Boyhood memories of a faraway country mired in the shadow of war and the journey to grow up and find one’s identity amid an unfamiliar social landscape: these are the stories of Andrew Lam. As the latest author from the UC Irvine Bookstore’s Author Series, Lam appeared at the UCI Bookstore on March 2 to read excerpts from his book, ‘Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.’
Lam is a writer, journalist and editor for the Pacific News Service and a regular commentator on National Public Radio. His essays have appeared in newspapers like the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, and he was featured in the PBS documentary, ‘My Journey Home.’
Originally born in Vietnam, Lam came to the United States in 1975 when he was 11 years old, right before Saigon fell during the Vietnam War.
As a ‘Viet Kieu,’ or Vietnamese national living overseas, much of Lam’s writing concerns his experience living as a Vietnamese American in today’s society.
Since his work addresses different generations and attempts to bridge the gap between them, ‘it can reach out and find that second generation. It can also reach out to mainstream America, so [that] they can learn more about the Vietnamese-American collective,’ said Linda Vo, associate professor of Asian-American studies.
‘Perfume Dreams’ is Lam’s first published book, and is a collection of ‘personal essays that have to do with my own observations of my own community, my relationship with my mother [and] my father, identity issues that I struggled with over the years and my relationship with Vietnam which changed also over the years,’ Lam said.
Lam read excerpts and passages from select essays, including ‘Lost Photos,’ a story of loss and regret; ‘Accent,’ a bittersweet account of the difficulties of having an accent in America that ends on a startlingly humorous note; and ‘Child of Two Worlds’ and ‘Viet Kieu,’ which both deal with his feelings of alienation and his relationship with his parents.
There was a casual atmosphere at the event, largely due to Lam’s enthusiastic, bubbly attitude and humor. He was often joking, and making the audience laugh. ‘This really surprised me, I didn’t know that he would be so funny. I was laughing a lot. It was really awesome,’ said Kristen Li, a first-year English major.
Lam also spoke frankly about events in his personal life that led him to discover his love of writing while majoring in biochemistry at UC Berkeley. During those years, Lam hadn’t connected completely with his ethnic identity yet.
‘It didn’t feel like a real identity to me. … It’s a political identity, but I didn’t find that was enough to sustain me as a complex individual, so I didn’t come to a political consciousness as a part of this identity so much. [It was] only after Berkeley when I started writing that I started to form my own [identity],’ Lam said.
The genuine emotion behind Lam’s writings was clear to everyone present. While reading from his book, Lam’s voice trembled with emotion at times and his accent and inflections became more pronounced, which he says happens when he’s nervous.
‘It was obvious that he was being real,’ said Jessica Flores, a first-year sociology major. ‘I liked that he’d tell us about what was behind his writings too. … This made it a lot more personal.’
Others enjoyed the descriptions of his experiences growing up as a Vietnamese-American. ‘I learned a lot more about his Vietnamese background. … I liked that he was connecting to us this way,’ said Lynn Houn, a first-year chemistry major.
After the reading, there was a Q-and-A session in which Lam answered audience inquiries about how he got into writing and journalism, his parents, the nature of language and his love of writing itself, which he said ‘came from love of reading.’
Lam advised young writers, ‘Your attachment to your writing can actually deter you from better writing. … It’s good to save your drafts because you might have to go back and work from it again, and you have to hone your work, [so] it’s good to develop a cold eye for your own work.’
Addressing today’s U.S.-born Vietnamese generation has been one of Lam’s main concerns, and he sees the world changing today for the multiracial generation.
‘The term ‘minority’ is changing. … A lot of Asians now are connected to their homelands in a way that previous generations are not,’ Lam stated. ‘You might be ethnic here but you may be mainstream back there, or you may be global or transnational, so the options are so much more varied than, say, back in the 60s when you had to consider yourself a minority.’
In the future, Lam plans to finish a short story collection he started while in the creative writing program at San Francisco State University. Afterward, he would like to complete a novel that he has already started and to one day possibly do another documentary.