When I was six years old and living in Vietnam, I saw Mrs. Lau, the wife of our family servant, drag herself out of bed only a few hours after giving birth to bury her newborn's umbilical cord in our garden. Something in her mysterious gestures among the jasmine bushes — the mumbling of prayers, the burning of joss sticks, and the offerings of mangoes and rice — stirred a deep sense of awe in me. Later I found out from my mother that it was our way to ask the land to bless and protect the newborn. The incident and the knowledge of my own earthly ties made a very strong impression on me: our ways were sacred and very old.

Not long ago Vietnam was mired in agrarian-based rituals and traditions, and it was normal that people should use words like souls and ghosts and spirits, not as metaphors but as things that exist. People consulted the ouija board or fortune tellers or the I-Ching for many important decisions, and potential marriages have been known to be abandoned to bad signs. Each night, my entire family prayed to the various Buddhas and to our ancestors' spirits; we talked, that is, to ghosts. My maternal grandmother even went a step further. For years she had dreams in which our Grandfather's spirit came back and they would discuss family affairs. Once she lost a jade bracelet and Grandfather told her in her dream where to look. No one seemed surprised when she found it the next day. In a land where ties were permanent and the tradition concrete and sacred, there was a deep sense of enchantment and awe.

Then, alas, no more.

A Diaspora — Two million or so Vietnamese, in an unprecedented move in Vietnam's millennia old history, fled at the end of the Vietnam war into five different continents. And for all the umbilical cords buried, for all the promises we made to our ancestors' spirits, we did the unimaginable: We left, trampling underfoot that old sentimental garden, refuting the perennial and insular agrarian-based ethos of entrenchment.

And so many years passed.

In her suburban home with a pool shimmering in the back yard at the edge of Silicon Valley, my mother prays. Every morning she climbs a chair and piously lights a few joss sticks for the ancestral altar on top of the living room's bookcase and mumbles her solemn prayers. On the shelves below, however, stand my father's MBA diploma, his real estate broker's license, my older siblings' engineering and business degrees, my own degree in biochemistry, our combined sports trophies, and, last but not least, the latest installments of my own unending quest for self-reinvention — plaques and obelisk-shaped crystals and framed certificates — my journalism awards.

What mother's altar and the shelves carrying their various knick-knacks underneath seek to tell is the typical Vietnamese-American tragicomedy, one where Old World Fatalism meets the American Dream. Almost half of Vietnamese living abroad ended up living in North America, and the largest of this population resettled in California.


It is no mistake that the second largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam is centered around Silicon Valley. Nor is it mere luck that Vietnamese, drawing from our Confucian traditions which strongly emphasize discipline, respect and education, chose the sciences as a way to enter the American middle class. Here, within two decades or so, we have moved from living at the receiving end of the industrial revolution, have gone from being citizens of a poor agrarian based society, to becoming important players in the Information Age.

None of this means much to my mother. The most resistant to change in my family, she watches the incense smoke undulate before her eyes and sighs. She came from a small village in the Thai Binh province, the kind that was suspicious of outsiders. Then history swept her away and she became uprooted herself. So far from home and hearth she prays but she also wonders: Do ghosts cross the ocean? Do they hear her solemn prayers amidst this world of lilting computers, soaring planes and satellite dishes and modems? The world has moved on too fast, gone too high tech, too frantic, too bright, so it seems, to accommodate ghosts.

Perhaps it could not be helped. For the Vietnamese living abroad has begun to dream his Golden Dream. It seeped in his psyche one night and he woke in the morning to find, to his own amazement, that he can readily pronounce words like mortgage, escrow, aerobic, tax shelter, overtime, MBA, BMW, stock options.

Gone is the cyclical nature of his provincial thinking, and lost is his land-bound mentality. He finds that he can see the future. That he is upwardly mobile. He imagines owning his own home, his own business, the kids in college, the kids as becoming important Americans. Indeed, his American optimism has chased away his Vietnamese nightmare. Compared to the bloody battle fields, the malaria-infested New Economic Zone, a vindictive communist regime that monitored everyone's movement, the squalid refugee camps scattered across Southeast Asia, the murders and rapes and starving and drowning on the high seas, California is still, indeed, paradise.

And so a community that previously saw itself as exiles, as survivors of some historical tragedy, as a people who were prepared to return to their homeland to tend their abandoned ancestral graves and to face their oppressors, slowly changes its mind. Soon enough houses are bought, jobs are had, children are born, old folks are buried, and businesses and malls are opened. That is to say our roots sink, slowly but deeply, into the American loam. Soon enough Little Saigons, up and down the Californian coast as well as elsewhere began to blossom and sprout. And the stories of the horrible war and terrifying escape over the highseas slowly gave way to gossips of new found successes in the Golden Land.

"Brother, did you know that there is a Vietnamese astronaut in NASA?"

"Did you know that the first person to receive seven degrees from MIT was a Vietnamese boat person, and he did it in five years! "

"Remember him, sister, he's now a CEO for a multimillion dollar electronic firm in Silicon Valley."

It is difficult, besides, to keep grief and nostalgia in their prime as the years go by. The pangs of longing dulled by the necessities of living and the glory of the new found status and wealth. And the refugee turned immigrant (a psychological transition) turned naturalized U.S. citizen (more or less a transition of convenience) finds that the insistence of memories insists a little less as he zooms down the freeway toward a glorious cityscape of chimerical high-rises to work each morning.

I came here when I was 11. In my teen years I had stopped speaking Vietnamese altogether. Nor do I pray to the spirits of my ancestors any longer. As an adult and a writer, however, I have grown intrigued about my own inheritance, the old land-bound ethos, the archaic rituals, and my childhood vision in my mother's garden of long ago, that first sense of wonder and awe.

I am not, of course, unaware that my innocence was gone the moment I crossed the Pacific Ocean to the American shore. Nor am I so sentimental as to suggest, in this age of mobility and information flow, of global economy and hybrid identities, that the return from city to land is possible, especially when the contrary has become de facto world wide. What intrigues me simply is this: what story could I possibly tell that would convey the transformational experience of a people who were once land bound but have become instead mobile?

For it seems to me that if ritual and storytelling is a way for a people to partake in a shared vision of themselves, then the Vietnamese abroad must find new ways to reconcile between his agrarian past and his cosmopolitan future, between, that is, his laptop and his memories of ghosts. Nam Nguyen, a friend and an editor of Calitoday, a Vietnamese newspaper in San Jose, said that the Vietnamese myth of nation-building should be revised. It is one where, as all Vietnamese schoolchildren were taught as their first history lesson, a dragon named Lac Long Quan married a fairy named Au Co who gave birth to 100 eggs some 4000 years ago. These eggs hatched and became the Vietnamese people. A new Vietnamese is being "hatched" abroad, Nguyen observed. Who he is nobody knows, for he is not yet being described in any Vietnamese myth or literature.

The new Vietnamese?

I've seen him. He's my little cousin surfing the web and watching Chinese martial art videos dubbed in Vietnamese while talking to his friends on his cell phone in English. Above him the ancestral altar still wafts incense. On the computer screen, images shift and flow, and this too is his new home. He seems to be at ease with all these conflicting ideas, dissimilar languages. He seems both grounded and mobile, and his imagination, his sense of himself is trans-geographical.

Ask what he wants to do when he grows up and he shrugs. "Astronaut," he answers matter-of-factly, as if it's the simplest thing in the world. Yet going back three generations and he stands knee deep in mud in his rice fields gawking at the stars. But no more. The stars may very well be possible. His energy is free from the arduous grip of land-bound imagination, and it is growing and reconstituting in new and marvelous ways.

And recently I read about a farmer who escaped Vietnam to become a well-known, successful businessman in the high-tech industry. He has returned to open shops in Vietnam. I could almost see the farmer turned high-tech entrepreneur as a character in some epic global novel. In his high-rise, he sits staring down into the microchip on his finger and smiles: from certain angles at least, the tiny thing with its grids and lines that combines his ambition and memories, appears like the green rich rice field writ very small.


Text From: http://www.pbs.org/weta/myjourneyhome/andrew/andrew_diaspora.html

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