought how communism was a bit like that- bloated and not workable- and though the communist officials followed me everywhere and stood outside my Hanoi hotel’s window and even shared a cigarette or two with me they let me back in a few years later despite my criticism of communist Vietnam, which ran in several newspapers in the US.
Then it was to Cambodia where I saw mounds of skulls left by the Khmer Rouge during its reign and popularized by the movie The Killing Fields. It was there that I cut my reporter’s teeth as it were interviewing ex-Khmer Rouge on the outskirt of Siem Reap who still want to kill Vietnamese who once invaded their country. I wrote it all down and ordered more Tiger Beers for them and turned to my translator and told him to go get the motorcycle ready for I wanted to get back to town alive.
I did, and got an award for international reporting, so I was stoked. I kept on traveling. And I kept writing.
But 1989 when the Berlin wall fell, and the earthquake hit, and Chinese students were murdered will always be a marker for me. It was the year I broke away from familial expectations and began to treat my own heartbreaks by carving my own path, despite my insecurities and sadness I trudged on, slouching if you will, and if Didion will forgive me, toward my own Bethlehem.
That was also the same year that my parents and their friends, a jovial Vietnamese couple who both have sadly passed away, went to Berlin as Germans broke down the wall and East Germans streamed West. My father, feeling triumphant against communism, gave speeches to Vietnamese immigrants there and got a piece of the wall and brought it back. It sat on their bookshelf in the living room for many years until they moved to a condo in retirement, and I inherited it. It now sits by the window of my condo, looking completely out of place in a very modern glassy tower by the glittering waters of the San Francisco Bay.
Communism didn’t really end so much as changed its tactics, alas, turning into dictatorial, greedy, non-ideological governments, as we see now exemplified by Vietnam and China.
My parents gave me the piece of the Berlin wall when they moved to a small apartment in Fremont, Ca.,, but they still have a bottle of Dom Perignon 1975, the year that we lost our homeland and became refugees. I am not entirely sure where it came from, but 34 years later and it still hasn’t been popped. At one point or another my father, who was a general in South Vietnamese army, whose vehemence of the communists remains unchanging despite the years, had hoped to open it when communism ended in Vietnam.
Has it already been 20 years since the Berlin Wall Fell and the earth shook?
So much has changed since then, and though one wall went down, several more went up, most notorious probably are the one along the US-Mexico border and the one between Israel and Palestine. I should like to collect pieces from both when they are down, but I’m not holding my breath.
And I doubt the Dom Perignon is drinkable now.
Andrew Lam is author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora
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