A Vietnamese Journey Toward the American Dream

New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam Posted: Nov 24, 2008

Editor's note: This essay by NAM contributing writer Andrew Lam is excerpted from a longer piece in the anthology "Thirty Years After," to be published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in spring 2009. He is the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora>

When I think of the Vietnamese narrative in California I think of my mother's ancestral altar. In her suburban home on the outskirts of San Jose with a pool shimmering in the backyard, my mother prays. Every morning, she climbs a chair and piously lights a few joss sticks for the ancestral altar on top of the living room's bookcase and mumbles her solemn prayers to the dead.

Black-and-white photos of grandpa and grandma and uncles stare out benevolently to the world of the living on the top shelf. On the shelves below, by contrast, stand my father's MBA diploma, my older siblings' engineering and business degrees, my own degree in biochemistry, our combined sports trophies, and, last but not least, the latest installments of my own unending quest for self-reinvention—plaques and obelisks, shaped crystals and framed certificates—my journalism awards.

What my mother's altar and the shelves carrying their various knickknacks underneath seek to tell is the typical Vietnamese American transition, one where old world fatalism finally meets new world optimism, the American dream. After all, praying to the dead is a cyclical, Confucian habit — something to keep a Vietnamese connected to her community, her tradition, her sense of identity. Getting awards and degrees, on the other hand, is an American tendency, a proposition of ascendancy, one where one looks toward the future and deems it optimistic and bright. Oftentimes to be Vietnamese American, one lurks between these two opposite ideas, negotiating, that is, between night and day.

Many Vietnamese-American immigrants, when they talk about their own lives, will tell you how drastically different they were before and after they left Vietnam. "Before I left, I couldn't possibly imagine what my life in America would be like." This sentence I often hear from my relatives and friends when they talk about the past.

little sg
Gate of Little Saigon in Westminster, California

Day and night. Trung Tran, the rice farmer's son from Quang Nam province, for instance, the one who brought only seven oranges with him onto a crowded boat thinking that they should last him the whole journey across the Pacific — "How big is the ocean anyway?" — had escaped to San Francisco. And instead of helping the old man plant next season's crop he returned to Vietnam three decades later to design glassy high-rises, the kind Vietnam had never seen before.

What transformed in the Vietnamese refugee psyche was a simple yet potent idea of progression. In the Golden State, where dreams do have a penchant to come true, he grows ambitious. He sees, for instance, his own restaurant in the "for rent" sign on a dilapidated store in a run-down neighborhood. He sees his kids graduating from top colleges. He imagines his own home with a pool in the back in five years’ time — all things that are impossible back home.

A cliché to native-borns, the American dream nevertheless seduces the traditionally sedentary Vietnamese to travel halfway around the world. It's the American dream and in that kissed him hard, tongued him, in fact, the morning he awakes to find, to his own amazement, that he can readily pronounce "mortgage," "escrow," "aerobic," "tax shelter," "GPA," "MBA," "MD," "BMW," "overtime," "stock options." Gone is the cyclical nature of his provincial thinking, and lost is his land-bound mentality.

And why not? The American dream has over time chased away the Vietnamese nightmare. And compared to the bloody battlefields, the malaria-infested new economic zone and communist gulags, the squalid refugee camps scattered across Southeast Asia, the murders and rapes and starving and drowning on the high seas, California is still paradise.

The drama of the initial expulsion is replaced over the years by the jubilation of a newfound status and wealth. A community that initially saw itself as living in exile, as survivors of some historical tragedy — we were, after all, a people defeated in a civil war and forced to flee — slowly changed its self-assessment. It began to see itself as an immigrant community. It began to see America as home. It reorganized and grew prosperous. Soon enough houses are bought, jobs are had, children are born, old folks are buried, businesses and malls are opened, community newspapers are printed, and economic and political organizations are formed. That is to say, ours is a community whose roots are burrowing, slowly but surely and deeply, into the American loam.

There are now politicians, writers, lawyers, judges, journalists of Vietnamese ancestry in California. Pick up a Vietnamese yellow pages phone book in Santa Clara or Orange County these days and you will be astounded at how organized the community really is. The new arrival may not need to speak English at all (though of course, he should learn it) — he just needs to pick up the yellow pages, full of businesses that cater to an immigrant's every need: from law to dentist’s offices, from restaurants to computer programming training centers, from private schools to car rental to real estate services, from funeral services to wedding planning, from cosmetic surgery to travel services, he has an array of choices at his beck and call. Even when the economy is shaky, there is a kind of dynamic that seems unstoppable within the community.

weddingThe pangs of longing are thus dulled by the necessities of living and by the glory of newfound status and wealth. And the refugee-turned-immigrant (a psychological transition) turned naturalized U.S. citizen (more or less a transition of convenience) finds that the insistence of memories insists a little less as he zooms down the freeway toward a glorious chimerical cityscape to work each morning.

Vietnamese translation: Người Việt hải ngoại và California


Lam is the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.

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