I had wanted to be a doctor
Or so everyone thought... except me
By Andrew Lam
What happens when you graduate from Berkeley with a broken heart and a B.A. in biochemistry? You break your immigrant parents’ hearts by becoming a writer.
My freshman year at Berkeley I fell hopelessly in love, but a year after graduation, my heart was shattered. While working at the cancer research lab on campus, I took creative writing courses at UC Extension. By day I bombarded mammary tissues with various carcinogens, by night I bled myself into words.
I got good at writing, and at the urging of my creative writing teacher, dropped the test tube, picked up the pen, and left Berkeley to pursue a master’s of fine arts at San Francisco State University.
Berkeley had radicalized me. But I do not mean this in the political sense, not directly. I came from a very conservative Vietnamese immigrant family, and I had long ago in Vietnam ingested the concept of filial piety—that the collective defines the destiny of the individual. Making one’s parents proud is a person’s number one goal.
A quiet, bookish child, I found a new refuge when I fell in love with “L”. In “L’s” embrace, what I had thought important turned out to be trivial. Pleasing my chronically unhappy mother was trivial; good grades were trivial; the path toward medical school was trivial. “L,” who took my breath away and whose smile made me tremble, was all there was.
What I remember, too, was an incident during my sophomore year that, over time, marked me. A studious Chinese student attempted to jump from the Campanile. He was from my dorm. He considered suicide because, so goes the rumor, he had never gotten a lowly B before, until vector calculus overwhelmed him. I remember the entire dorm talking about it. I might have been momentarily horrified. But I was also too busy being in love to let it really register. I do remember thinking, not without certain vanity, that he wouldn’t have considered jumping had he discovered love instead.
Other bubbles come up randomly from the deep, dark waters as I recall Berkeley: Professor Noyce, in organic chemistry, dragging on his thin cigarette as he draws nicotine molecules on the board. “Don’t ever smoke,” he admonishes his audience. My roommate, Tony, coming home from the Big Game in ’82, crying with happiness. The Bears have trampled the Stanford Band to score that spectacular and bizarre winning touchdown in the last seconds of the game. The bells of the Campanile ringing out one humid afternoon and, for no reason at all, I drop my back-pack and dance. Above all, though, I recall the salty scent of “L.’’
Then “L’’ was gone. And my heart was broken.
When I began to write, it was not the larger world—or my Vietnamese refugee experience—that I wanted to address. I tried instead to capture what it was like to lose someone who had been my preoccupation throughout my college life; who was, in fact, my life then. I was too close to the subject, however, too hurt to do the story justice. But the raw emotions unearthed another set of older memories simmering underneath.
The brokenhearted adult slowly found himself recalling the undressed wounds of the exiled child who stood alone on the beach of Guam, the refugee camp with its khaki green tents flapping in the wind, missing his friends, his dogs, fretting about his parents, wondering if he’d ever see his homeland again. The long line for food under a punishing sun. People weeping themselves to sleep.
My sadness opened a trapdoor to the past. I yearned for memories. I wrote some more. I began to fancy myself a writer.
I can’t remember for sure now how he was talked down, that Chinese boy from my dorm, and how long he stood up there. I do remember that it was around that time that they put up suicide bars on the Campanile.
Not long ago, after revisiting the Berkeley campus, I had a dream. In it, it is me who finds himself alone atop the Campanile at sunset. I am not afraid. Below, people have gathered. Before me: a beatific horizon. I leap. And I soar high over Berkeley before heading out to where sky kisses sea. I haven’t landed yet.
Andrew Lam ’86 is an editor for Pacific News Service and a regular commentator for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. But his real love is writing fiction. He is finishing his second book, a collection of short stories.