The Education of a Vietnamese-American Writer

The Education of a Vietnamese-American Writer

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Editor's Note: An author reflects on a decision years ago to choose a creative writing program on his path to becoming a writer, defying deeply-held cultural values of filial piety.

One summer afternoon many years ago, I stole home and robbed my parents of their American Dream. I wasn’t going to be a doctor, after all. I was going to study creative writing.

When they heard the news, it was as if all the air had been sucked out of the living room. Mother covered her mouth and cried; Father cursed in French. Older brother shook his head and left the room.

I sat silent and defiant. I was only a small child when we fled Vietnam in 1975, but I remember how I trembled then as my small world collapsed around me. I trembled on this day, too, as I told my parents that I was following my passion.

At UC Berkeley, more than half of those in the Vietnamese Students Association, to which I belonged, majored in computer science and electrical engineering. These fields were highly competitive. A few told me they didn’t want to become engineers: some wanted to be artists, or architects, and had ample talent to do so, but their parents were against them. It was worse for those with family still living in impoverished Vietnam. One, in particular, was an “anchor kid” whose family sold everything to buy him perilous passage across the South China Sea on a boatful of refugees. He knew that others were literally dying for the opportunities he had before him, and failure was not an option.

Many of my friends were driven; theirs was an iron will to achieve academic success. On the wall of the dorm room of a Vietnamese friend was his painting of a mandarin dressed in silk brocade and wearing a hat. Flanked by soldiers carrying banners, the young mandarin rides in an ornate carriage while peasants look on and cheer. It was a visual sutra to help him focus on his studies.

And I, with a degree in biochemistry and on a path to attend medical school to the delight of my parents, was, in their eyes, throwing it all away – for what? I had, in secret, applied to and been accepted into the graduate program in creative writing at San Francisco State University. “Andrew, you are not going to medical school,” said Helen, my first writing teacher after reading one of my short stories. My response was entirely lacking in eloquence. “But … but … my mom is going to kill me.”

Filial piety was ingrained in me long before I stepped foot onto American shores. It is in essence the opposite of individualism. “Father’s benefaction is like Mount Everest, Mother’s love like the water from the purest source,” we sang in first grade. If American teenagers long to be free and to find themselves, Vietnamese are taught filial obligation, forever honoring and fulfilling a debt incurred in their name.

My mom didn’t kill me; she wept. It was my father who vented his fury. “I wanted to write, too, you know, when I was young. I studied French poetry and philosophy. But do you think I could feed our family on poems? Can you name one Vietnamese who’s making a living as an American writer? What makes you think you can do it?”

This was the late ‘80s, and the vast majority in our community were first-generation refugees, many of them boat people who had subsisted for years in refugee camps in Southeast Asia.

“I can’t name one,’ I said. “There may not be anyone right now. So, I’ll be the first.”

Father looked at me and with that look I knew he was not expecting an answer; it was not how I talked in the family, which was to say respectfully and with vague compliance. Perhaps for the first time, he was assessing me anew.

I matched his gaze, which both thrilled and terrified me. And crossing that invisible line, failure was no longer an option.

My friend with the painting of a mandarin became an optometrist and gave up art. I remember the first time he showed me the picture of the mandarin, saying “Do trang nguyen ve lang” – Vietnamese for, ‘Mandarin returns home after passing the imperial examination.” But the image needed no explanation, to me or any student from Confucian Asia; it embodied the dream of glorious academic achievement and with it influence and wealth for the entire family. Villages and towns pooled resources and sent their best and brightest to compete at the imperial court, hoping that one of their own would make it to the center of power. Mandarins were selected and ranked according to their performance in the rigorous examinations, which took place every four years.

Vietnam was for a long time a tributary of China and it was governed by mandarins, a meritocracy open to even the lowest peasant if he had the determination and ability to prevail.

Of all the temples in Hanoi, the most beautiful is Van Mieu, the Temple of Literature, dedicated to all those laureates of Vietnam who became mandarins, their names etched on stone steles going back eight centuries.

It was Vietnam’s first university, the Imperial Academy. That it became a temple to the worship of education seems entirely appropriate.

Under French colonial rule, China’s imperial examinations were replaced by the baccalaureate. To have passed its requirements was something so rare that one’s name was forever connected to the title. My paternal grandmother’s closest friend was Ong Tu Tai Quoc – Mr. “Baccalaureate” Quoc.

My paternal grandfather’s baccalaureate took him to Bordeaux to study law and when he returned, he married the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the Mekong Delta. And for Vietnamese in America, education is everything. So, for someone lucky enough to escape the horrors of post-war Vietnam and be handed through the hard work of his parents the opportunity to become a doctor, to say “no, thank you” was akin to Confucian sin. By refusing to fulfill my expected role within the family, I was being dishonorable. “Selfish,” more than a few relatives called me.

But part of America’s seduction is that it invites betrayal of the parochial. The old culture demands the child to obey and honor the wishes of his parents. America tells him to think for himself and look out for number one. America spurs rebellion of the individual against the communal: follow your dream. It also demands it: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Many children of Asian immigrants learn early to negotiate between the “I” and the “We,” between seemingly opposed ideas and flagrant contradictions, in order to appease and survive in both cultures.

In Vietnam, as a child during the war, I read French comic books and martial arts epics translated from Chinese into Vietnamese, even my mother’s indulgent romance novels. In America, I read American novels and spent my spare time in public libraries, devoting the summers to devouring book after book. When not studying, I was reading. If I was encouraged to mourn the loss of my homeland, I was also glad that I became an American because here, and perhaps nowhere else, as mythologist Joseph Campbell urges, I could follow my passion, my bliss.

Some years passed…

Eavesdropping from upstairs during a visit home, I heard my mother greeting friends and learned of a new addition to our family. “These are Andrew Lam’s awards,” she said, motioning to a bookshelf displaying my trophies, diplomas, and writing awards. “Andrew Lam” was stressed with a tone of importance. “My son, the Berkeley radical,” my father would say by way of talking about me to his friends. “Parents give birth to children,” adds my mother, “God gives birth to their personalities.”

Later that day, I went out to my parent’s backyard for a swim. It was in mid-September when kids were going back to school and leaves had started to turn colors. Though it was sunny out, the water was very cold. I remember standing on tip-toe for a long time at the pool’s edge, fearing the inevitable plunge, yet longing for the seductive blue water. Then, I closed my eyes, took a breath, and leapt. It was cold. But as I adjusted to the temperature and swam, I couldn’t understand why I hesitated for so long.

Finding and following my passion and path in life is a bit like that. Scary. Delightful. A struggle -- to be sure. But once I dove into the pool, I took to the water. And I kept on swimming.

NAM Senior Editor Andrew Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres," due out in September.

 

Comments

 
Anonymous

Posted Aug 31 2010

I'm also an aspiring journalist who was born in Vietnam and raised in the United States. Even though I've lived here my whole life (I came when I was two) and for all intents and purposes, American, there is still that sense of straddling two different hemispheres: sciences vs. humanities, filial fealty vs. self-exploration. And I've especially felt like I was an odd fish in a sea filled with pharmacists, doctors, and lawyers, and all of the uncertainties the literary career path entails.

Yet I also consider myself lucky in that my parents, though they were South Vietnam refugees, they still valued the arts. My father was an English teacher and he taught us about the value and education that can be found in the written word. The only condition they had was that I receive an college education. I am now getting a Masters in journalism.

So I think that there can be a balance between the filial and the personal can be reached, but it's a compromise between the child and the parent. But the child needs to think of the repercussion of his or her actions and the parents need to trust in the child's judgement. It seems like this is what happened with you and your parents, which is rare within the parent-child relationship, especially among immigrant families, almost as rare as the amount of Vietnamese-Americans who have a career in the humanities.

But I want to thank you for writing and for putting into words what it means to be a Vietnamese-American who is not a doctor. And I also want to praise your writing, especially the way you closed the piece, which is very lyrical and almost reminiscent of some Trinh Cong Son songs. I hope that my writing someday progresses to that kind of a level. I'm looking forward to your new book.

Best,
Diep Tran

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Anonymous

Posted May 13 2012

The most Vietnamese people overseas rejected the citizenship of so-called" Republic socialism of Vietnam", actually, the member of ARVN, public Servant, the dictotarial regime is the cause of family disaster after April 30, 1975. More than 800, 000 imprisoned, about 50,000 killed in the reeducation...A central communist Vietnam, member, 56 years membership told to his comrades after won the war at Saigon:" theit house, we occupy-Their wives, we take-Their chidren, we enslaved". Nowadays, Vietcong just opens the door for survival, moreover they want money from muliple resources, including the Vietnamese overseas. But they have never changed, it is a changing color of Lizard strategy. Vietcong does love the Vietnamese overseas talent, they have no expense a cent, but but they want to get all. In education, Vietcong always keeps the ways:" Family record wins over talent" and in the job:" The Red is priority than capability".
In the refugee camps, whole the boat people had to write a statutory's title:" Reason leaving Vietnam" with signature and confirmed the refugee's status: stateless, couldn't live in Vietnam while facing the danger, vowed not teturn to where they escape to find freedom while the Vietcong regime is still being in power. If in the camp, who told to the UNHCR:" After come to the democratic country, I will came back to Viet nam for family's visit". They would be cancelled the refugee's status and waiting for deport.
Under Vietcong's view: Viet kieu means the citizen of Vietcong regime who live offshore, so, they could return safe, stay and leave without problem, Vietcong want to transfer the Vietnamese people overseas to Viet Kieu. Since Vietcong opens the door, annually, Viet kieu provided multiple billion USD to the ruthless regime, so Vietcong uses money to keep regime survival.
Dear Andew Lam! I knew your father, Lieutenant General Lam Quang Thi at Da Lat, a time I was a cadet of the Political Warefare Academy, I spent the military training at your father academy. I also served at the first army Corps, while your father was assistance commander of Lieutenant General Ngo Quang Truong...your family was lucky and went to US early. I am amongst of 800,000 people imprisoned and survival after 6 years in 9 hell of reeducatioon camps. I had a risky plan to learn English in the enenmy hand, Vietcong condemned:" English is the Empire American, counter-revolution language". It took me 5 years to learn through a pocket dictionary. In 1981 they released by Illness, in 1982 I Escaped successful, came to Malaysia refugee camp and 1983 came to Australia. I tooke the other 25 years to achieve my first book:" The Dark Journey: inside the reeducation camps of Vietcong" published in US 2010, second book:" Good Evening Vietnam" released in 2011 and I just signed contract the third book, I believe it will be released before 2013. I accomloished the promise myself and the death people:" if I survive, I will write story, that could speak out to the world".
I have my ageing mother, 88 years old in Vietnam, I tried twice to sponsor her under the visitor's visa, but Vietcong cut...
I would like to share with you, and the late generations about rhe experience, I also believe my books could provide the genuine historic documentary about the Vietnam war.
I would like to sent my regards to Lieutenant General Lam Quang Thi.
Hoa Minh Truong.
( Ex-Lieut of ARVN, Author)

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