Andrew Lam: just. wow.

Okay, so I never knew there was someone like him out there. (In Viet, I’d call him chu, which means Uncle, so I’ll do that here) Uncle Andrew has basically become my writing idol. (I’ve lots, but he’s the one for english) It’s so cool, his story, and HE’s cool, representing the Viet generation over here and sharing the story that is not told often enough. Here’s something from PBS’s American Experience:

Vietnamese restaurants in the Bay 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 and 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…” Do 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 dismiss other sensibilities when you assume yours is the only one that’s important, and that it’s the only one that matters. We’re all part of the human race, but we are different by degree — and 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 to 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 to give to his family and relatives. For him to leave Vietnam in the first place the family had to sacrifice quite a bit — gold, land, dollars — to purchase a seat on a boat for him to 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 and 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 to her fantasy of being reunited with her original family without being open 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 and unity her family there showed. What are the ties that bind a Vietnamese family together?

Love and 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 buy a house for yourself and your spouse. So you create a three-generational family and to do so you must learn to suppress your individualism. You cannot get everything you want because you have to share resources to survive. You learn to live well together and you learn to suppress your own desire. You learn to sacrifice a lot to 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 to 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 and my family and I open Christmas gifts in front of each other all the time. But it’s true, traditionally you don’t open it in front of the person who gives it to you, though you can ask for permission to open it. I don’t’ know if Kim and Vinh’s awkwardness came from that or rather that they had never received gifts from America before and they were simply awed by the experience. I was, when I was a child in Vietnam and received my first Sears catalog gift from an uncle in the U.S. It was like a miracle. The gift wrap was so beautiful. And the smell of my new pair of jeans was out of this world.

Toward the end of her stay in Danang, Heidi says, “this is not what I had pictured.” Was there a way to prepare her for her experience?

Hers is not a typical Vietnamese reaction. Vietnamese Americans gossip among themselves and prepare each other for the “shock” of returning. The heat, the mosquitoes, the smell, the needy relatives. You come back with a certain level 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 and interpreter, should have prepared her for it instead of just teaching her “I love you” in Vietnamese. Nhu should have been more savvy as to what happens to the naive returnees.

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 and say: yup, I would feel that way too if I were her. I would feel overwhelmed. I would probably run out and 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 do you expect when you go to 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 and her birth family is a gap and it needs to be filled with stories: stories that Heidi needs to tell and stories that her mother and sisters and brother need to tell. They need to bridge that gap before they can make familial demands on one another.

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