‘The waters move you’

An interview with Andrew Lam

When I came of age in the late ’90s and early 2000s, identity politics wasn’t discussed in the urgent terms it’s discussed nowadays. The internet was still relatively new and social media was in its infancy.

I felt self-conscious about being Vietnamese in Australia and about being Việt Kiều, but I didn’t actively seek out other writers to gfrom the Vietnamese diaspora until I was well into my 20s. The first such writer I ever met was back in 2005 when Vietnamese-American writer Andrew Lam came out to Sydney and spoke at a writing event in Liverpool at the Casula Powerhouse.

He kindly agreed to let me interview him after the event and it’s with my sincerest apologies to him that I never published it till now. Back then I hadn’t quite started blogging and the avenues with which to publish such an interview were far more limited. It’s good to be reminded of the great strides that have been made in this regard, because now there is no shortage of websites on which you can publish and amplify your voice.

Reading through what Andrew Lam said to me back then makes it clear that one, he’s an incredibly smart man and two, so many of the discussions we have around identity are not at all new; we’re just in the latest phase of a continuing discussion. The world has shifted a lot since 2005 and though we now have different cultural references, most of what he said back then still absolutely applies.

As a student of history I found it enjoyable to revisit his sage thoughts from over a decade ago and particularly appreciated how he situates the Vietnamese experience within a global context, which is exactly how I’ve come to think as well.

On becoming a writer

I didn’t learn how to write till after college because I was pre-med. I thought I was going to be a doctor so I studied biochem at Berkeley. I started taking creative writing courses after I graduated and the teacher said, ‘you have a skill, you have a talent, you’re gonna waste your time if you go to med school because you’re gonna regret it.’ And I said, ‘yeah, but my mom’s gonna kill me!’
But I followed my dream and I decided to apply for the creative writing program — and I went. I just started writing and suddenly the whole past came pouring out.
You write what you know so I wrote about my experience in Vietnam and my Vietnamese-American experience. In some way I still write about that although when I covered Viet refugees in Hong Kong, for instance, the Cold War had just ended so people were being forced back to Vietnam and they weren’t accepted anymore. So I had to study statistics of how many homeless people were in the world: 25 million, 40 million a few years later — and then it occurs to me that the Viet were refugees at the end of the Cold War but they were not the only ones and, in fact, the whole world was awash with homeless and stateless people. So I became aware that this was the beginning of a phenomenon that was epic, it was global and it was re-defining the world.
So even though you write about a particular group of people, in fact you’re writing something quite universal because movement has come to replace sedentary life as the way of life. But I would say that even if you don’t move — the waters move you. Because for instance now, in Australia everywhere I see people are using chopsticks and eating sushi. Whereas 25 years ago it was unimaginable, right? And you look at all the flyers and they’re in 6–7 languages. The whole world is shifting because people are moving so much and they’re bringing their own civilization and cultural practices and it rubs off on others.

On growing up speaking French

In Vietnam I spoke French. I grew up in a time when my parents had sent me to Lycée Yersin in Da Lat. So, in fact, my real childhood language was French not Vietnamese. It’s too complex for even me to write about because my true cultural childhood identity was mixed.
My father was a French citizen until the war started when he was 22. My grandmother was a French citizen and my grandfather went to the Sorbonne in France. Even within the context of Vietnam we were already cosmopolitan in a colonial world. There was no ‘purity’ even though, at that point, I didn’t understand it. I just thought that was what we had. I didn’t see that French and Viet was so separate as a child; I just accepted that as a fact.
In many ways that’s the case now too for children who grow up with three languages, trans-national travels and so on, is that they never see themselves as either/or but they see themselves as this whole thing. So as a child, even though I saw myself as Viet it wasn’t truly so. We were speaking French so in a way my transition into American life was made easy because it was almost as if I just swallowed another language. It probably explained why my English got really good because I’d already spoken other languages.
Andrew Lam, photographed by Kirsten Aguilar, The Chronicle / SF

On globalisation and fundamentalism

When you have Westerners writing about globalisation it’s always about McDonalds and shopping malls, and I say, ‘well, you’re the ones going to Thai restaurants and acupuncture! So why don’t you see that as part of globalisation?’ Because movement is not just about the West dominating the East, if anything, it’s about both worlds — many worlds — affecting each other. ‘Contrapuntally’ as the word goes.
It’s just the way the psyche has been shifted, every nation and every individual — simply because you can log on and chat with a girl in Taiwan and another boy in Amsterdam. That national boundary has become less of an impediment to how you see yourself and how you relate yourself.
I think there is a misconception that globalisation means that everybody becomes the same. I think globalisation means that everybody is aware of everybody else but part of it is also resistance of it.
Fundamentalism is a 20th century concept because 200–300 years ago everybody was a fundamentalist. If you were Catholic you stayed Catholic; if you were Buddhist you stayed Buddhist; and if you disagreed you get killed by your tribe. Everybody shared core values and functioned accordingly. I think fundamentalism comes from the act of resistance to changes that are assaulting your world. Such that Osama Bin Laden wants to return to 7th-8th century Islam… and in the US it’s the same thing with Christian fundamentalists who want to push for abstinence and for women to stay in the house.

On identity

The issue of identity never ends. You know, it’s not as if you figure it out and then that’s it. Because as long as you grow, you accumulate more sense of yourself. Now you are a single woman, tomorrow you might be married and then the day after, the year after, you might be a mother. Forty years from now, a grandmother. Your identity never stays fixed even within one ‘monocultural’ life. You’re always going to have additional sense of who you are.
I think cultural identity shouldn’t be limited either to Vietnamese and Australian, or Vietnamese and American, but that it adds on horizontally — meaning if you marry a Greek-Australian then you add on Greek culture as well as Australian culture so having multiple spheres that are connected to you.
Identity is, to me, open-ended — a continuum. There’s the core sense of who you are and that will never really change. But then there’s additional layers of who you become and they also change you. I think especially in the 21st century it’s a very fluid world we live in.

On mixed identity

You don’t have to marry into another culture to have mixed identity. I have mixed identity simply because I love English and I love American-style culture, as much as I retain my own. I have different worlds that I live in simultaneously.
But I think it’s more self-evident with mixed-race children because they have to sort of balance all these sort of things all the time. Tiger Woods is half Thai, and part American Cherokee Indian, part Black and part German, right? He has a very different way of describing himself. I forgot exactly what the words he used but it’s very funny and made-up but it’s also the fact that he won’t deny any part of his inheritance which makes him a very complicated individual.
I think a person is lucky when he gets to inherit that many different traditions. It’s complicated and confusing but if you can work through them and figure out what it is that you are — and are becoming — then you actually have a very enriching life.