A while back, when I was visiting my mother's ancestral village in Thai Binh province in northern Vietnam, it occurred to me that, after a barrage of questions from distant relatives, not once did anyone ask that common question in America: "So, what do you do?" Instead the questions were familial and personal: "How is your mother?" "Do you own a car?"
"Are you married?" When I volunteered my profession -- "I am a journalist" -- I was met with polite nods and smiles. A guaranteed conversation-starter back in the United States went nowhere among my mother's distant kin, who were mostly farmers. "You know, for magazine and newspapers," I added, muttering. "I get to travel to many places and everything."
One old woman with blackened enamel teeth (an old practice considered to be beautiful) patted my cheek and said, "You know, don't travel so much. You should marry and settle down." Then at her insistence I went and lit incense at the graves of my great-grandparents and mumbled a silent prayer while half of the village watched in approval.
The idea of work as an identity and vocation is still new in many parts of the world. Vietnam, for one, is a country where, despite recent changes toward modernity, 80 percent of the population still lives in rural areas. Work for them is arduous and repetitive, really nothing to talk about. In fact, the Vietnamese colloquial word for work is "keo cay," which literally means "to pull the yoke."
"What do you do?" is a meaningless question in a region when everyone has his feet in the mud, his back bent, his skin scorched by an unforgiving sun.
Yet as an immigrant to America, I am all too aware how a strong work ethic ultimately helps newcomers succeed. In America, where mobility weakens blood ties, work is still a highly honorable thing, a point around which strangers can connect. Hard work was a vehicle that took my family out of poverty and deposited us in that much-coveted, five-bedroom suburban home with a pool in the back yard. And ambition transformed my cousins, siblings and me into engineers, businessmen, doctors and journalist -- successful American professionals. What we do has become an enormous source of pride, not only for ourselves, but for our family and clan.
Immigrants' strong work ethic built the American dream, which in turn merges with the old Protestant work ethic, which built America. To have vision is to move forward: He sees in the boarded-up store a sparkling new restaurant; she looks at the pile of shirts to be sewn in the sweatshop and sees her children going to Harvard. For those who want to do, and do well, America is still the place to be.
A cliche to the native-born, the American dream nevertheless seduces the sedentary Vietnamese, among countless others, to travel halfway around the world. America kisses her hard, and in the morning she awakes to find, to her own amazement, that she can readily pronounce mortgage, escrow, aerobic, tax shelter, GPA, MBA, MD, BMW, Porsche, overtime and stock options.
Gone is the cyclical nature of her provincial thinking, and lost is her land-bound mentality. She can envision the future.
There is a price to pay for having ambition, however. Already, second-generation Vietnamese in America are feeling that deterioration of clanship, the loss of the insularity that their parents' generation valued and upheld. Indeed, somewhere along our highly mobile and cosmopolitan lifestyles, that close network that held the first generation together is thinning out a generation later. So much so that, increasingly, we take our identity from what we do and less from who we know or who we are related to.
Back in my mother's ancestral village, however, as I sat and watched my kinfolk gather their crops and sing, I found enviable their sense of communal love and insularity. It's back-breaking work, but you live and die by the land, and you are never left alone -- someone is guaranteed to take care of you, for such is the collective ethos of that world.
Yet despite my claim of kinship, despite the fact that my ancestors are buried there, I felt myself essentially a stranger in the village.
One young woman came and sat down with me near the end of the visit. She was a good student, she told me. She dreamed of life in the big city. There was nothing in the village for her. She imagined herself doing well in Hanoi. And then perhaps, if she did well, who knows, she might even go abroad.
"To America," she said in a dreamy voice.
Listening to her, I was struck by the enormous gap between hard work and ambition. An immigrant with a cosmopolitan vision dancing in his or her head can move away from a rural past quickly and fiercely.
From the far end of the road that led out of that village, I wanted to warn her of loneliness, of the journey's unrequited longings, of my yearnings for a more connected, insular world.
But I mentioned none of that. Instead, I felt a different kind of kinship with the young woman, one not based on blood ties."So," I asked her, "What do you plan to do when you get there?"
Andrew Lam is an editor of New America Media and the author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. His book of short stories, Birds of Paradise, is due out in 2013.
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