Andrew Lam

Why Hollywood's Cowardice Is So Destructive

Free speech in America may be a constitutional right but self-censorship is an American congenital habit. From government officials to corporation executives, from filmmakers to the media, it happens at great frequency and intervals.

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How San Francisco Betrayed Us

I recently said goodbye to another friend who left San Francisco for greener pastures. Joanne and I have been friends for many years and it was sad to see her go. But like many of my friends who love the city, the bay with its beautiful hills and blue sky, she felt it had somehow betrayed her.

Once home to bohemians, artists and poets, San Francisco has become a city for the mega-rich and up-and-coming high-tech workers. The tension between the haves and have-nots, in fact, is rising fast where those with extraordinary wealth are buying up real estate in droves and leaving those in the middle class floundering.

“I’d love to stay if I can afford something,” Joanne said. “But if you want to raise a family, you have to go elsewhere.”

Besides, where can she find a house with a backyard garden in San Francisco on her middle class income?

According to a new study by the real estate website, Trulia, San Francisco ranks second in the nation among cities with the highest income gap. And, my hometown also tops the list of cities with the most expensive price for homes per square feet. Business Insider reports that a million dollars will buy about a 1,500-sq-foot home in San Francisco. That amount in Boston, which ranked second, would fetch a 2,092-sq-foot home.

This has become a common complaint. San Francisco — indeed, the whole Bay Area — is now facing an enormous dilemma: the economy is booming once again after a long recession, but there's no affordable space left.

A small, 700-sq-foot, one-bedroom apartment in downtown with a view is now renting for nearly $4000. People are renting out their walk-in closets for over $1,000 a month. San Francisco, in fact, has become the city with the highest rent in the United States this year.

An economist-friend of mine, citing a news story, once remarked that if you’re making $75,000 a year, you’re barely middle class in San Francisco.

A woman moved here from Tokyo. She told me at a party that she found the cost of living in San Francisco to be just like another Tokyo. She lives in a tiny studio and pays almost $2000 a month for it.

In my previous apartment building on Nob Hill, the landlord fixed up the basement storage room and rented it to a family — three people living where a dozen bicycles were once kept.

San Francisco also outranks the rest of the nation in rental increases, about three times higher as of December of 2013.

A website called Liquid Space now offers online booking of office space by the hour or by the day.

There’s also a trend in micro-apartments. A recent 279-sq-foot space was rented out for $1,850 a month in the Mid-Market area. The dining table turns into a bed, and the young high-tech worker sees her place more or less as a hotel room. It makes sense. If one spends most of one’s waking hours online, what’s the big deal about a small space. San Francisco, besides, offers a wide variety of eateries and bars to choose from.

Minimalism, in a sense, is beginning to take roots in the United States and in San Francisco, and becoming the norm. More luxury condos within the 450-sq-foot range are being built, and in San Francisco, the Japanese minimalist style has become the dominant style — the bonsai the precursor to the microchip, as it were. Bigger was once better, but what's chic and ultra-modern today — what's green and affordable — is smaller and streamlined.

After all, the laptop takes no space at all, the iPod is the size of one's credit card, the stereo system that once occupied a generous portion of a living room now is so flat and ridiculously thin that you can hardly see it behind the rhododendrons. The television that once took up too much space on top of the sideboard now hangs on the wall like a mirror.

Thus to live in the San Francisco Bay Area today, one must learn to give up the dream of home ownership, the idea of open space and the yard. One learns to live comfortably in very small space.
There's a price to pay for being in the center of the information age, after all. Despite gridlocked freeways, longer commute times, greater air pollution, loss of open space, and, of course, urban sprawl and overcrowding, the young and hopeful continue to flock here.

But is it worth it? One dot-com millionaire in his early thirties told me he is no longer sure. He owns a nice flat, has stock options, but he waits in line at his favorite restaurant like everyone else, since everyone else is a millionaire, too.

As a writer, my hold on the city is sheer luck: I bought a condo during the recession and managed to stay. But I miss all the graffiti artists, musicians, friends who have left for some place where they can afford studio space to paint or perform. I miss, too, the poor working class families who, as if overnight, disappeared to wherever affordable housing can still be had.

I miss, that is to say, the old San Francisco. When I came here over three decades ago, it was a generous city, diverse not only in terms of race, but also of class.

In the mid-19th century, during the Gold Rush, San Francisco was known as "Old Gold Mountain" in East Asia. The myth of a city by the bay filled with gold lured thousands of Chinese, and the rest of the world, to California.

In the 21st century, I wonder whether the old story hasn't become prophetic, considering the climbing real estate prices and an army of young people hoping to strike it rich working for high-tech companies with stock options.

These days, it belongs to the highest bidders and the dogged homeless who, as if taking revenge, crowd the sidewalks in every neighborhood, fighting over real space.

“The sidewalk,” said one of homeless as he discussed rental prices with another, “well, it’s still free.”

The 'Bamboo Ceiling': Hollywood Shuns Asians, While New Media Embraces Them

This article originally appeared on New America Media, and is reprinted here with their permission.

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Letter from Cairo: Egypt's Revolution Is Now Frozen In Place

CAIRO, Egypt -- It was on a lunch break during a tour of the ancient city of Memphis, under the shadows of Egypt’s ancient pyramids that Tarek, a tour guide, became emotional. 

“Before the revolution,” said the 28-year-old, “I worked so hard that I begged for one day off a month and the company always said no. Now I get to do three jobs a month and I have to beg them to pick me.”

It’s a phrase you hear often in Egypt. “Before the revolution,” locals say, things were bad but manageable. Before the revolution, everyone hated the same regime. After the revolution, hope has turned to fragmentation and fear. And tourism – once a mainstay of the economy – has slowed to a trickle. 

Tarek says he’s now feeling the pinch.

Winter is typically peak tourist season, but on one afternoon in December – the coldest in a century – the Sonesta Moon Goddess sits almost empty among a cluster of luxury liners meant to ferry eager tourists along the famed Nile between Aswan and Luxor. There were five guests on board the Sonesta, which has a capacity of over 100. The 45-member crew looked close to despair. 

Tarek, meanwhile, says his mother is sick and in hospital. “I sold my laptop, I sold my nice furniture. I stopped going to the gym, stopped lifting weights, which was my passion. All I think of now is how to pay the bills, and it’s not possible.”
Then he adds, under his breath, “I hated the old regime, but not that much.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many of Egypt’s young, who account for a quarter of the country’s population. In 2011, thousands joined in a popular revolt inspired by the rising tide of discontent known as the Arab Spring. Egypt’s protests ended former leader Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule and culminated in the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammad Morsi, who was then toppled from power by the state military exactly one year later. 

Since then the country has been racked by violent protests and a growing power struggle between Islamists on the one hand, and a military led by notorious strongman Gen. Abdel el-Sisi. 

The political and social chaos has taken a heavy toll. According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), unemployment reached 13.4 percent during the third quarter of 2013. For those under 25, the figures are worse, with some 70 percent of young people unemployed. Predictions for the fourth quarter are even more dire.
Meanwhile, society is fragmenting, as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood continue to clash with both the military and anti-Brotherhood forces. In the latest round of violence, spurred by a newly enacted law prohibiting public protest, a student at Cairo University was shot while on campus, reportedly through a shut gate. His death has only heightened a sense of angst among the young.

One cabbie offered this assessment of society post-revolution. “Before, if there was an accident, five or six cars would stop to help. Now, no one wants to be involved. They don’t trust each other like they used to.”

Amid the chaos, Interim President Adly Mansour is working to draft a new constitution intended to pave the way toward new elections next year. But with political factions critical of the draft’s language, and with the Muslim Brotherhood – which still holds a significant following – planning to boycott the referendum, the road ahead looks treacherous.

“I would say that anyone who says they aren’t confused is a liar,” said one graduate student at American University in Cairo who declined to give her name for fear of possible repercussions. “The last few months have been mindboggling.” 

Indeed, the hope that initially propelled the uprising has long since given way to fear and trepidation. She says she no longer walks in her own neighborhood. “I used to feel safe but now I am not so sure. I’ve seen people fighting, fist fights, that’s something I didn’t see before.” There are more robberies as well, she notes. And yes, more people with guns.

Another student says conditions for women in particular have deteriorated. “Actually, I would say that life went to hell after the revolution, especially for women.” She cites several recent instances of women being attacked with acid for going out unveiled. 

As for Tarek, there is now a sense of wistfulness when he thinks about life under the old regime, a kind of revolutionary regret. “Some of my friends are saying if Mubarak ran again, they would vote for him.” Standing beneath the likeness of Rameses II – one of ancient Egypt’s most famed rulers who in the first millennium BC held power for more than six decades – he then adds, “But if that’s the case then why did so many of us die to topple him?”

Nina Davuluri Is America's Future

Nina Davuluri is the first Indian-American to hold the title of Miss America and it should be something for all Americans to celebrate. Her story, after all, is one of the more optimistic news about immigration in recent times. Alas, it's a victory marred by waves of racist backlash in social media. Davuluri is called a "terrorist," and derogatory references to convenient stores - "Miss 7-11" -- and Muslims are mentioned. But the biggest complain? Miss America should be more "American."

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Big Mac Won't Satisfy Vietnamese Desire for Human Rights

Vietnam specializes in irony. Its president, Truong Tan Sang, is due to visit the White House this Thursday, where he’s expected to request a lifting of the U.S. ban on lethal weapons sales to his country while also seeking support for a bid to join the UN Human Rights Council.

The irony? 

Besides trying to buy weapons from the United States, a country it defeated four decades ago, Hanoi also continues to trample on human rights, and in the last few years has stepped up arrests of dissidents with no fear of international criticism or, for that matter, U.S. rebuke.

Oh, and it’s also preparing to open its first ever McDonalds store, which, glancing at media headlines here, seems to be the real story. Never mind the persecution.

Vietnam today has more money than ever, and is seeking an international status equal to its newfound wealth. It also needs advanced weapons to counter the looming threat from China, which has laid claim to more or less the entire South China Sea. 

“If Vietnam wants to stand on the world stage, its government should repudiate its crackdown on dissidents and embrace reform,” John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director with Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released this week. “The arc of history may be long, but it certainly bends away from authoritarian retrenchment.” 

Mr. Sifton added, “President Sang cannot publicly justify his government’s crackdown and should use [his meeting with Obama] to repudiate it.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, echoed HRW’s concern in an open letter this week to President Obama, urging him to make human rights a top priority during the Vietnamese President’s visit. 

“Vietnam has long been one of the most oppressive societies in Southeast Asia,” Royce wrote. “Democratic aspirations, human rights advocacy, and grassroots mobilization are met with police brutality and result in show trials where defendants are denied their rights to open and fair proceedings as guaranteed by the Vietnamese Constitution.”

Indeed, dissident bloggers have been arrested routinely, with 50 democracy advocates having been rounded up this year alone. Languishing in its gulags, too, are dozens of prominent clergymen, some of whom, like father Nguyen Van Ly, 67, are in failing health. Father Ly, a Catholic priest sentenced to 15 years in prison for demanding religious freedom in the country (and whose causes are being championed by Amnesty International), suffered a stroke in 2009 and is in dire need of medical care.

Another prominent dissident, Nguyen Van Hai, popularly known as Dieu Cay, is currently staging ahunger strike after he was sentenced to 12 years in solitary confinement for his “propaganda against the state.” His crime: blogging about government corruption and demands for democracy. As of this writing, Nguyen has been on hunger strike for 32 days. 

But unlike in Myanmar, the United States has been hush on the issue of human rights abuse in Vietnam, where for the past decade it has stepped up investments. Hanoi claims that in two years, the United States will become the biggest investor in Vietnam, overtaking Japan and South Korea.

Military ties, too, are deepening. Since 2010 the two nations have engaged in joint military exercises. Last year, Hanoi went as far as dropping a hint to visiting Secretary of Defense, Leon Penetta, that it would like to resume talks about renting out Cam Ranh Bay, America’s old naval station during the war.

So why, in this era of seeming openness and economic progress, has Hanoi stepped up its oppression? The short answer is because it can, for now. 

Despite its dismal human rights records, Vietnam has been awarded for opening up economically. It was granted membership in the World Trade Organization and made its entrance to the world’s economic stage in 2006 when it hosted its first Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference. Its Gross National Product has been growing at a steady and impressive seven percent for almost the last decade. 

And while political dissent is not allowed, its population is experiencing far greater personal freedoms. Many are allowed to travel overseas, while movement within Vietnam is permitted freely. There’s a burgeoning middle class with disposable income and access to the Internet. And therein lies the problem. 

As we’ve seen most recently in Brazil, increased wealth brings with it expectations of increased political freedom. Indeed, despite the arrests more Vietnamese are blogging online, demanding greater respect for human rights and condemning Hanoi for, as they see it, kowtowing to China. 

Hanoi’s efforts to control this rising tide of discontent, moreover, are being stymied by the boom in communications technology. Vietnam has 132 million active cellphones in a country of 93 million, or about 2 phones per adult. Facebook entered Vietnam last October and by March had over 12 million users. 

Concerned over a potential Arab-spring style revolt, Hanoi’s response to date has been arrests and more arrests. 

That it can do this without fear of international condemnation is due in large part to American indifference. President Bush visited Vietnam in 2006 for the APEC summit, and promptly dropped it from the list of nations that severely curtail religious freedom. Under Obama, the United States is licking its chops as it perceives an opening for a grand reentry into the Pacific Rim theatre.

“It’s hard to be seen as deeply concerned about human rights when you are in bed with the politburos selling Big Macs and Starbucks,” noted one Vietnamese American living in Hanoi.

No wonder, then, that those fighting for democracy in Vietnam no longer look to the United States as their major supporter. In online chatrooms, dissidents are increasingly finding inspiration in protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and Burma. 

It would be a tragedy, however, if Uncle Sam, while publically voicing concern about human rights, lifts the ban on lethal weapons sales and supports Vietnam’s bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. That tragedy would turn to irony should a Vietnamese Spring erupt, only to be put down with American bullets and guns. 

The Tragedy of Self Immolation - No One Cares Anymore

Self-immolation isn't what it used to be.

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The Big Questions for the New Generations of Vietnamese Americans

Ed. Note: April 30 marks 38 years since the United States withdrew from Vietnam. In that time, says author and NAM editor Andrew Lam, connections to the homeland for Vietnamese Americans have evolved, even as their roots in the U.S. deepen. A longer version of this essay originally appeard in the Cairo Review

Mẹ Việt Nam ơi, Chúng Con Vẫn Còn đây (Oh Mother Vietnam, We Are Still Here)

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Hoping for a Meteor to Strike Because Life is Hard? You're Probably Out of Luck

A meteor estimated to be 10,000 tons by NASA exploded Friday morning over Russia’s Ural region and its shockwave caused injuries to over 1,000 people. It took out windows and walls in the city of Chelyabinsk. And it temporarily shifted the conversation here on earth to talks of the heavens.

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Stranger Than Nonfiction: Well-Known Author Busts the Online Homework Racket

“Dear Mr. Lam. I loved your essay, 'The Palmist,' but I can’t figure out what the main theme is. Is it dying and being all alone? My teacher suggests I read more of your writing… I’m glad I found you online…. Thank you very much for your help.”

The e-mail from, let’s call him, “Evan,” is not atypical. Students assigned my work sometimes reached out to me for help. “The Palmist,” however, is not an essay but a short story in my new collection, Birds of Paradise Lost. Its claim to fame is that it was read on PRI’s Selected Shorts a few years ago by not just one but two well-known actors: David Strathairn, who played journalist Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck, and later by James Naughton of Gossip Girl.

But never mind all that; for Evan it is immaterial. What’s more important is to have the answer, the main theme, since his paper is due. And who better than from the author himself?

While it flatters me to know that some of my work is being taught in highschools and colleges, and that I have done my share in confounding the mind of students near and far, it never fails to astound me what some of these young people would do to avoid thinking.

A classic e-mail I got some years ago was from a young woman named Dao. Her message came with the word "HELP" in caps in the subject line.

"Dear Mr. Lam," it says, "My name is Dao and I am having difficulties with my essay in my English class. I am reading one of your short stories for class assignment called 'Grandma's Tales.' It is a really good story but I can't seem to find the REAL theme of the story. Can you please help me?"

Grandma’s Tales, too, is collected in Birds of Paradise Lost. But to be perfectly honest, I didn't have a theme in mind when I wrote that tongue-in-cheek story about a Vietnamese grandmother who dies, comes back to life and goes to a party with her grandson.

I once suggested a possible theme to another student but his teacher apparently didn't like the answer. She told him he had best find a more serious theme and rewrite his paper if he wanted to receive a better grade.

The whole situation reminded me of Rodney Dangerfield as wealthy Thorton Melon, who went to the source with style in Back to School.  Mr. Melon, deciding to go back to school in his 50’s, hired the great Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (who played himself in the movie) to write a paper about his own books, but the scheme backfired. Melon’s English professor, Diane Turner, was disappointed with the result. “Whoever wrote it didn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut,” she told him curtly, no pun intended. But at least, Vonnegut got paid.

Old Homework for Sale

Still, going to the source is admittedly rare. Students don’t usually e-mail writers to help with their homework. No, increasingly, it would seem that they’d go online to look for other people’s homework instead.

“NEED HELP ASAP ENG/125,” is a post by a student on on Jul. 30, 2012. “Has anyone read the non-fiction stories?” the student asked. The “non-fiction stories,” also known as essays, are: “Who Will Light Incense When Mother’s Gone,” by Andrew Lam, (yours truly), Langston Hughes’ “Salvation,” Gretel Ehrlich’s “About Men,” and Joan Didion’s “On Going Home.”

While it is flattering as hell to even be mentioned in the same sentence with these great writers, let alone having one’s work compared and contrasted with theirs, it is distressing to know that students are offering between $1 to $10 dollar for someone else’s work, so as to avoid thinking. 

The assignment? “Select two of these four writers and write a 1,400-1,700 word paper that would answer some of these questions: ‘What makes each of the selection non-fiction?’ and, ‘How is imagination required for writing and reading nonfiction? Why or why not?’” 

What the student would do with the $10 dollar tutorial after it is paid for is up to him, of course --but I suspect most likely he'd be busy rearranging sentences and punctuations in hope to escape software programs that catch plagiarism. But it seems the only imagination required here is not the literary kind and the bulk of critical thinking is used for anything but literature. It is spent in good part on methods that garner good grades – be it finding and e-mailing the authors or buying old homework online or as wiki.answer -- without having to think about the work itself.

And if the student is still dissatisfied with Students of Fortune’s offerings? There’s always, which advertises to inspire “better grade” – a kind of Ebay for old homework assignments, I suppose. On Studymode you can “supplement your classroom learning and boost your grades with help from our powerful site features.” After all, it’s where-- egad! -- “6 million students reference us every month!!!” offers some old homework that compared Langston Hughes’ “Salvation” and my essay, “Who Will Light Incense When Mother’s Gone.” But since I didn’t pay, I only got a partial glimpse of some of them, and though not greatly instructed, I remain oddly jealous.  Had I gotten half of the help the new generations are accessing, I would have flown through my English courses, instead of failing them at Berkeley, and--to my shame—had to take Subject A, a remedial course that remains a sore point surely for any published author.

In my defense, however, I did think for myself; I just wrote badly, due to the fact that English is my third language and I was still wearing donated jackets from Camp Pendleton, the Vietnamese refugees processing center in Southern California where my humble American life began. (On the other hand, I wonder if I would've even cared to think at all if I had acess to a treasure trove of mediocre writing and ready made homework online at a click of a mouse.)
Trouble for Everyone

But I digress. Let’s get back to the main theme here, which seems to be the trouble for everyone involved.

There is something endearingly naïve about students' search for easy answers in literature, and how some approach literature as they would math problems. What  Evan wanted is a clear-cut answer. He wanted to know the Palmist's main theme, and assumed that I have it, and were I to hand it over, he would instantly get that much-coveted "A."

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