Speaking at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center last Tuesday evening, Andrew Lam discussed his experience growing up as a refugee in the United States. During a talk and reading followed by a question-and-answer session, the Vietnamese-American writer said that “the sense of being displaced continued to form everything that I write.”
The 53-year-old author fled to the U.S. in 1975 with his family, including his father, a lieutenant general in the South Vietnamese army. “For a long time, I didn’t think going back to Vietnam is ever possible, especially while growing up in the United States in the Cold War,” he said. “The Vietnam that is preserved in my memory is the Vietnam War. My kind of strange and horrifying childhood.” Lam now lives in San Francisco.
Lam’s first book, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, released in 2005, recounts his struggles with his identity as a Vietnamese refugee living in the U.S. “When you are a child and you grow up in America, there is a sense that you have to pick,” he said. “There’s a private world where you are a refugee and an immigrant and there’s a public world [where you are] asked to be integrated and become an average American kid.”
He said that he chose to become a typical kid, and even changed his name to a more American-sounding one. “It was a way which I tried to run as far as possible away from my memory,” he said, “because that memory for a long time, seemed to me as a teenager, to bind me to the old world.”
It was not easy for Lam to feel something in common with his peers. “My Asian friends were not refugees; they didn’t run from war,” he said. “Vietnamese refugees came to the United States by boat, and the whole clan of people had fled together.” Lam said that he actually felt more in common with Cuban refugees, many of whom also came to the U.S. by boat fleeing a communist dictatorship. “They lost everything and had to remake themselves,” he said.
When he visited Vietnam in 1991, Lam was shocked to see the gap between his memory and reality. “There were two Vietnams. The Vietnam of childhood that is lost, and then the country where young people moving forward, very dynamic, and growing,” he said. “I used to compare the Vietnam when I was a child and the stark opposite. The old stereotype was fading away very quickly.”
A Chinese-American attendee of the talk asked Lam for his thoughts about preserving immigrants’ historical memory through oral traditions. “There’s some value on trying to save, keep those things in the past,” Lam replied. “The only way for tradition to [be] preserved is actually by to transform. When you leave that world, you take the tradition with you and you feel that it is something you need to preserve, because it is something that is connected to the lost world. But in fact, the lost world is something that had moved on.”
Deema K. Shehabi, a Palestinian-American writer who was born in Kuwait, said that Lam’s story “resonates to our experience.” “Because of the original loss of the foundational homeland, followed by the war in Kuwait, we really had to find home elsewhere,” she said. “A lot of things came to my heart: issues of immigration, belonging, and diaspora.”
“His story is like a mirror image to many people who came here as immigrants,” said Donna K. Khorsheed, the program and artistic director at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, who organized the event. “When I hear his story, I think of all people that have been displaced and don’t have a choice but to find a new life somewhere.”