The Vietnam War was traumatic for many Americans, but far more so for the Vietnamese, 3 million of whom were driven out of their country and scattered across the globe by the war’s end.
The diaspora included many children who grew to maturity with a sense of belonging to two cultures, the one left behind that still haunted and preoccupied their parents and the one that enveloped them in the classroom, the street, the mall, and on television, that seemed bent on changing them into someone their parents no longer recognized.
Three members of the Vietnamese diaspora who chose writing as a way of dealing with the dilemma of a divided identity came to Harvard April 12 to share their experiences, their perceptions, and their struggle. They were the journalist Andrew Lam, the writer and performance artist Lan Tran, and the poet Turong Tran.
The event was sponsored by the Provost’s Fund for Arts and Culture, the Department of English and American Literature and Language, the Harvard Foundation, and the Graduate Program in the History of American Civilization. Moderating the session were Werner Sollors, Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature and Professor of African and African American Studies, and acclaimed author Gish Jen.
Lam led off the event with a reading from his book “Perfume Dreams.” The son of a South Vietnamese general, Lam came to the United States at the age of 11. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in biochemistry, he began working as a cancer researcher, but made an abrupt change to journalism when he realized he had an acute need to make sense of his life and history.
Lam has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and has appeared as a commentator on National Public Radio. He also writes fiction.
In the essay Lam read, “Child of Two Worlds,” he speaks about his early memories of Vietnam, of his mother burying his baby sister’s umbilical cord in the garden as “a way of asking the Earth to bless the newborn,” of the patriotic anthems he and his classmates sang every day in school as the war between North and South raged on.
But when the North Vietnamese army overran Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Lam and his family did not die defending their land as the songs urged them to do. “No, we did the unimaginable; we fled.”
Lam contrasted the world inside his family’s apartment, permeated by the smells of incense and fish sauce, by wartime stories and photographs of the dead, with the world outside, with its optimism, its cartoons, and its sitcoms. He remembered being dumbfounded when a teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “Such an American question!” After a moment, he blurted out, “A movie star!”
Meanwhile, Lam’s mother chided him for becoming “a little American … a cowboy,” a figure out of a spaghetti western who rides into the sunset alone, attached to no one. She insisted that he read the letters that arrived regularly from relatives in Vietnam, full of tragic stories and requests for help. Lam resisted, trying to “pretend amnesia to save myself from grief.”
Lam realized he had a markedly different personality when he spoke English from when he spoke Vietnamese. He became enamored of this newly invented self and tried to convince himself that he had little in common with the boy he had been in Vietnam. “I had gone on, hadn’t I?”
While Lam looks at the experience of Vietnamese Americans by looking within himself, Lan Tran conducts a similar exploration by becoming other people. She performed two pieces from her one-woman show, “Elevator/Sex,” a group of monologues grouped around the theme of 9/11 and sexual abuse.
In the first piece, the lithe, attractive Tran became an elderly Vietnamese woman with suspicious eyes and a whining, nasal voice. A wily survivor, she narrowly escaped being killed when the Twin Towers collapsed, but later succumbed to a botched colonoscopy that perforated her intestine and necessitated the use of a colostomy bag.
She tried and failed to sue her doctor for malpractice, but, ever-tenacious, she wants to try again with a different lawyer. Her Americanized daughter tells her to give up her quest, meanwhile berating her mother for failing to protect her from her father’s sexual abuse. The mother is skeptical about her daughter’s claims that she has recovered these memories after repressing them for many years.
“Repressed memory — Vietnam no have this word!”
In the second piece, Tran assumed the slangy, street-wise persona of Violet, a teen runaway and pickpocket. Violet reveals that she was taken in and taught her trade by an older Chinese man who goes by the name Ping Pong. She is proud of her accomplishments.
“I do not shoplift. I work hard for my money, and I only take cash!”
Her gratitude is such that she allows Ping Pong to have sex with her when he thinks she has passed out from drinking.
“He let you stay in his place, so you … let him stay in your place.”
Violet tells how she lifted wallets from two women while riding the elevator in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, only to have the elevator stop when the first plane rams the building. The women accuse her of stealing but she counterattacks by accusing them of racism. When the doors of the elevator finally open, she is met by a scene of unimaginable devastation, which causes her to throw the wallets away.
Truong Tran, like Lam the son of a South Vietnamese military officer, is the author of four collections of poetry and a children’s book. He read from his most recent collection, “Dust and Conscience.”
The short poems, written without capitals or punctuation, express Tran’s groping toward a sense of identity, his effort to bring together the two sides of his hyphenated consciousness.
Disembodied voices and personalities seem to drift in and out of these poems. Pain and loss are recurrent themes, and Tran calls one whole section, “The Book of Disruptions.” But despite the anguish of remembering incidents he would rather forget, Tran affirms the importance of memory, of preserving the stories that make one who one is.
“Yes the stories are at times overwhelming but would I stop listening the answer is no for without the stories there would be no history and without the history there would be no people.”