East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres by Andrew Lam
Unlike the rest of Andrew Lam‘s relatives who only want to bombard him with questions about meeting Hiroyuki Sakai of Iron Chef fame (I don’t watch TV and I hate to cook), what I want to know is, ‘how’s the love life?’ Some might say we Asians don’t have much filter (it’s true, especially for Asian mothers, ahem, of which I am one!), but really, Lam’s reminiscences in “One Asian Writer’s Lesson,” part of his new 21-essay collection just out, about his youthful heartbreak are … well … just heartbreaking.
But, thankfully, also true is that silver lining-cliché. Because without that heartbreak, Lam might never had become that award-winning, globe-trotting journalist that he is today: “Wasn’t it then that I began to write?” he remembers. “Wasn’t it then that I began to bleed myself into words?” Oh, where’s that Mommy-magic wand when you need it?
In his second collection, which follows his 2005 debut, Perfume Dreams, Lam takes on the familiar immigrant’s tales once more, but almost always with a surprising twist, an unexpected detail, an unforgettably distinguishing moment.
As his family is about to flee war-torn Vietnam on a cargo plane “to begin our lives in exile,” the 11-year-old Lam can’t help but finish the final pages of a martial arts novel, Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. Those “dueling villains and heroes” will sustain him on his uncertain new path: “Mythical, magical China accompanies me on my journey to the other west: the wild, wild West.”
Decades later, Lam shares how his dispersed family emotes best while weeping through karaoke numbers (he prefers the corniness of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend”), and how those same relatives and friends like to one-up each other comparing the many faraway places they’ve eaten phở – from Rio de Janeiro to Mexico City to Dubai to Tanzania, not to mention the Campbell Soup Company (!!) canning the stuff since 2002. [Ironically enough, here in the DC metro area, we hear more Korean than Vietnamese spoken by the patrons of local phở establishments!]
Near collection’s end, Lam manages to compact his many experiences and write an incredibly heartfelt and timely “Letter to a Young Iraqi Refugee”: “As a Vietnamese refugee who became an American writer, who found his tongue and then his own path in life, I can tell you that you matter, that your sadness matters, that the story of how you survived and triumphed matters.” No wonder Lam’s parents are oh so proud, having enshrined all his awards on the family wall …
Not to throw that Iron Chef aside – no disrespect intended! – the other thing I’d have to ask Lam is if he’s discovered Naoki Urasawa’s phenomenal (and totally addictive) Monster series. Being fellow middle-aged manga addicts (who knew??!!), we obviously have much to talk about!
Tidbit: Andrew Lam was a thoughtful and entertaining guest at the APA Program’s “Exit Saigon, Enter Littler Saigon: The Vietnamese American Diaspora” event on May 14, 2010. He shared the stage with law professor/novelist Lan Cao and Boat People SOS Director Nguyen Dinh Thang, moderated by University of Maryland’s Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, who’s also the co-founder of the Asian American Literary Review. In case you missed the enlightening evening, here’s the link to the webcast! Aren’t you so lucky to get this second chance??!!