Andrew Lam: Language has an immediate and visceral effect

Curious, I set out to interview Andrew Lam about his book East Eats West and his thoughts on American society and Vietnamese community.

Hoàng: What is the intended audience for East Eats West?

Lam: I would think that it’s just for all kinds of readers but mostly I would love to have people who are too aware of cultural differences to learn a little bit more about how their lives have been changed because of immigration, especially immigration from East Asia.

Hoàng: So you think that in America there are a lot of people who are really aware of cultural issues or differences?

Lam: I think there are a lot of people who are influenced without being aware. They eat Asian food or watch kung fu movies without thinking twice about how this is pretty new compared to generations ago. They don’t think of it in the context of history or in terms of cultural change or sociology. They just take it as, “oh, you know, we always eat kimchi or sushi.” But that is not always true. When I first came here, people didn’t eat sushi in high school. Now they eat sushi in high school. That is the big difference. The idea of Westerners eating raw fish is very strange three decades ago.

Hoàng: You talked about San Francisco (SF) as a gateway to America. How is it different than NY or LA?

Lam: SF was really the first entry point for Asians back in the 1800s when we had the gold rush. In Vietnam we called it cựu kim sơn, I am not sure you remember this. It had to do with gold mountain, it had to do with gold. Gold was discovered in California and the entry point to America was through SF. So traditionally it was the entry point to the West for Chinese, and later on Vietnamese and so on. It had the deep historical reference to Asian American history in America because it really is the beginning of Asian American history. Through SF, China Town here in SF is the oldest China Town in the West.

Hoàng: In this globalization age, would you ever see NY and LA in the same way in the future ?

Lam: I said SF has significance, but it’s obviously not the only city that has that kind of cultural melting pot. NY and LA are obviously very much under Asian influence. But there is a difference. Demographically, Asians make up about 35% of SF population. That’s not true of NY and that’s certainly not true of LA. We also just elected the first Chinese Mayor in San Francisco about 2 weeks ago. His name is Ed Lee and he’s the first Chinese American ever elected in SF. Up till now, there have been white, and one black mayor. So SF is different in that sense, that Asians are politically active and Asians dominate politics now, as well as the cultural spheres.

Hoàng: How do you feel witnessing the East beginning to eat the West with kickback kungfu movies and Japanese anime?

Lam: I think there is a lot of comfort in seeing that your own private culture is now part of someone else’s culture as well. When people start to understand your culture, they start to understand where you are coming from. So then it provides a kind of connection or deeper bond between people. Whereas before, when I first came here, there was very little understanding. There are now more Vietnamese writings, there is more Vietnamese in public life, and Vietnamese cuisine is really doing very well in California. All that changes the way people interact with Vietnamese. That’s good.

But when I wrote East Eats West, I don’t mean just East changing West. It is obvious that East is changing West, but West has changed East for a long time as well and I acknowledged that in my writing. It is not one way.

Hoàng: What is the intention of the essay about your former teacher, Mr. K?

Lam: The writing of East Eats West has double meanings because the obvious face value of that title is “the East is changing the West.” But there is another subtitle to that, meaning that “I am an Easterner, and I also swallow the West” – meaning that I take in Western values and culture. So even as East is changing West, East is changed by West. That certainly applies to my autobiography. In that piece, I talked about how I was so hungry for language and culture that I changed so quickly when I first came here. It is me as an Easterner swallowing the West. I am not saying that I don’t have an influence in changing the West but that in order to change the West I also become a part of the West. I think that’s through education, through love of the English language, through interaction. And Mr. K was the first Westerner really that was kind and bonded with me. So it applies perfectly to what I wanted to say.

Hoàng: Have you moved on from the war experience?

Lam: Has anyone? [laughed]. I think most literature comes out of points of pain and conflicts. I have moved on in many ways and I haven’t in many other ways. In order to move on, one writes about those issues. But one can never really be fully separated from the past.  But there is a difference now between my relationship with that memory. When I was younger I was eaten by it, meaning I didn’t have control over those memories, I had a lot of emotional conflicts about those memories, what it was for me. But now as a writer, as someone who addresses those issues, I own those memories and they don’t own me.

Hoàng: Is “struggle” a strong word to describe “own the memory”?

Lam: No. To deal with sadness you have to struggle to overcome them. We all have our own way, and a lot of us fail, to overcome them and become angry and hateful and so on. I am just lucky that I found aesthetics expression through literature to address those points of trauma. And I moved on, yes, but they are always to be a part of me.

Hoàng: Did the struggle ever stop at some point?

Lam: I think you move on further and further from the initial point of pain, and you come to a different point of view of it as further away from it as you go. But I don’t think you’d ever be finished with the past. You get to the point where the past doesn’t own you. But the past is still a part of you.

Hoàng: In this globalization age, how would the experience of an 11-year old boy coming to the U.S. today be different than yours?

Lam: I think a boy coming to the U.S. now from Vietnam is a lot more informed about the U.S. than the 11-year old boy that I was. When I came here, people were not informed at all about America. I remember people were bringing rice seedlings. I remember the conversation was something along the line: “Why are you bringing rice seedlings to America?” and they say, “well, I didn’t know they have rice here, so I thought if they don’t I will grow rice when I get here.” And this is among adults. This is the age before globalization when we were completely ill-informed about what is going on in America. They didn’t know about food stamps or freeway, anything. But a kid from Vietnam now probably has access to the internet, TV, Skype and relatives. So they have a lot of things on their side, meaning that there is an existing diaspora – Little Sai Gon, Viet Kieu coming back from the U.S. to tell them what is going on in America, lots of people go back there and work – so he is no longer bỡ ngỡ, you know, he no longer has the cultural shock the way I would have had back then.

Hoàng: What are their challenges, then?

Lam: They are still the same, though, because it is an identity issue, when you move from one culture to the next, when you go from one set of values to the next. All these things, you gonna have to try to make sense of it all, and find a way to integrate your old values versus the new values that you are adding, find a balance or a center, or a sense of self in all this cultural mesh.

Hoàng: What is the relationship between language and personality?

Lam: Coming to the U.S. at 11 years old at an age when one is going through not just a tremendous shift in historical sense but also physiological sense, language is a very fascinating moment. For instance, I didn’t speak English at all when I came here and I came here at the same time that my voice started to break because I was going through puberty. You not only change inside but you also change outside because you move from one country and culture to the next, and then you’re speaking a completely different language. It is a very strange moment for me and I think it is a strange moment for a lot of kids who come over at that age because they have that weird magical feel to it. So for me, language not only changed me in the sense of out-look but it changed the way I perceived my own body. So for me, English was a marvelous and strange and tantalizing language.

I often tell the story of how my parents didn’t want me to speak English in the house but because I was so enamored by the language I couldn’t stop myself. My brother told me, he was joking but I didn’t know, he said that, “Mom and dad warned you not to speak so much English and now your voice broke and that’s why you sound like a duck.” For sometime, I really thought speaking English shattered my vocal cords. You are asking how language can change personality, I think for me, language really has an immediate and visceral effect.

When I speak French and Vietnamese, I am aware that there is a shift in my personality. I am more respectful and polite when I speak Vietnamese, and my body behavior is different. When I speak French, I use my hands more and my facial expression is different. There is a total shift because language comes with a whole cultural memory.

Hoàng: Have you seen Vietnamese people behaving differently when they speak Vietnamese and then switch to English?

Lam: I see that all the time. It is not just Vietnamese but any immigrant who is an owner of two or three different languages. Japanese especially, when you are a Japanese and fluent in Japanese, you speak to someone of higher ranking or an elderly with respect, you don’t just speak to them, you bow to them, physically.

Hoàng: What made it difficult to talk about your childhood?

Lam: I wrote a lot about my American experience but it is harder to reach back to the time before I spoke English to talk about growing up in Sa Đéc or Đà Lạt, or the temple visit, or all the magical and mysterious things that happened in another age. I felt for a long time that I didn’t have the power to go back to that era to talk about it. I had a hard time, for instance, thinking of just vocabulary alone, like “what do you call ô mai? What do you say about tamarind trees in the summer?” When I write in English and I think of American readers who are well-versed in American culture, I don’t think about ô mai or xí muội, or bò bía, stuffs like that. I think about when I first came and Mr. K taught me English and it was so awesome. I don’t think of the childhood with ô mai and xí muội. Only now that I started to write about it, I find that you have to master the language in order to go to a complete alien culture and render some kind of justice in that language. It is not just speak the language but understand the cultural life of both languages.

Hoàng: As a writer, what do you think makes a good memoir?

Lam: Many people think their story is interesting, but many people don’t know how to write. They just say, this is what happened to me, and this is what happened to me, and this is what happened to me. They have no way of framing the meaning of their life. They just think they went to war, they saw a lot of horrible things. In social, historical, logical way it may have that kind of interesting effect. But in terms of literature, you are talking about the literary sense of things not just information sense of things. A good memoir doesn’t just tell you what happened or why but the meaning of that experience in a larger context and connect the reader to the sadness but also to the historical moment of their own life. I think that is a profound memoir when it connects you to everything that happened in the world.

Hoàng: How about a report?

Lam: I would say the same criteria. A reporting piece is only interesting when it makes you sit back the say, “wow, that would easily happen to this and this”, or creates more connecting points. But reporting is limited by time and length. As a journalist for two decades, I can tell that it is not easy to be profound with a reporting piece because of the time pressure and length of the piece. But if you have a chance to write a 5,000-word reporting piece, the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly, that sort of magazines, still allow the space for a reporter to be poetic.

Hoàng: What kind of story would sell in this day of facebook, iphone and ipad?

Lam: [Laughed] I really don’t know. I think younger people are impatient with the long-flowing novel. On the other hand, people who are buying books are not young. So the question is: “do you cater to the new generation and lose the literary sense of books and writing?” Or “do you write simply because this is how it needs to be written?” I don’t chase after being lucrative, unfortunately, so I don’t know. One year they say if you write about vampires it is great. But now you cannot write about vampires because zombies are now the theme. Do you want to write a zombie story? Maybe if you have a good story, then why not. But I don’t chase after fads or trends so I don’t know.

Hoàng: Could you talk about beautiful moments of time and space and movements in your book?

Lam: There are moments that continue to inform or return to me. Because they keep coming back, I feel like I have to give meaning to them. Because I am moved by those memories or incidents, I feel that I have to find a way to render them into aesthetics expressions through language in order to make sense out of them. If I am not moved by the word I use, I doubt if the readers are moved either. Some of my criteria is that I have to be moved by the things I want to address.

Hoàng: What is home to you?

Lam: I mentioned in Perfume Dreams and East Eats West that home is portable for someone who is in touch with his soul. For me now, home is not a house so much as a sense of direction. As long as you are in connection with where you want to go and what you want to do, you should be comfortable wherever you are. It is both a physical place, like SF is home because that is where I made my home, but it is also a sense of movement which is: I want to write, I want to make a living writing, and I want to continue to write because it eases my soul. And that is both home.

Hoàng: Do you believe the U.S. will still be the land of promises and opportunities that immigrants can expect?

Lam: In many ways, it still is. There has been study that came out recently, that more than 50% of new companies are being formed by immigrants. It is amazing statistics if you think about the population of immigrants versus the native-born. So what is it about the new comers that still manage to see opportunities here that native-born only see foreclosures and unemployment? What is it for the new comers to come and see gold, and the rest of us are crying about budget cuts, decrepit schools and crime rates? Where does this optimism come from? I think in some way, immigration is part of that opportunity, that in fact, the land of promise can only be a land of promise if we continue to have new comers who come and view America with those optimistic eyes.

Hoàng: Vietnamese Americans have been doing well in American society for more than 30 years. What areas have the Vietnamese Americans not stepped foot on and without any achievement?

Lam: I would say Vietnamese have done well individually but many Vietnamese are not doing well at all. The recent new comers especially have suffered and struggled. There’s a study of Vietnamese who are late comers who really are hit by poverty on a level that is unexpected, but it does exist.

In terms of progress, I would say there are so many areas that the communities need to move and improve upon. Part of that will be to be able to form lobbying power the way, the model would be Cuban Americans that have an influence directly with Congress rather than protesting on the streets and then going home.

In terms of literature, it needs to have a more proactive way of encouraging arts and literature within its own community. The Jewish American communities put money away for foundations to give awards to great writings that address history regard to their own community, awards to recognize great works by individuals that bring pride to their own community. Very little of that kind of thinking is in Vietnamese community. They cry foul all the time about how they are misunderstood, but there is no formation of foundations that will pay for translation of works that are important to studies like boat people experience or trại cải tạo. All of this exists already in literature in Vietnamese language. But they think that is enough, it should be sold only in Little Sai Gon bookstores and that is enough. If you are willing to form grants or foundations for that kind of translation services, it will be a great service for scholars who want to study about boat people experience.

Hoàng: How about culturally, arts?

Lam: I see more Vietnamese doing films, which is encouraging. The unfortunate thing is that they have unimaginative plots and themes. They are very good at visual, but it is inadequate when it comes to script writing. So the story line is not alluring enough for me.

Birds of paradise flower

Hoàng: What are the processes in your mind as you move from Perfume Dreams to East Eats West and then Birds of Paradise?

Lam: When I wrote Perfume Dreams, what the French would call is cri de coeur, the cry of the heart, which is really a way of trying to make sense out of the horror of the boat people experience or after-war experience or the suffering of the Vietnamese people. Part of that has to do with the fact that I have survived too. Nothing happened to my family – we left even before the war actually ended. But I watched the horror of it unfolding on TV – boat people dying and so on. So it became something I feel I have to make sense out of – why do I go on to become a global citizen, why do people get stuck or some people drown in the ocean. I wanted to address that so Perfume Dreams has this kind of obligation, or moral obligation, if you will.

East Eats West is more of a cultural celebration because I watched as the world shifted from exclusively West to a kind of mix-match, hybrid society that I live in. That is a fun sociological way of dealing with happenings. It is more celebratory in tone.

Birds of Paradise, I would call it spiritual, because they’re written in a way of dealing with characters that are stuck between past and present and future, between trauma and new identity, and different people trying to make sense out of their place in the world. Part of that has to do with spiritual experience. I am not sure where I am going yet with the novel so it’s hard to say.

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Photo Courtesy from Lam

Andrew Lam is a syndicated writer and an editor with the Pacific News Service, a short story writer, and a commentator on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” He co-founded New America Media, an association of over 2000 ethnic media in America. His essays have appeared in newspapers across the country, including the New York Times, The LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Baltimore Sun, The Atlanta Journal, etc. He was featured in the documentary “My Journey Home,” which aired on PBS nationwide.

His book, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora has recently won the Pen American “Beyond the Margins” Award in 2006, and short-listed for “Asian American Literature Award.” Lam first short story collection, Birds of Paradise is due out in the Fall of 2012.  His latest book is East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, published in October 2010 and was listed  as “Top Ten Indies Books” by Shelf Unbound Magazine.

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Interview in English. A version of this interview was published in the Vien Dong Daily News. Online Vietnamese version here.

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