Book Reviews

Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora by Andrew Lam

Heyday Books (USA)

Andrew Lam is one of the premier interpreters of the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States. He is not only a highly talented and perceptive writer but also a personal participant in the drama played out in the Vietnamese refugee community here since the fall of Saigon some 30 years ago.

His stage is a unique one in many ways. The initial Vietnamese refugees were different in that they did not come to America to seek a better life. Indeed, many (including Lam's family) wound up far less well-off here than in their native South Vietnam. Rather, they came as defeated warriors and other committed participants in a cause that irrevocably maintained its hold on many of them even here. They were the first allies America had ever abandoned under fire, and some had understandably ambivalent feelings toward their hosts. Lam's father, a former South Vietnamese army general, was one of these. This background and the yawning generation gap it spawned in Lam's family provide much of the setting for these essays.

Lam has his own fairly unique cross-cultural persona. Thoroughly Americanized during his teens, he is nevertheless old enough to remember well his early life in South Vietnam and his hasty flight to the US when he was eleven. Several of his Perfume Dreams essays describe not only his refugee experience but the lingering—and still strong—emotional pull of his Vietnamese roots as he comes to terms with his new American identity. He clearly cherishes the latter but ultimately seems to come down on the side of neither—or perhaps both—when he writes, "Vietnam and America are vying for my soul. But between Vietnam and America, for me, too, is an undiscovered country, and it is an epic in the making."

Lam's return visits to Vietnam give him important additional insight. In one essay he deals with the Viet Kieu, or Vietnamese nationals abroad, who return for business or family reasons or, like Lam himself, to test their memories and their self-identity. He finds he is "a stranger in my own homeland," still connected to it but utterly transformed by his American experience, and with each visit he claims to let go a little more. He notes the exalted status that Viet Kieu often enjoy on their return, whether merited or not, and describes one particularly poignant encounter with a returnee who was obviously faking success in the US to impress his proud but unwitting family in Saigon.

Lam's comments on today's youth in Vietnam are also especially interesting and—to this reviewer who has recently revisited Vietnam himself—right on target. He notes that well over half of them were born after 1975, and neither the "American" war before that nor Communist rule and ideology afterward hold much meaning for them.

Their generation has really known only the rampant materialism and individualism that have taken hold with a vengeance since the country's economic reforms in 1986. To Lam they seem to live only in the present, without either the traditional Vietnamese anchor in the past or a new, forward-looking mindset for the future. He believes the Vietnamese diaspora has a role to play in helping to find the latter, and in fact many Viet Kieu have already returned with critical technical and entrepreneurial skills to contribute heavily to Vietnam's current economic boom.

Perfume Dreams is first and foremost a penetrating self-examination by an unusually thoughtful author. But it is also a remarkable history of sorts, a history of turbulent and fast-moving events lived by one who almost uniquely bridges all of them—the Vietnam War, the refugee exodus and the lingering pain of defeat, the painful adjustment and generational strains of a new life in a strange country, and finally the return to a native land that has swiftly transformed itself into something neither Communist victors nor their defeated foes could ever have imagined in 1975. Few others have this singular experience, and we are fortunate to have such a gifted writer as Andrew Lam to share it with us.     

Reviewed by James Rosenthal