where the writers are
Reborn in America
Date of Review: 
Astrid-Christa Viciano Y Gofferje
USC Annenberg

History is a living, breathing thing, and, yet, your own history can sometimes take your breath away. It pulls at you, it shapes you, it gives you a personal, unique view on the surrounding world. Nevertheless, your own history is not a solitary thread. It constantly intertwines with other people´s histories, as it does in the case of the journalist Andrew Lam. His history is irreversibly entangled with his father´s military past, with the lives of the other refugees at the military base in Guam, with the experiences of his American friends who only know war from television. Like many threads pulling at each other, they eventually formed a knot making Andrew Lam into what he is today: A Vietnamese immigrant who became American.

Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock. In his mind, Andrew Lam can hear the sound of the two clocks hanging on the wall of a Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco. One has the shape of Vietnam, the other the form of the United States. They show distinct time zones, like two hearts beating at different rhythms. Andrew Lam likes to go there; the two clocks seem to remind him of his constant effort of trying to live his life at two different paces at the same time. He was born as a Vietnamese, and re-born as an American at the age of eleven.

At first sight, it appears as if Andrew Lam left behind his Vietnamese childhood to become a true American, like a snake shedding its old skin. His wealthy, upper-class Vietnamese life ended on April 28, 1974. Two days before the city fell to the communist army and the Vietnam war ended, he and his family boarded on a cargo plane full of panicking refugees and headed for the military base of Guam. Like any adult, the boy had to deal with the concerns for the relatives left behind, especially his father. Like many other Vietnamese children, Andrew Lam experienced the extreme anxiety and insecurity of those who stayed in refugee camps, as Min Zhou and Carl L. Bankston point out in their book "Growing up American".

His family was part of the first of three refugee waves that poured into the United States between 1974 and the early 1990s. Back then, Vietnames arrived under very different circumstances than typical immigrants nowadays. In contrast to other newcomers, they were pushed out of their homeland, without adequate preparation and no clear final destination. No ethnic enclaves existed to embrace the newcomers, no anchor to help them adjust socially and economically. On the contrary, the U.S. government enforced a disperse settlement of the refugees, in order to avoid a "second Miami", as Zhou and Bankston describe.

Once Andrew Lam arrives in the United States, he quickly realizes that he has to transform into an American kid. Every morning, he practices the pronounciation of new English words in the shower, he rapidly changes from a timid Vietnamese boy into a witty Western kid. He knows: He will only become an American and be accepted as an American, if he gives up his language and, also, his nature.

Back then it was still regarded as a prerequisite of assimilation to leave behind your own language, and often even your culture. During the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. English movement reached nationwide attention with its campaign for a constitutional amendment to declare English the official language of the United States. The movement set out to combat what it saw as a threat of denationalization posed by the new waves of immigrants who speak other languages, as Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut point out in their book "Immigrant America".

The better immigrants speak the new language, the more they have adapted to their new life. As a publication of the Center on Children & Families describes, language is considered a vehicle of change. Learning English opens immigrants to the American culture, and is the way through which they absorb American attitudes. English-dominant Latinos attitudes, for instance, often resemble the view of non-Hispanics, particularly non-Hispanic whites.

Also, fluency in English is regarded as a vehicle of economic success. Accordingly, the newly arrived Vietnamese boy Andrew Lam fully concentrated on losing any accent that could unmask him as a foreigner. He doesn´t describe major discrimation upon his arrival in the United States. No major injustice, no major psychological or physical harm that could have impeded his rapid assimilation, as these experiences are known to be hindering factors. Yet Andrew Lam quickly understood that the past could not provide him any road map in America. "Vietnamese have no real biographies in the American narrative, no real history", Lam says. Invisibility was the Vietnamese fate, living as a faceless, amorphe mass in the new country.

His Vietnamese starts to fade as he improves his English, and with the new language he acquires views and values distinct to those of his parents. When he eventually starts questioning his parents´ traditional views, he does it in English not in Vietnamese. He is lulled with American treasures, the country`s freedom and optimism.

According to the Civic Report 2008 of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Vietnamese are about the most rapidly assimilating immigrants of the United States. Interestingly, it points out that country-of-origin groups with the highest degree of civic assimilation have a common legacy of American military intervention at some point in the twentieth century. Foreign born Vietnamese, for instance, were more assimilated than any other group in 2006. They not only start at a higher economic level than other immigrants; they also show stronger signs of economic assimilation over time.

How do they differ from other immigrants? Vietnam is a communist country, and the set of individuals choosing to flee a communist nation to settle in a nation with a free-market economy likely included a large proportion of entrepreneurs or skilled workers seeking better compensation. The costs of leaving Vietnam and making the trip to the United States are substantial, and the costs of returning to Vietnam after settling here would also be great. Vietnamese immigrants, therefore, have relatively strong incentives to achieve full membership in American society, the Civic Report describes.

Also, the Vietnamese family´s respect for education and hard work makes the children successful at school, and enables them to often outperform, for instance, European American students, as Zhou and Bankston describe. Andrew Lam, for example, went to a prestigious University, and later excelled as a writer.

Other Vietnamese attitudes, though, differ extremely from American ones. Family ties are regarded as much more important, and the individual is practically ignored. Lam seems to be trapped in this dilemma, feeling guilty for distancing himself from his father, for questioning his values. He even calls himself a bad son.

Yet, his family maintains close ties to relatives that had to stay behind in Vietnam. His mother receives letters telling about an uncle who has been incarcerated in a malaria- infested reeducation camp, another uncle died from heart failure while being interrogated by the Viet Cong, a cousin caught for the umpteenth time trying to escape. "That country", Andrew Lam says one day to his mother in English, "is cursed". For him as a child, Vietnam was so far away, an abstraction, and the seductive America was so near.

Nevertheless, Andrew Lam sometimes asks himself whether it is a sign of a third-world immigrant´s successful assimiliation into a rich, industrialized society when "he can cast a snobbish glance back toward the impoverished world he left behind". He eventually realizes how much he has forgotten about his life in Vietnam, as if "along with a pile of papers and uneaten food we have carelessly tossed away our memories". He and others have forgotten what has sustained them in the past, Lam says: The attachment to his land, his old identity.

He has been reshaped, Andrew Lam says, he has acquired many additional homelands instead. He is rooted in several languages, he has family and friends scattered in many countries, and, yet, he often feels utterly alone. Who is he? Where does he come from? Lam speaks of "we, the Vietnamese" when he talks about the people´s attitude towards death and tragedy, and about "we, the Americans" when writes about having become consumer. He clearly shows a hyphenated identity, as Ewa Morawska calls people with two cultural backgrounds in her essay about transnationalism.

In every sense, the borders of Vietnam are porous for Andrew Lam. He seems to be floating between two lifestyles. As a journalist, it is difficult for him to maintain an American perspective when he reports about Vietnamese people. When he has to report about four Vietnamese youths in 1991 who stormed an electronics store in Sacramento, armed with semiautomatic pistols, who held forty-one people hostage. They want a helicopter to fly to Thailand and fight the Viet cong, four million dollars, four bulletproof vests, and forty pieces of one-thousand-year-old ginseng root to increase their internal strength. Eventually, three of them get killed after they themselves have murdered two employees of the store, one customer and wounded eight more.

When he heads out to interview the parents of two of the deceased boys, he suddenly realizes he won´t be able to speak to the them like an American. Sitting in his car outside their house, he is suddenly overwhelmed by fear and gulit. "Once the door opens and the old couple welcomes me in, in my mother´s language, I know I will lose all perspective. Once inside I might as well put away my notepad and declare my loyalty to the old couple.", Lam writes. Loyalty to his home country, as Andrew Lam shows at this moment, is a clear characteristic of transnationalism, as Mary C. Waters and Reed Ueda point out. Andrew Lam still has strong ties to his first homeland, and can´t bring himself to knock on their door. Instead, he places a box full of ginseng roots between the two brothers´ tombstones. Boxes with a plastic cover showing American stars and stripes.

Similar to the so-called "astronauts", Americans who are originally from Hong Kong, and who serve as effective messengers between the two countries, Andrew Lam could also be considered a mediator, shuttling back and forth between Vietnam and the United States mentally, and sometimes physically. People like him clearly show that assimilation and transnationalism are not necessarily at odds. Remaining loyal to his home country hasn´t impeded his assimilation to the United States, as studies on Latin American immigrants by Alejandro Portes also recently showed. Moreover, many transnational civic and political projects explicitly aim at instilling North American values and political practices in the home countries.

Still, the fact of having several cultural backgrounds is not regarded as valuable in American society. Cultural pluralism does exist extensively, but is rather tolerated than appreciated. Bilingualism as a major intellectual advantage is not encouraged.

On the contrary, immigrant children are forced to decide. If they want to be true Americans, they have to give up their own culture. Or if they live in an ethnic enclave like many Latin Americans do, they cultivate their home country´s culture.

But neither of both cultures is truly their own. Immigrant children, exposed to two distinct cultures, actually form their own third culture, integrating substantial parts from each side they have grown up with. It is not a malformation, it is a true enrichment of society seeing these third cultures develop. Their values, their habits, even their language develops differently.

And if society starts to regard this third culture as a positive development, these immigrants will not have to struggle with their identity anymore. They will be more at ease with their own history. As Andrew Lam points out, one should not reject attachments to the past but work through them. Irretrievable, the past must be mourned and remembered and assimilated. The old umbilical cord must be unearthed, as Lam says, and through the act of imagination, be woven into a new living tapestry.

Background information:

In April 1975, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to North Vietnam troops. Consequently, the country was unified, and the capital Saigon renamed Ho Chi Minh City. From 1975 through the early 1990s, Vietnamese refugees came to the United stage in three different phases.

Back in 1975, the first group was made up mostly of exiles who fled at the end of the war: military personnel, professionals, the elite, and members of the Catholic Church. The second group were the so-called "boat people" who came to the United States in two waves, one peaking in 1978 and the second one in 1982. By 1979, an estimated number of 400 000 refugees had escaped Vietnam in boats or on foot. They went to Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Many of them had to live in refugee camps for months or even years.

More than 600 000 Vietnamese were resettled in the United States between 1975 and 1995. The immigrants arriving more recently, mostly come to rejoin their families already living there.

To manage the sudden influx, the U.S. government set up five reception centers at Camp Pendleton in California, Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and a military base in Guam (where Andrew Lam stranded as a boy).

The U.S. government officials were not prepared for such massive immigration, and they wanted to avoid creating a new ethnic group in one or more ports of entry. Therefore, they organized a very wide geographic dispersal of the arriving Vietnamese families. Nevertheless, Orange County in California nowadays is the largest Vietnamese settlement outside of Vietnam.

Source: "Growing up American", Min Zhou, Carl L. Bankston, 1998