A Lesson on Transcending Life's Troubles

Commentator Andrew Lam remembers a break-up, an attempted suicide and his exodus from Vietnam in this story of transcending the troubles of his life.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Commentator Andrew Lam recalls a breakup, a fellow student's attempted suicide and his exodus from Vietnam in this story of memory, loss and transcendence.

ANDREW LAM:

After the Vietnam War ended, I had a memory block. I refused to speak Vietnamese altogether. Instead, I try my best to embrace my American life. When I was old enough, I fled to UC, Berkeley, and by then, my Vietnamese memories had seemed like a fantastical dream. In Berkeley, where I studied biochemistry, I fell in love with Em(ph). What I thought important up to then turned out to be trivial. Pleasing my chronically unhappy mother was unimportant, and so was medical school. Em, who took my breath away and whose smile made me tremble, was all there was.

What I remember, too, was an incident during my sophomore year. A studious, straight-A Chinese student attempted to jump from the campanile because he got a B. I remember thinking, not without certain vanity, that he wouldn't have climbed up there in the first place had he discovered love. But then, Em was gone after we graduated, and my heart was broken, and I began to write. I tried to capture what it was like to lose someone who had been my preoccupation for all my college life, but I was too close to the subject, too hurt to do the story justice.

What my sadness unearthed, however, was another set of older memories simmering deep underneath. After all, to lose someone you love dearly, someone with whom you created an intimate world, is not unlike losing a beloved country. I had been exiled before. My memories came flooding back: a child forced to flee, the long line for food in the refugee camp in Guam, people weeping themselves to sleep.

Years later, I revisited the Berkeley campus to give a talk about my writing life, and I had a vivid dream. In it, it is me and not that studious Chinese boy who finds himself alone atop of the campanile at sunset. Yet, I am not afraid. I leap and soar high over the old campus before heading out to where sky kisses sea.

BLOCK: Commentator Andrew Lam's latest book is "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora."

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