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. 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.
Temple of Literature in Hanoi
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 that pool, I took to the water. And I kept on swimming.
Cover of Birds of Paradise Lost
New America Media editor, Andrew Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" (Heyday Books, 2005), which won a Pen American "Beyond the Margins" award and where the above essay is excerpted, and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres" where the above essay was excerpted. His next book, "Birds of Paradise Lost" is due out March 01, 2013. He has lectured and read his work widely at many universities.
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