FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.
The contentious debate over immigration has masked one fact - that America is a land of many experiences in reaching its shores.
In his book, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, syndicated columnist and NPR commentator Andrew Lam explores his identity as a Viet Kieu, a Vietnamese national living in the United States. The book has garnered Andrew the 2006 Pen Beyond Margins Award. He joins us from member station KQED Radio in San Francisco.
Mr. ANDREW LAM (Author, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora; Co-Founder, New American Media): Thank you.
CHIDEYA: So can you read us a little bit of your passage from one world to the other?
Mr. LAM: Sure. I'll just read a section here about my experience on a refugee camp.
April 28, 1975, two days before Saigon fell to the communist army and the Vietnam War ended. My family and I boarded a cargo plane full of panicked refugees and headed for Guam.
I remember watching Vietnam recede into the cloudy horizon from the plane's window. A green mass of land giving way to a hazy green sea. I was 11 years old.
I was confused, frightened and from all available evidence - the khaki Army tents in the Guam refugee camp, the scorching heat, the long lines for food rations, the fettered odor of communal latrines - I was also homeless.
CHIDEYA: Andrew, this book is amazingly lyrical about - one of the things I remember from reading your book is the Blue Bottle flies that landed on the wounds of the dead. And your uncle took you when you were only 5 years old to see these dead bodies. What was the point of him taking you there?
Mr. LAM: I think Vietnamese are very much into bringing tragedy to the front of Vietnamese narratives to prepare the children for reality, because it's a country full of warfares and strifes such that we don't have the luxury of happy ending. So what we do is we bring reality to children.
CHIDEYA: Tell us a little bit about your family. Who were they before leaving Vietnam and who were they in America?
Mr. LAM: My father was a South Vietnamese general. He was quite high ranked. We were a family of elite South Vietnamese people who, you know, had French education, lived in villas. And afterwards, we were paupers living at the end of Mission Street in San Francisco.
CHIDEYA: But your family made it, as so many other Vietnamese families have. And you talk about how a lot of Vietnamese narratives seem to move through tragedy. As we were talking about earlier, and you even tell a folktale of tragedy, whereas everything here in America is shiny, happy, let's move forward, let's move up.
Tell us about how the Vietnamese community has dealt with kind of being thrust into the American narrative.
Mr. LAM: Yeah. I think it's a very ironic thing. Because, as I said, in Vietnam we tell sad-ending fairytales to children, show reality as it is. And then in America, the largest population of Vietnamese overseas ended up in California, probably the most optimistic state.
And we went into kind of schizophrenic mentality from thinking that life is all about suffering to thinking that we can reinvent our self. I think, in some way, the Vietnamese who left Vietnam created such a allure for those who didn't leave.
CHIDEYA: You talk about how Vietnam's population has more than doubled since the war. And three out of four Vietnamese today, you write, have no direct memory of the Vietnam War. Why did you decide to go to Vietnam and why have you kept returning? And how is it different from maybe what you expected?
Mr. LAM: Well, you know, during the Cold War no one expected to see Vietnam again. So going back was a cathartic experience, because for years I had sort of folded my Vietnamese memories into a kind of storage place. And then to go back is to sort of allow that narrative to continue, to really experience the fact that Vietnam had gone one without me.
And it changes my relationship with Vietnam. It became accessible, and in a way I'm no longer ruled by nostalgia.
CHIDEYA: Andrew, you're also the co-founder of New American Media, which used to be New California Media, which deals primarily with the non-English language press. Tell us more about the project, in general.
Mr. LAM: Yeah. It started out as an article I wrote about ethnic media in California. And I didn't know where to find them, so I basically look in the yellow pages. And lo and behold, there were dozens and dozens. And so we had a little luncheon and people came. And then we just realized that together the ethnic media caters to a very, very large population in California.
And so, next thing you know, we created this thing called New California Media. But it has expanded now to be New American Media, which includes the whole country. And we give awards out every year. In fact, in November, we're going to have one in Washington, D.C.
CHIDEYA: How do you think this current immigration debate, which has focused mainly on Mexican immigration, has affected immigrant communities and ethnic media across the country?
Mr. LAM: I think ethnic media influenced the movement of protest against discrimination against immigrants. Vietnamese media, in particular, wrote articles identifying with illegal immigrants, I mean, normally because the fact that they saw themselves as people who left Vietnam without visas. You know, they left illegally. But also little Saigons and little Korean towns are dependent on Mexican workers from the south. So they all know that they're very linked intricately with this movement.
CHIDEYA: Andrew Lam, thank you so much.
Mr. LAM: Thank you, Farai.
CHIDEYA: Andrew Lam is co-founder of New American Media and winner of the 2006 Pen Beyond Margins Award. His book is Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. To hear more excerpts from the book, log on to npr.org.