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Adaptation At The Cost of One’s Culture- a Review of Perfume Dreams

Blog/video, Matthew de Moraes Posted: Dec 13, 2010

Matthew de Moraes

Andrew Lam, author of Perfume Dreams (2005), is currently an established writer in California and founder of the New California Media. Andrew Lam is also a political refugee from Saigon, Vietnam. While these two descriptions seem to fit different people, they are in actuality two sides to one man’s history that have been explained and blended together beautifully in his most recent book. After witnessing the communist takeover of the once-democratic capital of Vietnam, Lam shares with his readers the way in which he has assimilated himself into the US and how he has dealt with the haunting memories of his homeland that still linger.

With a keen focus on understanding his place in history, Lam discusses how “April 30th became the birth date of an exile’s culture, built on defeatism and a sense of tragic ending.” As a political exile, Lam was one of around three million refugees from Vietnam following the Communist victory. When Saigon fell, large numbers of people were ejected in a Diaspora that spanned over 50 countries worldwide.With a sense of melancholy fatalism, Lam begins to build a picture of his life beginning with his departure from Vietnam into a refugee camp. During his time in the refugee camp, Lam experienced desperation and hunger- all too common of his situation. Clearly, as we see throughout the book, these experiences had a significant effect on the formation of Lam’s character as he grew into adulthood and subsequently his writing style which, while beautiful, is also laced with resigned pessimism.

In order to understand Lam’s view of his own place in the modern world it is important to look at the way he views the world as a whole. Lam believes strongly that the process of globalization is about more than just cultural interaction and blending. In his view, globalization is partly driven by the engine of Diaspora. Early in the book Lam explains that globalization “means, among other things, a world awash with people whose displaced lives mock the idea of borders.” What Lam is referring to here is the cultural diversity that results from the spread of cultures and customs through ‘Boat People’ and refugees that leave their homes in order to search for opportunities elsewhere. In this light, Lam sees himself as a refuge but also a conduit through which culture can be spread- hence his purpose for writing this book- a way of informing the West about his native homeland and the struggles associated with leaving it.

Throughout Perfume Dreams there is a conflict between the culture of the US and that of Vietnam. Lam uses the majority of the narrative to explain the culture shocks he had to deal with when assimilating into the US lifestyle and how he sees these now he is older and more capable of explaining them. Perhaps the most basic example of this is very early on in the book when Lam discusses a Vietnamese children’s story. Noting how the story is somewhat depressing to a Westerner, Lam informs us that in Vietnam this kind of story would be received with praise for providing a true account of what life is actually like. In this way, Vietnamese culture and the stories that they tell are profoundly more fatalistic and honest- designed to enhance “their young listeners’ spiritual growth” instead of convincing them that they live in a benevolent universe. This small example is useful for the reader in understanding that Vietnamese are capable of seeing the whole picture of a situation- including the negatives, and recognizing the truth about life.

While it seems as if Lam finds the US ideology too optimistic and naive, he never actually condemns it as wrong. In fact he does the opposite. When Lam arrived in the US he found that he suited the culture quite well and that he found comfort in the convenient ignorance of suffering that US citizens embrace. While he was “Old enough to remember Vietnam, [he] was also young enough to embrace America.” As Lam grew up in his new environment he managed to use the English language as a form of buffer against the suffering he had endured in the past. Vietnamese was a land that still reminded him of burned photographs and tanks, thus loading his spoken Vietnamese with sadness. On the other hand, English remained a fresh new language that Lam used artfully to recreate himself as a happy and well liked character. Reflecting on his love for this new form of expression, Lam tells the reader that “No sorrow, no sadness, no cataclysmic grief clung to my new language.”

While this new discovery of the wonders of linguistics allowed Lam to be socially accepted and popular, it also represented a deep and irreversible split between him and his heritage. A little later in the book, Lam explains how his parents called him a “cowboy”- a term used to suggest that selfishness and individuality had led him astray from the Confucian values that he used to hold so dear. To his parents, Lam had become a materialist and an American. As would be expected after such a drastic change in lifestyle, Lam found himself floundering between these two vastly different behaviors that he had been exposed to during his life. As a child who was first brought up in a Confucian mentality with filial piety at the heart of tradition, obedience is a natural state of being. However, exposure to a culture that prides ‘coming into one’s own’ so highly lead very rapidly to Lam desiring a break from his parents- a break from tradition.

Currently in Vietnam there are similar trends in behavior. New economic reforms known as doi moi
have lead to a boom in private enterprise which in turn has lead to Westernization in Vietnamese culture. Drug problems along with high abortion rates are starting to become serious social concerns for the socialist party as the younger generation adopts a “do whatever” mentality. This dangerous and abrupt break from Confucian morals can be viewed as a large scale representation of what Lam experienced upon his arrival in America. Understanding the confusion and odd sense of displacement that Lam felt in his family home in America is crucial, in Lam’s view, to understanding the current state of affairs in his homeland. Many people are currently behaving in a manner that is typical of a generation with no guidance and nothing to look forward to. The explanation that Lam provides for this is simple: the US lives in a “bright and enlightened age of a post-cold war era” where Vietnam represents “exile, refugee and minority.”

Towards the end of the book, Lam visits Vietnam in hope of rediscovering the mental connection with Vietnam that he mourns. While his perception of himself is kind and understanding, there are times when he seems to berate himself for choices made long ago. Using the burial of his own umbilical cord to explain his physical ties to Vietnam, Lam explains how he still feels as if there is something missing because of mistakes of the past. With a nostalgic kind of guilt, Lam informs the reader of the regrets he has about leaving Vietnam. In a nation where Confucian values are prized and the national anthem swears unflinching loyalty to the state, it is not surprising to find remnants of national pride years later. This is especially true of Lam whose father was a high ranking general in the ARVN and therefore politically charged. When Lam discusses the concept of Tu Thu and how he feared his own father’s honor suicide we begin to see just how patriotic his background really is.

As a result of this continuing patriotism, Lam sees himself as a Viet Kieu- someone who has left Vietnam and returned a different kind of person. While this reference usually means that the returning citizen is in a better financial situation than when he left, it is also marred with an unpatriotic association. For Lam, his Viet Kieu title serves as a reminder of the way in which he can no longer return to Vietnam as a true national in the cultural sense. A nice example of the displacement that Lam felt when he returned to Vietnam was provided when he mentions the children playing war games in the street. For Lam, the war games continue in his head as he tries to find an identity that represents his upbringing.

The way in which Lam deals with the two sides to his cultural background appears to be a combination of fatalism and courage. While he still understands that “life is a sea of suffering, and sorrow gives meaning to life” as would a true Vietnamese, he also considers himself “irrevocably changed.” Lam’s acceptance of the fact that his upbringing in the USA has resulted in a physical and mental disconnection with his birthplace seems to provide him with a slightly more comfortable image of his current self-opinion. Of course, part of the battle that Lam suffers as a result of accepting his American nature is his ability to forgive the US for the digressions that they caused against his people. With a refreshing wisdom, Lam recognizes that “it will take great strength not to hate”

Lam eventually states his overall conclusion about the international state of affairs by suggesting that “Ours is fast becoming a postmodern world where traditions not only coexist but often commingle.” By saying this, Lam is accepting the fact that it is ok for him to be a citizen with a confused past and a combination of social traditions. In a way this is a method of cultural diffusion and international globalization. However, in typical Vietnamese style he recalls the poignant words of his mother many years ago when she called him Ma Troi or wandering ghost when they took refuge in the political camps. His recollection of this name reminds us that while he tries to look on the bright side of his dual heritage, there will always be tension in his life resulting from the Vietnamese Diaspora.

Overall, it seems as if Lam comes to the conclusion that he lives in a rapidly globalizing world with certain recently developed qualities. This world includes “unprecedented mass movements and porous borders” that create a huge population of refugees and displaced masses who struggle in silence with issues of identity crisis and poverty. While he recognizes that the place in which he lives is where “Old World Fatalism finally Meets New World Optimism, the American Dream” he also feels sadness and concern for those who met the same fate as him and those who were repatriated. That said, Lam does not determine that this is his battle to fight but instead accepts the state of the world for the way it is and hopes that his book can communicate in a way that might affect change in a positive fashion for those who find themselves disadvantaged in a similar way.

Lam, Andrew. Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora (California: Heyday Books, 2005)
East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres

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