Andrew Lam’s book is something of a mixed bag. It is part essay and part journalism. In his essays, he writes in the first-person and mines the material of his life from times spent in Vietnam and in the United States — in particular periods spent in Dalat and the Bay area. In pieces more journalistic, he delves into deep questions that arise from his experience as an immigrant to describe the intersections where East meets West and where East surpasses West in cultural values and merit: He argues for the ascendancy of Asian cuisine, Asian films, manga, anime, and even martial arts.
His writing is a mixed bag because where he sticks to his personal story he is good. Where he speaks about the larger story of East and West, he comes off less strong. Though he is an astute cultural observer and holds no academic pretensions, what he writes about is not particularly new. One does get the sense though that this book is a writing experiment for a journalist who has received many accolades for his journalism and writing and who is making serious forays into fiction. Mr. Lam has won several awards from the Society of Professional Journalist and contributes to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.
This book is really about Mr. Lam’s own American experience — and he should stick with it. In one pitch-perfect and short essay about ghosts crossing the Pacific Ocean, he describes his maternal grandmother’s declining health and yearnings for a lost husband and a lost country. His description of his efforts at connecting with her is beautiful — even when he fails at the connection. A lot can be derived from reading in between the lines. The only thing is he gives short shrift to emotions. And this may be his area to develop.
In another piece similarly about spirits, he mentions a search in 2004 for the grave of his great-grandfather in the Tay Ninh province of Vietnam. A PBS crew thought it was important enough to follow him to film the trip. This visit to discover his heritage is powerful and yet his description is almost clinical. When he finally finds the unassuming grave on some hidden site of the local hero who was his great-grandfather, all he manages to report is a feeling of kinship with the man. Something felt amiss.
The advantage of writing in essay form and first person reporting is that personal experiences are incontestable. No one can deny the veracity of something that is lived or experienced. Yet Mr. Lam writes, as he does in this book, from the safe edges of journalism. He can afford to mine the greater depths of experience: the messy emotions, the things yet unresolved, and all the things beyond fact that are true.
The truth is that Mr. Lam has tried to tell about his struggles — the losses of childhood, home, and family as a child uprooted from a place — but somehow he does this without talking about pain itself. He documents the fitting-in process of a sheltered child transplanted from Dalat to the cultural stew of Daly City and the ensuing rude awakening. He talks about his breakout from the mold of what his parents wanted him to be — a practitioner of medicine — to become a writer. He alludes to a lost college love. And he manages to come out of it all on top. It’s all rather bloodless.
Mr. Lam’s gift in elegant description and keen, empathetic observation has stood him well in a career made of chronicling the plight and grievances of immigrants, refugees, and new Americans. His letter to a young Iraqi teenager is particularly provocative. Here he doles out advice on the how to reconcile the notion of America and its attendant promises with the actuality that is the United States.
Mr. Lam can reveal so much more about him and within him. One wonders behind the litany of accomplishments in his life whether there have ever been any misgivings and whether behind his noble suffering he has ever acted ignobly. Behind the writer’s stance, there is probably an even richer untold story of conflict and courage.