Of Refugees and Cosmopolites
Ever since childhood, I have had an odd aversion to reading any book with the word "dream" in its title, doubly distasteful to me those penned by minoritized or "emergent" writers. Imagine my horror after being enthralled with Andrew Lam's short stories "Show and Tell" and "Grandma's Tales" to find his first book of essays in print entitled Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.
Andrew Lam, born 1964 and no relation of mine (other than that of honorary cousin, he teases), is a Vietnamese American fiction writer and essayist, writing primarily in English. He was born in Da Lat, Vietnam, known as a favorite honeymoon destination for its temperate climate, lovely waterfalls, and rare strawberries. There he attended the Lycée Yersin, being schooled in French arts and letters, until he fled Vietnam with his family during the fall of Sai Gon in April 1975.
The son of well-respected General Lâm Quang Thi of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (now himself a historical writer), he attended local schools and then the University of California, Berkeley where he majored in biochemistry. Soon thereafter, he abandoned plans for medical school and entered a creative writing program at San Francisco State University, still in line with our neoliberal dream fictions.
While in school he began writing for Pacific News Service and in 1993 won the Outstanding Young Journalist Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Pacific News Service spawned New America Media in 1996 for which Lam is currently the web editor. He is also co-founder of New California Media, and a regular commentator on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. His essays, often on Vietnam-related issues, have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
What the legit biography does not betray is his rogue hustler narrative persona — an antihero of sorts, like that of Joey Sands in Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters only more trickster-like, less dark and brooding. His writings query our American dreams, leaving them to smell a little off but not off-putting, and leaving us to crave bigger bites of strange fruit.
A PBS documentary produced by WETA in 2004, My Journey Home, told three stories of Americans returning to their ancestral homelands, including Lam's return to Vietnam. Unlike the countless return and reconciliation vignettes that such public programming champions, Lam's own writing veers toward the comical and sarcastic. It is his unique ability to never compartmentalize his life's tragicomedies from those of our time — the anachronistic and hypocritical world we all must navigate — that attracts readers to his side.
In "Child of Two Worlds," an essay in Perfume Dreams, he lightens the refugee load in dramatic fashion:
Then, as if to anchor me in Old World tragedy, as if to bind me to that shared narrative of loss and misery, mother insisted that I, too, read those letters. What did I do? I skimmed. I skipped. I shrugged. I put on a poker face and raked autumn in a pile and pushed it all back to her. "That country," I slowly announced in English, as if to wound, "is cursed."
No easy immigrant-done-good stories here. No naïve we-believe-children-are-the-future tales. Instead:
What woke the Vietnamese refugee — that fleeing princess — from her millennial stupor... was no Prince Charming kiss but the simple yet potent idea of progression.... It's the American Dream that kissed her hard, tongued her, in fact, and in the morning she awakes to find, to her own amazement, that she can readily pronounce mortgage, escrow, aerobic, tax shelter, GPA, MBA, MD, BMW, Porsche, overtime, stock options.
While my own mother still orders "fried jacuzzi" at restaurants when hankering for some battered zucchini, Andrew Lam eschews such easy comedy to afford this older immigrant generation a sort of gravitas, respecting their experience of war, exile and melancholy. These often get downplayed by Southeast Asian American writers trying to disassociate themselves from the burden of that shared history in favor of youth activism and MFA dreams.
Five years after Perfume Dreams, Lam's East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres treats diaspora as novel and nearly uncharted territory. As each new migration grabs media attention, our anthropological imperative kicks in and we hunger for its particular stream of knowledge, but eventually all are subsumed into a "global tribe." Where the essays and travel narratives in Perfume Dreamsgo down like dry vermouth, the recent publication pours out summer lightness, still mischievous but tart.
In "Ode to the Bay," for instance, Lam revels in the cosmopolitan lightness of the 112 languages spoken in the Bay Area, but he never fails to build up that worldliness from the hard concrete below:
For my first semester I am wedged between Mexico and Taiwan. Taiwan is timid and bookish, but boisterous Mexico, whose name is Juan, and I immediately bond. Communicating with our hands, facial gestures, and a few shared words, we manage to joke and banter. 'I am from Mexico,' Juan keeps whispering in various cadences, as if trying out a new song, until I fall into a fit of giggles. Mrs. H., our teacher, who is beautiful and blond, and married to a black man from Africa (she shows us pictures of her wedding the first day), makes us sit outside of the classroom for disrupting the class.
And here's the moment: A redhead stops by as Juan continues his antics outside. 'I'm from here,' she says, and then she shakes our hands as if we had just landed on the tarmac. 'Welcome to America,' she says. She then gives us each a stick of cinnamon gum. Juan and I look at each other and shrug. I pop the gum into my mouth and chew. Spicy. Sweet.
Read the rest here.