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A Vietnamese Journey Toward the American Dream

A cliché to native-borns, the American dream nevertheless seduces the traditionally sedentary Vietnamese to travel halfway around the world.

Editor's note: This essay by NAM contributing writer Andrew Lam is excerpted from a longer piece in the anthology "Thirty Years After," to be published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in spring 2009.

When I think of the Vietnamese narrative in California I think of my mother's ancestral altar. In her suburban home on the outskirts of San Jose with a pool shimmering in the backyard, my mother prays. Every morning, she climbs a chair and piously lights a few joss sticks for the ancestral altar on top of the living room's bookcase and mumbles her solemn prayers to the dead.

Black-and-white photos of grandpa and grandma and uncles stare out benevolently to the world of the living on the top shelf. On the shelves below, by contrast, stand my father's MBA diploma, my older siblings' engineering and business degrees, my own degree in biochemistry, our combined sports trophies, and, last but not least, the latest installments of my own unending quest for self-reinvention -- plaques and obelisks, shaped crystals and framed certificates -- my journalism awards.

What my mother's altar and the shelves carrying their various knickknacks underneath seek to tell is the typical Vietnamese American transition, one where old world fatalism finally meets new world optimism, the American dream. After all, praying to the dead is a cyclical, Confucian habit -- something to keep a Vietnamese connected to her community, her tradition, her sense of identity. Getting awards and degrees, on the other hand, is an American tendency, a proposition of ascendancy, one where one looks toward the future and deems it optimistic and bright. Oftentimes to be Vietnamese American, one lurks between these two opposite ideas, negotiating, that is, between night and day.

Many Vietnamese-American immigrants, when they talk about their own lives, will tell you how drastically different they were before and after they left Vietnam. "Before I left, I couldn't possibly imagine what my life in America would be like." This sentence I often hear from my relatives and friends when they talk about the past.

Day and night. Trung Tran, the rice farmer's son from Quang Nam province, for instance, the one who brought only seven oranges with him onto a crowded boat thinking that they should last him the whole journey across the Pacific -- "How big is the ocean anyway?" -- had escaped to San Francisco. And instead of helping the old man plant next season's crop he returned to Vietnam three decades later to design glassy high-rises, the kind Vietnam had never seen before.

What transformed in the Vietnamese refugee psyche was a simple yet potent idea of progression. In the Golden State, where dreams do have a penchant to come true, he grows ambitious. He sees, for instance, his own restaurant in the "for rent" sign on a dilapidated store in a run-down neighborhood. He sees his kids graduating from top colleges. He imagines his own home with a pool in the back in five years’ time -- all things that are impossible back home.

A cliché to native-borns, the American dream nevertheless seduces the traditionally sedentary Vietnamese to travel halfway around the world. It's the American dream and in that kissed him hard, tongued him, in fact, the morning he awakes to find, to his own amazement, that he can readily pronounce "mortgage," "escrow," "aerobic," "tax shelter," "GPA," "MBA," "MD," "BMW," "overtime," "stock options." Gone is the cyclical nature of his provincial thinking, and lost is his land-bound mentality.

And why not? The American dream has over time chased away the Vietnamese nightmare. And compared to the bloody battlefields, the malaria-infested new economic zone and communist gulags, the squalid refugee camps scattered across Southeast Asia, the murders and rapes and starving and drowning on the high seas, California is still paradise.

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