Daughter from Danang | Article

Living in Two Cultures

From the Collection: The Asian American and Pacific Islander Experience
Copy links Dismiss https://www.1art.vn/wgbh/americanexperience/features/daughter-living-two-cultures/
Andrew Lam is a California-based journalist, short story writer, & National Public Radio commentator. In this interview, he shares his thoughts on Vietnam & America.

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Andrew Lam as a child

Much has changed a quarter of a century later, in a globalized & post-Cold War world...

Today I can email my cousin in Vietnam và I can send him money via a bank. I vì chưng not have to lớn hide it in a tube of toothpaste. Và movement back & forth between Vietnam và the U.S. Is the norm after normalization. Vietnamese newspapers in the States freely advertise flights lớn Vietnam và phone cards so you can call home to talk to your grandmother anytime you like. If we all considered ourselves exiles in the late 70s, only a small percentage vì so now. Now the picture of the Vietnamese community in the United States is a very diverse one. There are still a staunchly anti-communist faction, especially those who suffered life in re-education camps and whose family members were killed by the Hanoi government. But there are also foreign exchange students, tourists from Vietnam, American-born Vietnamese who have no memories of the war, people who go back và forth, & even those who went back khổng lồ live and work in their homeland, và so on. It"s estimated that more than 200,000 Vietnamese living abroad return to lớn Vietnam every year during Tet. I myself have gone back eight times as a journalist. I am more familiar with Saigon than Los Angeles.

America, too, has changed dramatically. Years ago, for instance, it was impossible khổng lồ find fish sauce, the prime element of Vietnamese cooking. Now you can go lớn Safeway & get it. Vietnamese và other Asian populations in California have indelibly changed its cultural landscape. America is more accepting of Asian cultures than ever before. When the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat khô hanh spoke at Berkeley last year, there was standing room only, và most of the people who attended were trắng Americans. Buddhism is on the rise here & the longing for the Far East is growing. Witness the number of Asian directors now working in Hollywood. What was once considered private or ethnic culture is moving into the public sphere... I was interviewed on NPR when Campbell soup decided lớn make Vietnamese pho -- beef and noodle soup. "How did you feel?" The interviewer asked. "Well," I said, "it seems inevitable. Think of pizza and burritos. Grandma still makes it best, but in America, if it"s good, it"s appropriated và mass produced." If I associated pho with a particular geography, I have lớn change my mind. It"s an age of open borders & perceptions are shifting very quickly.

As a journalist, what is your perspective on Vietnamese-American community issues?There are several issues that the community is struggling with. There"s the language problem. The older generation speaks Vietnamese và the younger English. This is particularly problematic when a person from the older generation speaks no English và the younger person speaks no Vietnamese. How can you communicate? There is a communication gap. Many books written by Vietnamese in the United States are written in Vietnamese, but a generation of Vietnamese born in the United States can not access them. Many turn to libraries as a way lớn find out about their own history. But books in libraries don"t address the South Vietnamese experience. The South Vietnamese are losers in history and very little is devoted khổng lồ their plight. North Vietnamese have the upper hand. Hanoi rewrites history và that history is now being accessed in the U.S. I met several Vietnamese American kids who asked me to lớn tell them how they got here. "Don"t your parents tell you?" I said. & they said: "No. All they said is that we lost a war and that"s why we"re here. I want to know more." và they should know more. The responsibility of the older generation is khổng lồ translate or have their works và testimonies, i.e.. Life in re-education camps, boat peoples" experiences, adjustment to American life -- translated so that it"s accessible khổng lồ the new generation.

The other issue is the question all diasporas tend to lớn ask: how khổng lồ sustain a community over time? There are several diasporas that the Vietnamese community can learn from: the Chinese, the Jewish, the Indian. These have been in existence much longer & can provide models for fledgling ones.

What are some of the areas of difference between Vietnamese & American cultures?I think Americans are fond of saying "I love you." Vietnamese are not. Vietnamese don"t share words of affections very easily. In fact, it was unusual lớn see in Daughter from Danang the mother being overly affectionate và saying "I love you" repeatedly. My mother who loves me dearly never says "I love you" in such a way.

It"s more typical for Vietnamese to demonstrate affections through gestures. When I went trang chủ to visit my parents, my mother would fry a fish as it"s my favorite dish. & to show her I love her I would have to eat the whole fish. When I won a journalism award a few years ago, my father was very proud. But he couldn"t find the words in Vietnamese lớn say this so finally he shook my hand (which in itself was very unusual) và said in English: "I"m very proud of you, son." It was the first time I heard him saying something like this và it was in English. In some way, English is used when Vietnamese words fail us. & they tend lớn be words like proud or love.

Many American-born Vietnamese have complained to lớn me that their parents don"t love them. "They never say "I love you" khổng lồ me," they"d say. But they don"t understand: it"s not the standard practice in Vietnam. You have to read affection through gestures and actions.

When I first came to lớn the United States, I also failed khổng lồ look at teachers in the eyes. In Vietnam it"s a sign of disrespect when you look at someone in the eyes. In the United States you are shifty if you don"t look at people in the eyes. Even now I tend lớn shift my focus when I look at someone too long in the eyes. I feel as if I am invading their privacy. Strange but true.


What cultural differences have caused the most difficulty for Vietnamese immigrants lớn the U.S.?Vietnamese culture puts a strong emphasis on being part of the We. Your individualism is below the need of the many. This is how families survived traditionally. Children are duty-bound lớn take care of their families. When I went to lớn school at Berkeley, more than half of the Vietnamese student population majored in computer science and electrical engineering. Many told me they didn"t want to. It was competitive & difficult. A few wanted to be artists or architects and so on, but their parents were poor or were still in Vietnam. They needed to lớn find a solid footing in America in order to lớn help out the rest of the family.

America, on the other hand, tells you lớn look out for number 1. It tells you lớn follow your dream, to have individual ambition. Take care of yourself first. Go on a quest. The Vietnamese American conflict is one where he has khổng lồ negotiate between his own needs & dreams with that of his family.

I myself was lucky. My parents found jobs & moved us khổng lồ the suburbs when I was in high school. I didn"t have lớn make money to send trang chủ to someone in Vietnam. I was the youngest in the family. There were no big demands on me. I was không tính tiền to decide what to bởi vì with my life. But if my parents had been stuck behind in Vietnam và living in the New Economic Zone, I would have been an electrical engineer by now.

In some way, for Asian immigrants, lớn learn to lớn negotiate between the I & the We is the most important lesson to learn, a skill much needed in order lớn appease khổng lồ both cultures.

Immigrants always face the challenge of how much khổng lồ assimilate to American culture and how much of their native culture to lớn keep. How has this played out in the Vietnamese American community?I think in many ways normalization with Vietnam has helped boost a revival of Vietnamese culture dramatically. I know young Vietnamese Americans who went back, or visited for the first time, và came back speaking Vietnamese whereas they didn"t speak a word before. These totally Americanized kids suddenly feel connected khổng lồ another place và it gives them an edge over their American counterparts.

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I think all Americans would love to lớn have another country connected to lớn their history. Ireland, Italy, China, whatever. To lớn have a hyphen connected to lớn your identity makes you feel cosmopolitan và sophisticated, a bridge to some other place. You have something that you can điện thoại tư vấn your own. This is a recent phenomenon. Before the idea of a melting pot was still the aim, at least by the institutions. But now it"s chic lớn be ethnic, khổng lồ speak another language, to feel connected lớn another culture, to lớn another set of values, to lớn a sensibility. It"s a post-modern age where options are far more available than they were khổng lồ someone who lived in America in the mid-20th century. & far more individualistic. You pick và choose. Stay traditional as you want or be as modern as you want. Options are available at your beck and call.

Besides, the pressure to assimilate is no longer as heavy as before. If anything, all Americans are learning to assimilate to new cultures that keep showing up at the American shores. In San Francisco, blacks, hispanics, whites, all know how lớn use chopsticks. Go lớn Bolsa in Orange County and see non Vietnamese eating pho and buying Vietnamese groceries. My mother complains that I speak to lớn much English in the house, but as the most conservative thành viên of our family she, too, has changed. She goes to the gym, does aerobics. She prays lớn Buddha, but bets on football. I don"t watch football, but she"s fanatic. So who"s more American than whom?

Is it true that one of the areas of cultural divergence is the relationship with authorities such as police?Yes, that"s true. The problem is that in Vietnam you cannot trust the authorities. In dictatorial countries, there"s no good news when the police come calling. You function best when the authorities leave you alone. Và worse, in poor countries lượt thích Vietnam, petty corruption is a daily event. A cop might stop you & say that you have violated some traffic law. What he means is: "Give me five dollars for breakfast and I"ll let you go." The idea that the authorities are on your side is such a novelty that it does not occur to lớn the newly arrived refugee or immigrant khổng lồ the United States. If you gọi the police they might arrest you instead of the criminal. There"s always a risk as everything could be deemed illegal in Vietnam (and nothing is). Everything can be settled with grease money.

It takes a while to lớn learn khổng lồ live in a civil society. It takes a while to have the idea that the police work for you sink in. At least that"s the idea. In some neighborhoods, the inner city, for example, that may not be true. Also, many Vietnamese are afraid to fill out forms. Census or otherwise. They have this fear that the government will know everything about them and will use the information against them. Và even in the United States, given the post 9-11 scenario, there is some valid justification for that fear.

Another is in the difference in health và mental health issues?There"s a big difference. You must understand that traditional Vietnamese are Confucian bound. We worship ancestors. We light incense và pray khổng lồ Grandpas & Grandmas long dead. That is khổng lồ say, we talk lớn ghosts. Once I worked as an interpreter and there was a case where a Vietnamese woman was suffering from depression and told the psychologist that she kept seeing her dead husband. He thought she was having some kind of disorder. But I told him it"s actually typical. Mind you, I was stepping out of bounds as an interpreter, but I couldn"t help myself. My grandmother, when she was alive, saw her dead husband, in dreams, or late at night sitting in his old chair for a brief moment, and there was nothing wrong with her. Practically all old people talk lượt thích that lady. It was a way for her to say she mourns her losses. It took a while, but I think the American psychologist came around. They have to: they can"t put an entire population in the insane asylum, can they?

The other classic example in terms of health problems is the one that I"m sure that"s well recorded in medical school. A little Vietnamese boy showed up in school with red marks on his back. "Who did this to you?" the teacher asked. "My father," he answered. His father was immediately arrested. Having no idea how khổng lồ explain what he did, his English limited, và lacking money to lớn hire a lawyer, he ended up serving time in jail. He was so frustrated he hung himself. What he did was a typical thing: Vietnamese practice cao gio -- a kind of therapeutic mát xa for people who come down with a cold. They scrape the skin on your back with a spoon or a coin, using an ointment. He wasn"t abusing his child. He was helping him, but nobody believed the man.

Had the U.S. Prepared at all for addressing any "culture shock" that the airlifted Vietnamese children might have experienced?I think there was an assumption on the part of the Americans who wanted to lớn adopt those Vietnamese children. That they will assimilate and become Americans. That they will forget Vietnam. That their personal history is not as important as the new reality in which they found themselves. What they were not prepared for is the hunger of memories. Many of those babies may adjust well to lớn America as adults but they also long for their Vietnamese past. They want lớn know where they come from, who are their relatives, & how can they learn to lớn connect lớn that past. They will always look, they will always search, they will never be satisfied until they have all the fragments of their life put together. It"s an inevitable human impulse.

What parts of Vietnamese culture vì you see thriving in Vietnamese-American communities?The wedding is the biggest event in Vietnamese American community. It"s the time where people dress up, meet, exchange information và show off their children, meet new people, & so on. Vietnamese in the U.S. Live for weddings and a typical wedding has about 300 people at the reception. Five hundred people came to lớn my brother"s wedding and it"s not the biggest. People invite themselves. They want to come.

Vietnamese newspapers, television shows và magazines are thriving. So much so that the San Jose Mercury News has a Vietnamese language weekly. Vietnamese read quite a bit và they thirst for information regarding Vietnam. Go to lớn any Vietnamese restaurants in the cất cánh Area and you"ll see three or four give-away newspapers full of news on Vietnam.

Vietnamese love their Vietnamese singers. Some Vietnamese American singers make quite a bit of money singing in Vietnamese communities in Los Angeles, San Jose, San Diego, Dallas, Houston, New York. Tickets can go as high as $40 a pop.

Food is thriving. Vietnamese restaurants are packed. I know a Ph.D. Student, an American-born Vietnamese. She speaks very little Vietnamese & is a feminist and a vegan. But she has a dark confession: she eats pho soup. Sometimes she can"t help herself. She"s got to have that beef broth

In a newspaper article, Heidi Bub"s adoptive mother, Ann Neville, dismissed the importance of cultural differences, saying, "...we"re all part of the human race..." bởi vì you agree?I think we are all part of the human race, but differences will always remain. That"s what makes the human race interesting. If everything is merged all you get is a bland, uninteresting picture. It"s easy to dismiss other cultures when yours is the dominant one. It"s easy to lớn dismiss other sensibilities when you assume yours is the only one that"s important, & that it"s the only one that matters. We"re all part of the human race, but we are different by degree -- & that difference will never go away.

In the film, Heidi rejects her brother"s request for financial help. Is Heidi"s response personal or cultural?It"s expected of you lớn help your family out, no matter what culture you"re from. In the Vietnamese case, it"s even more so considering that those who left for the U.S. Are in general far more wealthy than those they left behind. An average income in Vietnam is around 400 dollars a year. A Vietnamese American coming home for the first time will always save a few hundred if not a few thousand dollars khổng lồ give lớn his family & relatives. For him khổng lồ leave Vietnam in the first place the family had to lớn sacrifice quite a bit -- gold, land, dollars -- to lớn purchase a seat on a boat for him to lớn escape. He owes them. Many Vietnamese living overseas become an anchor person — someone who will help the rest back home when they make it abroad.

Heidi doesn"t understand that tradition or that kind of arrangement at all, having been raised in an American family. And her Vietnamese family didn"t understand that she barely knew them. That, in essence, she was a stranger, not someone who was raised by them và shared their belief system. But I think Heidi was also overwhelmed by the needs of her family and though she didn"t say it, she herself is not wealthy, or so that was my impression when I watched that movie. She held on lớn her fantasy of being reunited with her original family without being mở cửa to the possibility that it"s not all rosy, that they have fantasies of their own.

Heidi did not experience much family closeness growing up. In Vietnam, she was amazed at the love và unity her family there showed. What are the ties that bind a Vietnamese family together?Love và a shared belief system and in many ways poverty. You don"t leave at 18 just because you reach 18. You live with your family until you"re married and even then you might not have enough money to lớn buy a house for yourself và your spouse. So you create a three-generational family and to vày so you must learn to suppress your individualism. You cannot get everything you want because you have to tóm tắt resources lớn survive. You learn to lớn live well together and you learn lớn suppress your own desire. You learn lớn sacrifice a lot khổng lồ live in harmony with a large family. But in return, what you get is a kind of insularity that many Americans don"t have. You know you"ll never be alone. You know that you will be taken care of no matter what. You make that kind of promise lớn each other. You make that kind of promise to your ancestors" spirit. When you break away from all that, you are seen as selfish or unfilial, and of course, anti-Confucian.

Is it true that opening a gift in front of the giver is considered rude in Vietnam? Does this explain Kim and Vinh"s awkwardness in the film about Heidi"s gifts?I suppose it might be rude, but I"m also very Americanized và my family and I mở cửa Christmas gifts in front of each other all the time. But it"s true, traditionally you don"t mở cửa it in front of the person who gives it to lớn you, though you can ask for permission to mở cửa it. I don"t" know if Kimand Vinh"s awkwardness came from that or rather that they had never received gifts from America before và they were simply awed by the experience. I was, when I was a child in Vietnam & received my first Sears catalog gift from an uncle in the U.S. It was lượt thích a miracle. The gift wrap was so beautiful. & the smell of my new pair of jeans was out of this world.

Toward the kết thúc of her stay in Danang, Heidi says, "this is not what I had pictured." Was there a way to lớn prepare her for her experience?Hers is not a typical Vietnamese reaction. Vietnamese Americans gossip among themselves & prepare each other for the "shock" of returning. The heat, the mosquitoes, the smell, the needy relatives. You come back with a certain màn chơi of cynicism built in. But Heidi, being so disconnected from the community experience, did not have any of that. I think Tran Tuong Nhu, the journalist và interpreter, should have prepared her for it instead of just teaching her "I love you" in Vietnamese. Nhu should have been more savvy as lớn what happens to lớn the naive returnees.

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Do you think Vietnamese Americans might have a different response to the film than non-Vietnamese Americans?I can"t say for sure. In some ways Heidi is a non-Vietnamese American with a Vietnamese American dream. Non-Vietnamese Americans can watch her experience unfold & say: yup, I would feel that way too if I were her. I would feel overwhelmed. I would probably run out và look for a McDonald"s and get away from the heat. But a Vietnamese American who watches the film might say she should have known better. She should have prepared herself. Poor naive woman. What bởi vì you expect when you go khổng lồ a Third World country that is yearning for a better life. Of course, they would have seen you as a life saver in the middle of a turbulent sea. Between Heidi và her birth family is a gap and it needs lớn be filled with stories: stories that Heidi needs khổng lồ tell & stories that her mother & sisters and brother need khổng lồ tell. They need lớn bridge that gap before they can make familial demands on one another.