In 2005, the University of Hawaii at Manoa hosted a symposium honoring the forty-year anniversary of the Vietnam War. I went to a few events where Tim O’Brien and others read. I was living on Oahu and was just beginning to write about the wounded soldiers coming back from Iraq. There was a panel of writers who read. One was a Vietnamese, Andrew Lam, who read from his then recently published book of essays, Perfumed Dreams, Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. I bought his book on an impulse. I felt sorry for Lam in a way—how he sat at the table, almost an outcast. He signed my book and then sat back in his seat, looking sad and dejected. Maybe he saw the non-recognition on my face. Maybe he had seen it one too many times.
I pushed the book aside then and piled it on the bookshelf when I returned to the mainland. I always passed over Perfume Dreams for another book or novel. But not long ago it was time for me to pick up Perfume Dreams, Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, and I began to read. During America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, Lam was the youngest son of a 4-star General of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). He was raised with privilege, education and filial duty. When the North invaded Saigon, Lam and his family were one of the first to evacuate the falling city. They were one of the first of the Vietnam refugees to arrive in America. Lam’s essays are sometimes whimsical, sometimes wise, and sometimes sad with a longing to return to his homeland, which no longer exists. But there is the sense they are written by a world traveler with the point of view of a privileged child who has become a global citizen.
“The Stories They Carried” (after Tim O’Brien’s brilliant novel The Things They Carried) is a poignant tale about Lam going to a Vietnamese detention center in Hong Kong, as an undercover journalist. The living conditions are paltry and the people impoverished. The refugees can somehow tell he’s a journalist. Word spreads fast and many of the refugees tell him his or her story, with the hope that he will tell America.
A desperate young woman asks Lam to marry her so she can go with him to America instead of being sent back to Vietnam where who’s knows what fate awaits her. He hesitates and doesn’t have the courage to say, “I’m sorry but no.” Instead he tells her, “I so tired, Tuyet. Listen, I’ll come in tomorrow and we’ll talk then, all right?” He knows he will not go back to see her, but she doesn’t. For me, this is a telling moment about the author, the refugee and the war. The war is still going on in a way that I, in my naiveté, haven’t seen before. This moment between two Vietnamese with very different lives—one privileged and one doomed—tells me more about how the Vietnamese experienced the Vietnam War than many other anecdotes I have heard and read. Even though Lam’s behavior shocked and saddened me, the main thought I have come away with is: Who am I to judge?
I don’t think I was ready to read Perfume Dreams until now. It’s as if the book waited for me so I could read Lam’s brave, introspective and journalistic essays about a part of the tragedy of war I was ignorant and naive about.
I can’t help but wonder how this awareness will affect my interactions with the Vietnam Veterans of this country and the immigrants known as the Boat People.