NW Vietnamese News

The Bay Area- a Cultural Melting Pot: a Review of East Eats West by Andrew Lam

May 09
19:47 2011

When asked about the importance of the “gold boom” in California, one would most likely omit the effect it had on ethnic minorities- especially the Vietnamese living in the United States. However, in Andrew Lam’s most recent book- East Eats West (2010) the Bay area of San Francisco and it’s Vietnamese population serves as the setting for a cultural puzzle that was born during the gold rush. Stating that the ethnic diversity now engrained in the Bay has been “intensified by the volume of interactions and … globalization ,” Lam connects the past with the present and explains the context for the immigration patterns that led to the melting pot that San Francisco has become.

According to Lam, “the modern condition is messy ” but with a sincere and “fundamental respect for others’ histories .” This contemporary situation contrasts heavily to Lam’s experience as a child where, during the Cold War, he found his culture suppressed by his peers. Using the media form of Kung Fu movies as an acid test, Lam draws a portrait through time explaining how the American attitude to Oriental culture has remained flexible according to the prevailing socio-political trends. This fluid notion of cultural relations made for shifting sand as Lam learned how to adapt to his new home in the United States following his ejection from Vietnam as part of the wartime Diaspora.

As Lam explains during the book, a transformation of attitudes occurs in America after the end of the Cold War as Asian culture becomes highly valued and sought after. A variety of media including comic books and movies began to incorporate the Kung Fu fighting style in a wave of new interest and excitement. At the same time, Asian cuisine truly gained a foothold in the American market with Vietnamese and oriental restaurants stealing the show in terms of expanding industries in the Bay Area and all over the US. And so, for Lam the Bay Area is a microcosmic example of the American nation- albeit a more culturally diverse one, and also a fantastic example of cultural exchange at an accelerated rate. A mention of the presence of a specifically Vietnamese bus route used to transport people and goods for the benefit of the Vietnamese community serves as a great example of this trend.

Using specific examples from his personal history, Lam turns this cultural narrative into an informative biography of sorts. An eloquent discourse on his relationship with his family and how it changed when placed in the United States provides the reader with a great example of the way in which Confucian values of filial piety and loyalty contrast so strongly to the American values of self expression that many Vietnamese conservatives would consider “dishonorable .” This clash of beliefs causes culture shock for most first generation immigrants who are invited over to the United States, often through family connections. However for those without the money required to make the journey, an “Anchor Kid ” system is often developed where the Vietnamese family depend on the successful immigrant within their clan to send wealth back home. This system, of course, has Vietnam calling for the return of their new, more wealthy ex-nationals.

The importance and prevalence of family ties to the homeland within the Vietnamese community even began to acquire a name, according to Lam. Vuot bien was the term given to the commonplace act of leaving the homeland in search of outside opportunity. Interestingly, while the United States places a considerable level of blame on technology for social issues such as poor family communication and divorce rates, the Vietnamese could not be more grateful for the revolution. In a great piece of cultural analysis, Lam explains that the gold boom was followed by a technology rush in industries such as computer chips which allowed several astute Vietnamese businessmen to change their fortunes and make considerable wealth. In fact, a large amount of Lam’s book can be understood as a work of pride for the Viet Kieu community that he himself is a part of.

While the majority of the book has roots in the Bay Area where Lam now resides, another large part of his work deals with the Vietnamese situation and how in his mind, the “theme of hybridity is central to a global society .” A short yet descriptive essay on the origins of Pho in Vietnam educates the reader in Vietnamese local cuisine and how it has spread exponentially. In America itself, the soup is enjoying a flare in popularity; an example that Lam sees as central to his idea of cultural absorption and synthesis. However, while this synthesis is occurring, Lam endeavors to point out that the Vietnamese culture is not the only one causing influence in this relationship. In actuality the example of Pho can easily be balanced with the new found excitement within Asian countries regarding American foods. As such there is balance, and while the Vietnamese still command ties to their homeland, traditional values including their perception of self are not compromised.

As the book progresses it becomes obvious that, for Lam, writing is cathartic. An exquisitely conducted piece of prose awaits the reader in a short letter to an Iraqi refugee child. This letter truly reveals the impact of the Diaspora on Lam’s upbringing and identity. A connection between his past and that of the Iraqi child seems to draw the line between past and present and helps the reader put the book into a modern context. Vietnamese practical pessimism and cultural focus on the importance of history is emphasized in Lam’s description of his grandmother and her conversations with spirits. The melancholy attitude that pervades this mysterious and wise culture through Lam’s writing truly adds spiritual depth to this book. In keeping with this theme, Lam ends the book with a discussion of some much larger and often spiritual aspects of the Bay Area and its relationship with the Vietnamese community.

Len Dong has been a somewhat silent yet remnant cultural discipline for many years now in the United States, something that Lam sees as explaining the continuing ties to the homeland that many Vietnamese cherish. Furthermore, the spreading influence of Caodaism forms a large portion of the ending of the book, and for good reason . Lam is a relative of one of the prominent members of this religious tradition and sees the spread of its values and theories as a perfect example of religious globalization. In actuality, the religion itself is a hybridization of several theories about spiritual topics ranging from ancestor worship to lifestyle choices. One cannot help but deduce that in some way, the topic of Caodaism serves as a thematic example of the way in which the Vietnamese have infiltrated and diffused into the American culture. Adaptation and flexibility in the behaviors and instilled thought processes that many Vietnamese held before their re-enculturation was a necessary component of success. With such a large population of Viet Kieu now in the Bay Area and further East in the States, it is becoming obvious that resilience is an understatement and that a trend of persistence and innovation is actually the driving force behind Vietnamese individual, and community progress.

To end the book, Lam informs the reader correctly that the 1965 immigration act made it possible for many more Asians to move to America and work or study. At present, with global relations between America and Asia stretched due to 9/11 there are limits and restrictions placed that have made it less common for Vietnamese to enter the US for the purposes of studying. However, the number of people doing so is still sufficient enough to support a growing community that is contributing to the Bay Area and other economies very measurably. In an incredibly insightful ending to the book, Lam suggests the possibility that the information highway responsible for the movement of Asian peoples to America and the transfer of American culture back into Asia is a replacement for the ancient Silk Road that brought about the world’s first true source of global contact. While this is controversial, it is a great summary of Lam’s thesis that global ties are creating a truly diverse culture within all countries that share with each other. Afforded the gift of optimism by his education in American language, Lam declares this to be a confirmed positive effect and uses the rich setting of the Bay Area to explain how cultural diversity has brought about an ethnic utopia where all kinds of foods and customs can be seen in close proximity.

Matthew de Moraes

Guest contributor


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