BY ANDREW LAM
What do you do when you graduate from Berkeley with a broken heart and a B.A. in biochemistry? You break your immigrant parents’ hearts and become a writer.
When I was a freshman at the University of California, I fell hopelessly in love; a year after I graduated, my heart was shattered. To grieve, while working at the cancer research laboratory on campus, I took to writing. By day, I bombarded mammary tissues with various carcinogens to see how they grew; by night, I bled myself into words. I got good at writing, bored with science, and at the urging of my creative-writing teacher, dropped the test tube, picked up the pen and left campus to pursue a masters of fine arts degree at San Francisco State University.
Berkeley had radicalized me. But I do not mean this in the political sense, not directly.
Let me explain: I come from a very conservative Vietnamese immigrant family, and I had long ago in Viet Nam ingested the concept of filial piety, that the collective defines the destiny of the individual. One’s own interests always should be on the back burner. Making one’s parents proud is the son’s or daughter’s No.1 goal, and so on.
A bookish, obedient child, I was able to find a new home when I fell in love with “M” during my first year at Cal. In my love’s embrace and kisses, what I had thought important until then turned out to be trivial. My desire to please my chronically unhappy mother was trivial, good grades were trivial, the path toward medical school, too, was trivial. “M,” who took my breath away and whose smile made me tremble, was all there was.
What I remember, too, was an incident during my freshman year that, over time, marked me. A studious Chinese student tried to jump from the Campanile, a 307-foot tower on campus. He was from my dorm unit. He wanted to kill himself because, well — so went the gossip — he had never gotten a B before, until vector calculus or some such difficult class overwhelmed him.
I recall the entire dorm talking about it. I might have been momentarily horrified. But I also was too busy being in love to let it really register. I do, however, recall thinking, and not with certain vanity, that he shouldn’t have jumped, that he wouldn’t have considered jumping had he discovered passion instead.
Other bubbles are coming up randomly now from under the deep dark waters as I think back to that campus tragedy: Professor Noyce in organic chemistry dragging on his thin cigarette, the smoke twirling in the air as he draws the nicotine molecules. “Don’t ever smoke,” he admonishes his audience. “It’s bad for you.” My roommate, Tony, coming home from the big game in 1982, crying with happiness. The Bears had just trampled the Stanford University band to score that spectacular and bizarre turnaround in the last seconds. The bells of the Campanile ringing out one humid afternoon and for no reason at all, I drop my backpack and dance.
Above all, though, the salty scent of “M.”
Then “M” was gone. And my heart was broken.
And I began to write. When I began to write, it was not about the larger world, nor my Vietnamese refugee experience, nor the Viet Nam War that I wanted to address. I wrote about my unhappiness. I tried to capture what it was like to lose someone who had been my preoccupation throughout my college life; who was, in fact, then, my life. I was too close to the subject, too hurt to do the story justice. But the raw emotions unearthed another set of older memories simmering underneath.
The broken-hearted adult slowly found himself recalling the undressed wounds of the distraught child who stood alone on the beach of Guam, the refugee camp with its khaki green tents flapping in the wind, missing his friends, his dogs, fretting about his parents, wondering if he’d ever see his homeland again.
My sadness opened a trap door to the past. A child forced to flee. The long line for food under a punishing sun. People weeping themselves to sleep. The altar where faded photographs of the dead stared out forlornly, the incense still burning but the living gone.
I yearned for all my memories. I wrote some more. I began to fancy myself a writer.
I can’t remember for sure how long he stood up there, and how he was talked down, that studious Chinese boy from the dorm. I do remember that around that time that they put up metal bars on the Campanile so that no one else could jump.
Not long ago, after having re-visited the Berkeley campus where I gave a talk about my writing life, I had a dream. In it, it is me who finds himself atop the Campanile alone at sunset. But I am not afraid. Below, people are gathering. Before me: a beautiful horizon. I leap. And soar high over the old campus before heading out to where sky kisses sea.
I haven’t landed yet.
Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and Pacific News Service, and author of the recently released “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.”
A big THANK YOU for publication of the Op Ed on Immigration Reform by Doug Chin! OCA-GS is thrilled to see the editorial in print in your Dec 7-20 issue. Your support is critical for this important piece of legislation that impacts many in our APA community. Of the 4-5 million legal immigrants waiting for their applications to be processed, it is estimated that 40 percent are Asian. That doesn’t even count the 11 million undocumented workers who are in our society in the shadows. Thank you for publication and thank you for all the important work you do!