Friday, 14 April 2017 14:55

UA3411: On Being a Randomly Picked Asian

Commentary by Andrew Lam in San Francisco

In America, when a source of authority says it randomly singles you out, you should always be wary.

On Monday, video surfaced of a Vietnamese American, David Dao, being forcefully dragged from a United Airlines flight departing Chicago for Louisville, Kentucky. Dao, 69, had allegedly refused to voluntarily give up his seat on the overbooked flight. 

The video quickly went viral around the world, including in China, one of United’s largest markets, where it broke records for being the most widely shared video on social media. United stocks quickly plummeted, dropping 4 percent early Tuesday.

Many of the comments in China and elsewhere, meanwhile, questioned whether Dao, initially believed to be Chinese, was singled out for his ethnicity. His bleeding face is now the poster child for perceived racism in the friendly skies. 

“Reflecting on my three nightmare-like experiences with United,” Richard Liu, the CEO of popular online shopping platform JD.COM posted on the Chinese site Weibo. “I can say … that United is the worst airline, not one of the worst.”

Chinese media also drew attention to an online petition entitled #ChineseLivesMatter calling for a boycott of United Airlines. 

Reaction from the Asian American community has been equally swift and stinging. 

“There is no justification for inflicting violence on any American who poses no physical threat regardless of race, occupation, or other characteristics,” declared the advocacy group PIVOT, which works on civic engagement issues in the Vietnamese American community. “As an organization that aims to engage and empower Vietnamese Americans for a just and diverse America, PIVOT categorically condemns United Airlines and the Chicago Police for their violent actions.”

According to reports, Dao and his wife were among four passengers selected to involuntarily relinquish their seats to make room for United employees.  

In its response to the growing PR nightmare, despite a public apology, United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz added fuel to the growing fire after a leaked email was released showing Munoz referring to Dao as “disruptive” and “belligerent.” 

Few in the Asian American community are buying the airline’s defense. 

“How exactly were the four people selected to give up their seats on this flight? What is the method of ‘random’ selection?” asked blogger Phil Yu, better known as Angry Asian Man. “Do United computers come with a Random Passenger Removal Generator? Or does a flight attendant just take a quick glance around the plane and pick a poor sucker?”

In another online post, one gate agent wrote it is typically the agent that decides who to bump. “Usually, depending on the airline, it is determined based on the last passenger to check in for the flight.”

Reporting on the incident, Business Insider noted passengers can be “involuntarily denied boarding based on a number of factors.” These include “fare class of their tickets, frequent-flyer status, their itinerary, and when they checked in to the flight.”

Yet to be sure it is not all algorithm. 

Like others, Yu believes Dao was selected in part because United staff assumed that as an Asian he would be compliant. “If the ‘randomly selected’ passenger had been a blonde white lady, and she refused to give her seat, there's no way in seven hells that these cops would have dragged her ass out kicking, screaming and bloody,” Yu wrote. “Such indignities are apparently reserved for 69-year-old Asian physicians.”

He added, “Clearly, they were not counting on this guy to put up a fight.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Asians, in other words, are often seen as passive and law abiding. But it turns out that the 69-year-old Vietnamese American physician and grandfather was a fighter. And a protester.[/quote]

"I have to go home! I have to go home!" he was recorded as saying. "Just kill me. Just kill me."

Whatever the facts, clearly United failed to see the very real human and economic cost of treating a paying customer like a criminal

In addition, according to, United “had no right to remove Dao.” The story quotes aviation law expert Arthur Wolk, a Center City attorney who read the 45-page “contract of carriage.” 

Dao “absolutely” had the right to the seat, and this was not a case of “overbooking,” according to Wolk, “because all the passengers had seats. What happened to Dao was assault and battery.” 

Vietnamese Americans are making their opinions known on social media. 

“A dumb move compounded by the CEO's dumber move. A PR nightmare that even Kellyanne Conway can't blame on Hillary. United needs to grovel publicly, settle the lawsuit with the passenger … then maybe the public will forgive,” noted Oakland resident Kevin Nguyen on Facebook.  

“I am boycotting United for life! I think Asians and Asian Americans should, too ... China in particular should too, considering United sees China and the whole of Asia as its cash cow for the foreseeable future!” read another Facebook post by a Vietnamese American woman. Her voice was echoed by many others. 

“Totally inhumane & inexcusable,“ wrote Thuy Linh of San Jose. “I pray the victim will stay strong and take UAL to the bank.”

Neither Doctor Dao nor his wife are talking to the media at the moment. Surely he’s busy picking a team of talented lawyers, no random algorithm necessary.

Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. His latest book, Birds of Paradise Lost, was published March, 2013. This commentary has been republished with permission. 

Published in Commentary
Sunday, 12 February 2017 22:35

Is America Still A Nation of Immigrants?

Commentary by Andrew Lam in San Francisco

Dear Cousin,

What is it like to be an immigrant in America these days? Is it still worth coming, you ask, and is the American dream still possible?

Your questions gave me pause. Who from Vietnam, after all, would have thought to ask them a few years back? Didn’t the American dream, or rather the dream of coming to America, cause the movement of millions in our homeland, and stir the soul of many millions more? It breaks my heart then to hear that you might not come. It is to me the worst news yet about my adopted country.

Yet it’s undeniable. The nation of immigrants is turning its back on immigrants once more. The immigrant’s hold on American soil has become increasingly tenuous. Even citizens now face a barrage of hate speech and many are being attacked in a rising wave of hate crimes. In schools, white students scream “build the wall” at their classmates who are Mexicans or Muslims.

“Build the wall” has become a racist mantra chanted by many around the country against non-whites.

Cousin, have you heard the metaphor of the canary in the coal mine? When it stops singing, it means the oxygen has run out, providing a warning to all.

In America, and in the context of a free and open society, often the immigrant is that canary. In economic down times he is often the first to be blamed. And amid the ongoing US war against terrorism, he is fast becoming a scapegoat.

After the 2016 election that ushered in Donald Trump as President of the United States, many hate-crime related incidents occurred in which the President’s name was invoked by the perpetrators, as if to sanction the violence and verbal abuse.

In the name of protection and security, immigrants’ rights are being eroded as I write. Foreign students and workers tremble. I’ve seen an old South Asian man whose hands shook at the airport when he gave his green card to immigration officers, fearing sudden arrest and deportation. I know an undocumented college student at Berkeley — he was brought to the US when he was three years old — who now fakes his address on any application for fear of being deported.

‘I have my hopes’

Yet I have my hopes. Americans rallied at airports in protest when Trump signed an executive order to keep certain groups of people out of the country, including green card holders. The protest against the new tyranny is strong and ongoing. I have hope to that the damage Trump is creating both at home and abroad can be mitigated by his growing unpopularity. After all, he is dismantling international institutions that have been in place since World War II, potentially returning the world to a state of competing nations with hard borders, high tariffs, trade wars, and gun boat diplomacy, turning against the forces of globalization.

And worse, in turning against America’s liberal values and our identity as a nation of immigrant, we are losing our strength in diversity.

Over the years I find it beneficial to look at this country through two different lenses: America versus the United States. The United States is a sovereign nation with permanent interests that is currently waging a war on terrorism. And it will trample upon innocents in its path, be it at home or abroad, if need be, in order to win it. In the process, the newcomer to this country, one without a voice and resources, often becomes collateral damage.

America, on the other hand, has everything you and I ever dreamed of: transparency, freedom, democracy, opportunity, due process, fair play and the promise of progress. America is where you work hard and earn respect.

The two versions exist in a kind of complex dance. In good times, America leads. In bad times, America is forgotten and the United States dances alone. These days, I fear that to be a patriotic immigrant is to love the ideals of America despite what the United States is doing in the name of security.

While I understand the logic of permanent interests, if America is destroyed in the process, then what is the use? And as far as I am concerned the only good patriotism is a civilized one. Blind patriotism always leads to bloody ends. To be patriotic is to dare ask questions. Must rights be abused in the name of security? Is it truly the country’s interest to demonize its minorities and its newcomers?

Dear cousin, I hope I haven’t completely frightened you, but the situation requires honesty. To reach American shores these days is a much more difficult undertaking, with fewer ready-made promises on the horizon.

I still want you to make this difficult journey, but you must be prepared for the challenges ahead. And I’ll let you in on a secret about this American dream you spoke so fondly of: it is you who must renew it. Without you, who dream the American dream, the country is in danger of becoming old. Without your energy, we would weaken. Even if we don’t know it yet, we all desperately need to be reborn through your eyes.

So, is the American Dream still alive? No, cousin, not really. Not without you at the table. Not without you prospering. Not without you.

Andrew Lam is an editor at New America Media in San Francisco and the author of “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a collection of stories about Vietnamese refugees in San Francisco, “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” a book of essays on East-West relations, and a memoir, “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.” The letter above was originally written after 9/11 as an open letter to a relative who had worries about migrating to America.  

Published in Commentary
Tuesday, 27 September 2016 19:51

War Over “Authentic” Vietnamese Cuisine

by Andrew Lam in San Francisco

People take pride in the food they eat, and ethnic communities especially form and retain their identities around their traditional cuisines. What’s Italian without pasta? Or Thai without their Tom Yum Goong?

For the Vietnamese, it is, of course, pho soup, that delectable and aromatic noodle dish that has had Vietnamese fighting each other over how best to make it — northerners and southerners have their own interpretation — and pho now finds itself in a controversy over a video made by Bon Appétit featuring a white chef telling people how to enjoy the dish. 

At one end, there are those who bristle at a white man telling them how to eat their own food, claiming that Bon Appétit is practicing cultural appropriation. At the other end, there are those who speak of freedom of expression — freedom to eat and cook whatever they want: it’s a free a country, and it’s all protected by the First Amendment. [The Bon Appétit video has since been pulled].

My feeling on this is a little complicated. To even get to the issue of cultural appropriation, it is inevitable that one should ask first and foremost, “What is authentic?”

If you go for back far enough, everything is borrowed. Pasta makes a national dish, but it is a combination of noodle and tomato. Marco Polo, as legend has it, brought back the noodle from China, and the tomato that makes the sauce came back with the conquistadors who conquered South America.

Vietnamese cooking has been anything but authentic if you go back far enough. Vietnam had her hands in many pots, from India to France, from Thailand to China. The Banh Mi, which now dominates the sandwich industry in the United States, is a borrowed fare from the French baguette. Yet in Vietnam, hardly anyone thinks about France when they sit down and eat their favorite dish in the morning.

Indeed, appropriation and adaptations are the survival instincts of the Vietnamese who have to deal with a long and arduous history of being dominated and colonized by one powerful country after the next. Vietnamese language itself is an almagamation of Chinese, French, Khmer and an array of colliding local tribal dialects. The same can be said of its spirituality: Atop a traditional Vietnamese altar, a visitor will find various Buddhas, faded images of grandpa and grandma, and statues of Taoist saints. This combination of Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism known, as tam giao, is the result of efforts to integrate religious ideas that arrived in the country over the millennia. Ancestor worship is mixed with yearnings for Buddhist nirvana, while the temporal world is measured through the Taoist flow of life force known as the qi.

Then there is the story of Vietnam’s indigenous religion, Cao Dai, established in the mid-1920s, which goes so far as to integrate and reconcile the world’s major religions. In its cosmos it perceives Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Islam all as human efforts to worship and communicate with the one Supreme Being. It numbers Moses, Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur, Victor Hugo, Sun Yat-Sen, Jesus Christ, and the Vietnamese poet Trạng Trình among its many prophets and saints. Graham Greene, in his Vietnam novel "The Quiet American," called Cao Dai the “prophecy of planchette,” as its spiritualists receive messages of wisdom from the various saints in séances.

Little wonder that we would see a mixture in Vietnamese cuisine as well. In bò kho, or beef stew, to cite but one example, there’s beef, carrot, and tomato brought by the French, curry powder from India, cinnamon from Ceylon, star anise from China, and chilies, lemongrass, and fish sauce from Vietnam itself. If you feel like it, pour in a little red wine from Bordeaux and it will still work beautifully. Vietnamese cooking thrives on integrating new ingredients to achieve new balances. What is invention, after all, if not one part theft and two parts reinterpretation?

Pho, too, arguably the most authentic Vietnamese dish, didn’t come into being without the help of other civilizations. What’s almost certain is that it came from North Vietnam, specifically Hanoi, about a century ago. What is less certain is how. Seminars on the dish have scholars from all over the world arguing whether the word came from the French word feu (fire) -- as in the dish pot-au-feu -- or whether it descended from the word Fen -- Chinese for rice noodle. Star anise, native to southwest China, is used in combination with Vietnamese fish sauce to give it its distinct flavor, but French onion is also used to sweeten the broth. Cardamom comes from India but noodle is definitely Chinese. Yet in Vietnam, beef was rarely eaten until the French came in the late 1800s.

The nature of all creativity is to borrow and remake -- that is to say, transgression and appropriation. Some of today’s newly invented dishes are a marriage of various traditions, an add-on, an homage. The Chicago deep-dish pizza was once thin and simple from Naples. And if you haven’t tasted a Korean barbecue short-rib taco, popularly known as the Kogi, you must. Chased with chili salsa, kimchi and crushed sesame seeds, the Kogi is a daring invention that started with roaming trucks in Southern California but people lined the street waiting for their arrival. What is avant-garde today may very well become traditional fare tomorrow.

Having said all this, however, as a Vietnamese American, I confess to sharing that feeling of being slighted in seeing my own traditional dishes being “explained” by an “outsider.” Why? Because in the modern world, those who sell themselves off as experts while ignoring those who have been practicing their living culinary tradition for generations are committing the sin of omission. It is like having an intellectual panel on America’s diversity but the panelists are all white males. Or casting Matt Damon as the lead hero in films like The Great Wall, or God forbid, a white actress to play Mulan in the next Disney film, inserting whiteness at the center of a story when historically there was none. That insistence on being the center of someone else’s story is at once myopic and narcissistic. The lack of awareness or perhaps mere laziness of not reaching out to the other is jarring, if not damning, and that self-importance backfires in the age of social media and global consciousness.

I wonder: Would it be a lot of work for Bon Appétit to ask an array of Vietnamese American chefs known for cooking amazing pho to chime in on what makes a Vietnamese dish taste good and how to prepare it? Wouldn’t it be more wonderful if we see different interpretations of the dish but still give a nod to the living culinary culture of a people as practiced everyday?

In our world, free and full of creativity, you should have the right to make any dishes you like, and reinvent and resell it.

But at the same time, you shouldn’t be able to get away with it when you pretend to have expertise of others' cultures while ignoring the people who practice them. You should at the very least pay the proper homage, and be humble as one of the many practitioners in the tasting game -- and not claim yourself as its master.

Andrew Lam is an editor at New America Media and the author of “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a collection of stories about Vietnamese refugees in San Francisco, “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” a book of essays on East-West relations, and a memoir, “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.“ The above essay was originally published in Off the Menu: Asian America, a co-production between the Center for Asian American Media and KQED, featuring a one-hour PBS primetime special by award-winning filmmaker Grace Lee (American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs). 

Under arrangement with New America Media

Published in Arts & Culture

by Andrew Lam in San Francisco

If all politics are local, then candidate Hillary Clinton may very well need to speak a little Korean and Tagalog in order to win the 2016 presidential election. 

Why? In 2014 published a fascinating article with this headline, “Tagalog in California, Cherokee in Arkansas.” It is a survey of the languages spoken in each state.

Of great political interest is the most common language spoken other than English or Spanish. In Alaska it is Yupik, In Nevada it is Tagalog (spoken by Filipinos), while Vietnamese is the third most popular language in Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas. Korean fills that slot in Virginia and Georgia. 

Spanish, of course, is the second most common language spoken other than English in most states. It makes sense then that Clinton’s VP pick, Tim Kaine, made his acceptance speech for the Democratic Party’s nomination partly in Spanish. His language skill will surely come in very handy when he goes stomping in battleground states like Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. 

After all, getting Latinos, (along with African Americans) to come out and vote is an urgent and an absolute necessary affair.  “The growth among non-Hispanic white eligible voters has been slower than among racial or ethnic minorities in large part because they are overrepresented in deaths due to an aging population,” according to Pew Research Center. “By comparison, racial/ethnic minorities – who make up 31 percent of the electorate – accounted for 43 percent of new eligible voters born in the U.S. who turned 18.” Hispanic voters surged from 23.3 million since 2012 to 27.3 million in 2016, a 17 percent growth.  

Swing states

Yet in the swing states, where every vote counts, it would be a major mistake to not pay attention to the other minorities whose populations are growing very quickly. Korean voters in Virginia, Filipino voters in Nevada and Vietnamese voters in Oklahoma, for instance, though still relatively small groups in those states, can form a formidable voting bloc. 

According to Pew Research Center, Asian American eligible voters in the U.S. have increased 16 percent as well, that is, to 9.23 million in 2016. In Nevada, Filipinos make up more than half of the Asian American population, or 120,000, although many aren’t registered voters. A registration drive right now is not too late, and here’s a hint: Many read the Philippine News and Asian Journal, and they watch the Filipino Chanel’s popular bilingual news program “Balitang America,” which airs nationwide. 

Tim Kaine might want to get on that show, or better yet, Hillary Clinton might want to remind Filipino Americans of her record in keeping the South China Sea from falling completely into Chinese domination and that, as president, she would continue to keep it a priority. 

Slim margin

Should the Democratic campaign bother with an ethnic group, which, although growing fast, has such a low voter registration? Two words: slim margin. 

Think about it this way: In 2000, in that unforgettable and most controversial presidential election in modern U.S. history, George W. Bush won against Al Gore thanks to his 537-vote lead in Florida.

That razor-thin margin could have been turned around if the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed a recount and the fate of America might well have shifted away from wars, recession, debt, spilled blood and lost national treasure. 

So far, the Democrats have concentrated on black and Hispanic voters. Although it is true that blacks and Latinos make up formidable voting blocs and should be rallied for in every state, it is a strategic mistake for the Clinton-Kaine ticket to ignore potential sizable voting enclaves waiting in plain sight in each battleground state. 

Those swing states are Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. 

This is a challenge in terms of political organizing. If all politics is local, then all local politics may demand increasing outreach to ethnic media and to community organizations and their leaders. 

In Orange County, Calif., for over a decade now, no candidate has been able to afford ignoring Vietnamese- and Spanish-language media when running for public office. That is because the Vietnamese population in that county is 300,000--the largest not only in the U.S., but also outside of Vietnam. That’s a formidable force.                    

In Nevada, Filipinos have been moving steadily to Las Vegas and Reno. Initially, many were drawn there to work in hospitals, but over the last couple of decades others sought jobs in hotels, casinos and related service industries. Now they have become a potentially powerful swing vote. Although they make up less than 5 percent of the state’s population, they are the fastest-growing ethnic group there. 

Demographic shifts

Given that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are running neck-and-neck in several up-for-grabs states like Nevada and North Carolina, it would make sense for candidates to reach out beyond Latino and Spanish-speaking voters. 

When a state could swing by 500 votes, Koreans in North Carolina might be the very voting bloc that each candidate needs. Elsewhere, surprisingly in Oklahoma, the third most popular language spoken turns out to be Vietnamese. Also, in Arizona and New Mexico, not so surprisingly, the most populous language after English and Spanish is Navajo.

Clinton or Kaine could, for instance, give an exclusive interview to the Korea Daily or Korea Times, both of which are widely read among Koreans in Virginia and Georgia. Koreans have flocked to that state since Kia and Hyundai set up their factories there in recent years. They number over 100,000. And here’s a hint: The Korean church plays a major role in spurring voter registration and turnout. 

Trump, of course, wouldn’t bother with this kind of outreach. The GOP presidential candidate kicked Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos out of a primary-election rally for confronting him on his overt racism, and "The Donald" drives on being divisive, repeatedly playing the xenophobia card.

Demographic shifts are underway. After the 2020 Census, the map of America will turn bluer than ever before, as more minorities register to vote. But for now, in the age of slim margins, when this historic election could result in outrageous fortunes, one wonders if the Democrats are doing all they can to turn beige states to blue. Speaking a little Tagalog and Vietnamese might help.

Published in partnership with New America Media

Published in Other Regions

by Andrew Lam (@andrewqlam) in San Francisco

My mother is 82 and suffering from dementia, but the moment she heard that I was going to give a speech to Vietnamese youth in Canada, she sort of regained her full faculties and perked up.

Mind you, Mama didn’t congratulate me or say that she was proud. No, that would be unbecoming of her Vietnamese tiger-motherhood. Instead, she offered a warning: “Listen,” she said, “no matter what you tell them, don’t you dare encourage them to become a starving writer.”

“Tell them,” Mama said, “it’s never too late to study for ‘ElmerCAT’ and become a doctor.” 

You see, even with dementia, my mother can’t forget my so-called betrayal a quarter of a century ago.

Like any Asian immigrant kid, I was obedient. I got good grades in high school and I got into Berkeley.

I was a pre-med student, majoring in biochemistry. I worked in a cancer research laboratory. I was going to be a doctor, as my parents wanted. I did everything that I was told to do.

But somewhere along that seemingly assured academic trajectory, life, happened. Or to be more precise: love happened.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]My first heartbreak took place when I was 11 years old, a refugee boy standing in a refugee camp in Guam, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, listening to the BBC describe the fall of Saigon.[/quote]

My freshman year, I fell hopelessly in love. My new love stole me away from my familial sense of duty. But then, soon after graduation, it was all over. And my heart shattered.

While working at the laboratory on campus I took to writing, in part, in order to grieve. In the daytime I killed mice. At night I gave in to heartbreak. I typed and typed. I bled myself into words.

One day I wrote something along the lines of this passage: “When one loses someone whom he loves very much, with whom he shares a private life, a private language, a private world, a routine – he loses an entire country. He becomes, in fact, an exile.”

And upon reading it again sometime later, I broke down and wept.

I was not weeping for the broken romance, though. I was weeping because it suddenly dawned on me that my heart had been broken before.

First Heartbreak

My first heartbreak took place when I was 11 years old, a refugee boy standing in a refugee camp in Guam, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, listening to the BBC describe the fall of Saigon – communist tanks rolling into the city, the Independence Palace ransacked, panic in the streets, a city veiled in smoke, refugees setting out into the open sea.

My family and I left Vietnam just when the war ended. We lost everything when we came to America. We started over from the bottom. There was a period in which we lived as impoverished exiles, sharing an apartment with two other Vietnamese refugee families at the end of Mission Street, where San Francisco ended and the working-class neighbourhood of Daly City began.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]For a long time in America I had pretended all that sadness didn't exist. I blocked it out. I changed my name. I spoke no Vietnamese. I fancied myself American born.[/quote]

We struggled for some time to make it to the middle class. There was a time when we were wrecked with losses and longings.

My sadness had opened a trapdoor to the past. I remember a city made of khaki-green tents flapping in the wind, the bulldozed ground under my sandaled feet, the long lines for food under a punishing sun. A way of life stolen, a people scattered.

For a long time in America I had pretended all that sadness didn't exist. I blocked it out. I changed my name. I spoke no Vietnamese. I fancied myself American born.

I wanted to forget all the sadness of Vietnam because as a teenager I couldn’t deal with such an epic loss. How to bear the burden of a history of exile? What to do with thousands of others’ loss in the South China Sea when your family barely survived as working class living in a crowded apartment?

In my teenage years I went glibly on with my American life, went to Berkeley, and I barely looked back.

But as I wrote, it all came flooding back – and I hungered for memories.

No longer did I write about the broken romance. Instead I wrote about a broken people, about people who lost family members escaping an oppressive regime, people languishing in refugee camps, people who drowned in the South China Sea, people struggling to rebuild their lives in the new country.

For the first time in my adult life I began to grieve for my lost homeland, for a defeated people. And I began to recognize that the personal and the historical are but brooks and rivers to the sea. I saw that in order to rise above one’s own biographical limitations one needs to do something beyond oneself – and that the way out of one’s own self-resenting morass, out of one’s own sadness and confusion, was not self pity, but compassion for others.

That is to say, I entered college with one particular set of blueprints and left it with a totally different sense of direction, one that for the first time in my life was something of my own choosing. I didn’t do it while being a student. I did it afterward: I started thinking for myself and critically. And I dropped the test tubes and Mama’s ‘ElmerCAT’. I kept the proverbial pen, as it were.

I struggled. I became a writer and journalist. Slowly, I found my way to the larger world.

Journey Home

Over the last 23 years, I have followed the story of Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora closely.

I went to refugee camps in Hong Kong in 1990, and I reported from inside detention centres. I wrote about people who committed suicide when they faced repatriation back to Vietnam in the early ’90s.

I then went back to Vietnam to report on the thaw of the cold war in 1991 and how the country was slowly turning capitalistic. I went to Cambodia to report on the Khmer Rouge giving up arms and joining the Hun Sen government, and on the corruption of the United Nation’s faulty implementation of the election.

I’ve been back to Vietnam and Southeast Asia many times since then. And each time, it’s a new world.

Some years ago, for instance, I went back to Vietnam to participate in a PBS documentary called My Journey Home, and I did the touristy thing: I went to the Cu Chi Tunnel, in Tay Ninh province, bordering Cambodia. It is a complex underground labyrinth in which the Viet Cong hid during the war many years ago.

There were several American vets in their late 60s there – they fought in Vietnam and lost friends. They were back for the first time, and very emotional.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][H]ere was a young woman, born after the war ended. She looked at a tunnel that was the headquarters of the Vietcong, and what did she see? The Magic Kingdom.[/quote]

A couple of them cried after they emerged from that visit. One Vietnam vet wept and said that, during the war, he “spent a long time looking for this place and lost friends doing the same.”

Yet the young Vietnamese tour guide, born after the war ended, did not see the past: she had a dream for a cosmopolitan future.

She told me that it was tourism that forced the Vietnamese to dig up the old hideouts.

She crawled through the same tunnel with foreigners routinely, but she emerged with different ideas. Her head is filled with images of the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, two-tiered freeways and Hollywood.

“I have many friends over there now,” she said, her eyes dreamy, reflecting the collective desire of Vietnamese youth. “They invite me to come. I’m saving money for this amazing trip.” If she could, she told me, she would go and study in America.

So there I was, standing at the mouth of the tunnel, and thinking, in the end, there may never be a final conclusion about that war.

There’s the version that we Vietnamese in the diaspora tell, in which the date marks the day we lost a country.

There are plenty of stories of Vietnamese fleeing from oppression as boat people. Tens of thousands more were sent to reeducation camps.

There are stories of young men fleeing from a war in Cambodia, in which the Vietnamese were the imperialists.

And there are, of course, the stories of the American veterans coming back to look at their losses and to make peace with the past.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The more mature response to one’s tragedy is not hatred, nor resentment, but the spiritual resilience with which one can, again and again, struggle to transcend one’s own biographical limitations.[/quote]

But here was a young woman, born after the war ended. She looked at a tunnel that was the headquarters of the Vietcong, and what did she see? The Magic Kingdom. The Cu Chi tunnel leads some to the past, surely, but for her, it may well lead to the future.


The Vietnam War was a war with so many sides, and it’s complicated by multiple points of view. In that sense when we talk about Vietnam, we should not simplify, but expand, toward the multitudes, so much so that it becomes the story of people, of human beings rather than some purported metaphor for tragedy.

James Baldwin’s riddle is rhetorical, after all, when he asked in one piercing essay, “Which of us has overcome his past?” He promptly answered with another: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”

With due respect, one can chase Baldwin’s grim discernment with N. Scott Momaday’s astute counsel: “Anything is bearable as long as you can make a story out of it.”

The more mature response to one’s tragedy is not hatred, nor resentment, but the spiritual resilience with which one can, again and again, struggle to transcend one’s own biographical limitations. History is trapped in me, indeed, but history is also mine to work out, to disseminate, to discern and appropriate, and to finally transform into aesthetic self-expression.

These days my parents are okay with me being a writer. They are, in fact, very proud. Every time I’d win an award for journalism or fiction, I’d give it to them to put on the mantel of their living room.

My own story is that, through the years, I made my own peace with the past. We lost a great deal, but we survived and we prospered and we thrived, after all.

And though I once lost a country, and I’ve been homeless, and stateless, lost friends and relatives due to war and the subsequent exodus, and though I’ve had my heart broken, I am profoundly grateful and blessed.

Instead of running away from the past, I own it. That is, I learned to bear witness to a constantly shifting world, and found my way in life. The refugee child from a defeated war, through the act of storytelling, slowly found his way to self-liberation.

Andrew Lam first delivered this speech in Ottawa to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Black April Day at an event, "A Journey to Remember: from Vietnam to North America", presented by the Vietnamese Canadian Community of Ottawa and the Vietnamese Canadian Federation. This is a slightly edited and condensed version of the speech.

Lam is an editor with New America Media and the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. His latest book, Birds of Paradise Lost, was published March 2013.

Published in History
Wednesday, 20 August 2014 15:18

In Asia, Cheating to the Test

by Andrew Lam (@andrewqlam) in San Francisco

CNN recently reported that college applications from Chinese foreign students to the US sounded exactly the same. 

In fact, one admission officer read a phrase in one of the applications that sent up red flags: “Insert girl’s name here.” The number of Chinese students in the United States has reached 235,597 as of 2013 but admissions officers said that “as many as one in 10 applications to U.S. colleges by Chinese students may include fraudulent material, including phony essays and high-school transcripts.”

Cheating is a worldwide phenomenon, and is a challenge even here in the United States, but in Asia it has reached near-crisis levels. Last year, riots broke out when teachers at a school in Zhongxiang, in China’s Hubei province tried to stop students from cheating. Parents fought police when they found out their children were prevented from cheating. It’s only fair that their children should cheat, they reasoned, since everyone else was cheating as well. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]When you take into account that two out of three Asians in America were born overseas, it's no wonder that even the most diligent Asian students feel more comfortable in science classes than in English literature, where raising your hand to offer opinions is not only encouraged but counts toward the final grade.[/quote]

Can Asians think?

To do well on tests is the end point, not necessarily to learn. So much so that some years ago Kishore Mahbubani, a career diplomat from Singapore, posed this question in the title of his book,"Can Asians Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West.” A rhetorical title surely since Asia, from Confucius down to dissident artist Ai Wei Wei (the creator of the Bird’s Nest in Beijing) to writer Haruki Murakami, abounds with philosophers, artists and thinkers. But Mahbubani does have a point: The majority of the population tends to fall into conformity and while a few are winning prestigious literary and artistic awards, the majority measures success via material gains and it begins with doing well on tests, ethical considerations be damned. 

Is this a uniquely Asian problem? Intellectual laziness is a major issue here in the United States too, and students buy homework online to avoid thinking the way they download music from iTunes. But America still values those who think outside the box, originality. We immortalized Steve Jobs for his inventions. We mourn comedian and actor Robin Williams’ passing for his unique, brilliant, and fierce brand of humor. Williams invents words without thinking, jokes fall out of his lips unrehearsed and we all roar in laughter, awed by his inventiveness. The inventor, the loudmouth, the class clown, the individual with a vision, the maverick – these are encouraged still in America. 

I learned to say “I disagree” to my father in English when I first came here at age 11 from Vietnam at the family table. In Vietnamese, it would have sounded harsh and unfilial (unbecoming of a filial son), and unthinkable. But the “I” fell off my tongue much easier in English. It allowed me to separate myself from the clan, the collective. It allowed me to think for myself. America encourages rebellion against the collective: follow your dreams. 

Alas, back in Asia the ego is still by and large suppressed. The self exists in the context of families and clans. It is submerged in the service of shared values and ritualized language. A student raising his hand to disagree with a teacher would make a rare sight, indeed, in Vietnam, and may in fact be seen as a direct challenge to authorities. You are measured by how well you do on tests, end of point. 


A professor friend of mine teaches Asian American studies at a college here in the Bay Area. Every semester she catches her students cheating, mostly in the form of plagiarism. “I said to the class, ‘three of you plagiarized,’” she once told me. “’But I’ll be nice for once. Just rewrite and slide the new midterm essay under my office and I won’t flunk you.’” Three days later, she found 11 new essays under her door upon the deadline. “A lot of them are foreign students or immigrant kids, and they are not confident with their own voice.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The inventor, the loudmouth, the class clown, the individual with a vision, the maverick – these are encouraged still in America. [/quote]

When you take into account that two out of three Asians in America were born overseas, it's no wonder that even the most diligent Asian students feel more comfortable in science classes than in English literature, where raising your hand to offer opinions is not only encouraged but counts toward the final grade.

Asia has become an economic powerhouse in the 21st century. China’s economy will soon surpass those of the United States and Europe. Friends of mine in East Asia are quite proud of this fact. But to them, I often ask, “What does all that mean?” Materialism, after all, is not an ideology, it’s selfishness writ large. To create a viable civilization it starts with clear moral values regarding pedagogy, a shared sense of purpose, and a critical mass of thinkers and inventors. That is, it usually takes a lot of thinking and imagining and re-inventing for a civilization to have its sphere of influence emanating beyond its borders. 

And my suspicion is that it usually starts in the classroom. 

Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and author of the "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres." His latest book is "Birds of Paradise Lost," a short story collection, was published in 2013 and won a Pen/Josephine Miles Literary Award in 2014.

Republished with permission.

Published in China

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