Almost three decades ago, my family and I left Vietnam inside a C-130 cargo plane full of weeping refugees. I remember watching a Saigon in smoke, then a green mass of land giving way to a hazy green sea. I was eleven years old — too young to realize that I was witnessing a significant historical moment. For the first time in her embattled history, a history alleged to be 4,000 years old, the end of a war had resulted in an unprecedented mass exodus.

A Diaspora: Two million Vietnamese, scattered into more than 50 countries across the globe.

As a child in war-time Vietnam, leaving was unthinkable and the national borders had seemed to me as concrete as the Great Wall of China. Once I had expected to grow up and follow my father's soldierly footsteps and fight for my country. But in that C-130 full of refugees, I was moving not only across the sea but from one psyche to another. Yesterday, my inheritance was simple — the sacred rice fields and rivers which once owned me, defining who I was. Today, as a journalist who covers Southeast Asia and East-West relations and whose relatives are scattered in three continents, Paris and Bangkok and Saigon are no longer fantasies, but a matter of scheduling. My identity, likewise, has become multi-layered and is in flux. Once bound by a singular sense of geography, I now have reference points in at least three continents, several languages, and across many borders.

It was not always so. I grew up in the late '70s and, as a teenager, had resigned myself to the idea that Confucian ethos and incense smoke and Vietnamese refugee memories were affairs told largely in the dark, a private preoccupation of sorts. The public world belonged to white and black folks whose dialogue did not betray any knowledge of the color yellow or brown. Besides, my family collective drive was simply to reach a comfortable middle-class life. Our voice muted, our past stored away, we let sense rule over sensibility and trained our eyes instead at the five-bedroom suburban house with a swimming pool winking in the backyard.

As the youngest member of my family, I finally rebelled. After I graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a biochemistry degree and started working with a team of cancer researchers at Cal, I was suddenly plagued with a deep yearning to make sense out my Vietnamese memories. My fledgling scientific career thus came to an abrupt end: Two years into research I put down the test tube and picked up the pen and began to write.

It was, all in all, the right decision. The late '80s were an interesting time to be a writer and journalist. When I started writing for the Pacific News Service, a small wire news service based in San Francisco, the Berlin Wall fell and college students were being massacred in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. And I myself began to travel: to Laos, Burma, Cambodia, China, India and even to my beloved homeland, Vietnam. The Cold War was thawing in front of my eyes and I got the front row seat. I saw the iron curtain coming down and the borders becoming more and more porous, trampled underfoot by mass migration and individual ambitions.

Over the years, I have followed the story of Southeast Asia very closely. I have gone undercover as an interpreter in Hong Kong when boat people were facing forced repatriation. I have traveled thoroughly in Cambodia during the U.N. occupation to talk to Khmer Rouge supporters and listen to stories of women who toiled the rice fields without their men, and I watched the blatant corruption of many U.N. members in Phnom Penh. I witnessed how the lives of Laotians were transformed when electricity and the freeway came to their villages and I have followed Vietnam's own transformation through its doi moi (perestroika) policy and saw how the ideology that Ho Chi Minh's followers put on the pedestal for decades fell quickly into the gutter as Coca Cola and Toyota put up their flashy neon billboards over the town squares.

America is now indisputably the sole remaining superpower, yet back home she is not immune from change. Constant immigration has brought change to America as radically as Columbus did to the Indians. Americans, in fact, are falling in love with the Far East and the exotic has gone mainstream. Two decades ago, for instance, who would have thought that sushi would become an indelible part of an American taste? Or that Vietnamese fish sauce would be found down aisle three of Safeway? Or that an HMO would pay for acupuncture? Buddhism and Islam too, are two of the fastest growing religions in America while Hollywood is suddenly full of Asian faces. Private passions are spilling into the public arena and the colors yellow and brown assert, they, with their own mass media and imagination and traditions, are pushing the American imagination beyond its parochialism toward a cosmopolitan possibility.

When I started out writing I thought I was after a singular narrative, telling the Vietnamese Diaspora story, but a decade later, I ended up recording a much larger narrative, that of globalization and how it changes everyone in its path, myself included.

Yet the experience of the Vietnamese refugee abroad is not an esoteric one. In fact, it's germane to the pattern of globalization. If the Vietnamese refugee left Vietnam under the shadow of history, he also, in the blink of an eye, became the first global villager by default. The trauma of his leaving, the effort of his remake, his ability to marry two or three different spheres in an age of open systems makes him a modern-day Odysseus, the primary character in the contemporary global novel.

As someone who straddles both sides of the Pacific, my ambition then is to describe the marriage of East and West, their growing interdependence and, in the footsteps of V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie and Edward Said, convey a world of human flux and shifting borders and, ultimately, redraw the map of America, one based on a trans-Pacific sensibility.

Yet, my cosmopolitan sheen cannot possibly protect me from this new journey: the journey to the past. As I prepare myself to return to Vietnam, not as a journalist going after a story, but as a Vietnamese American looking to unearth long buried memories, I am full of anxiety. Will I have enough courage to enter the house I used to live in, abandoned now on a lonesome hill? Will I have anything in common with relatives with whom I hadn't kept in touch for decades? Will I learn to reconcile my childhood memories of a war-torn Vietnam with the modernizing, vibrant country — one that has gone on without me? And, finally, where is home?

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