Film follows poignant return to Vietnam
Nearly three decades ago, Andrew Lam and his family fled Vietnam inside a C-130 cargo plane full of weeping refugees.
Fall Festival of Writing: He'll join other writers in reading from their works, 7 p.m. Wednesday, UH Art Auditorium; free.
"Vietnamese Diaspora": Lecture, 9 a.m. Thursday, Imin Conference Center, East-West Center; free.
"My Journey Home": Documentary screens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Honolulu Academy of Arts; free.
A free film series is part of the UH symposium. Showing at the Honolulu Academy of Arts are:
Today: "The Deerhunter," 7:30 p.m.
Tomorrow: "Rambo First Blood," 4 p.m.; "Platoon," 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday: "When the Tenth Month Comes," 4 p.m.; "Indochine," 7:30 p.m.
Thursday: "Regret to Inform," 4 p.m.; "My Journey Home," 7:30 p.m.
For a full schedule of symposium events, visit www.english.hawaii.edu (click on news and events).
"I remember watching a Saigon in smoke, then a green mass of land giving way to a hazy green sea," Lam says in a telephone interview from San Francisco. "I was 11 years old and too young to realize that I was witnessing a significant historical moment."
So Lam returned to the country of his birth last year as one of three subjects in the documentary, "My Journey Home" produced by WETA in Washington, D.C. The documentary will be shown Thursday as part of a University of Hawaii symposium, "Thirty Years After: Literature and Film of the Vietnam War."
Lam's segment follows him to his ancestral homeland and probes America's diversity through that personal history of buried pasts, missing relatives and friends -- and dreams.
"I learned that you can physically go home again but it's no longer the place you had left," says Lam, a journalist and writer who chronicles the immigrant experiences of others while struggling to come to terms with his own.
Lam first saw America through the chain-link fence of a relocation camp, in stark contrast to the life of privilege and respect his family enjoyed in Vietnam.
Lam's father, a South Vietnamese Army general, gathered his family and fled just before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Returning now to his boyhood home in Dalat, about two hours from Saigon, Lam searches for and finds relatives left behind, and he finds himself haunted by sadness, guilt and irretrievable loss.
"I had been back before as a journalist but never as my country," he says. "It was the first time I let myself be open emotionally and deal with the past."
Lam discovered that while he is Vietnamese he's no longer at home in Vietnam, and struggles for an elusive sense of belonging and peace.
"When you leave a place, you hold it so tightly inside you and you can't let go of that image, and when you go back it's a world that has completely changed," he says. "Vietnam today is a whole new world of young people who don't know much about the war with America. Two out of three Vietnamese were born after 1975 and no one is resentful of America."
As a child in wartime Vietnam, leaving was unthinkable and the national borders seemed "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," he says. "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."
Now that he's made this personal journey Lam says that dream is over. "I finally managed to say good bye. When you flee as a refugee you don't have time for closure. Now it's a chapter that I have finally closed."
After he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a biochemistry degree, Lam struggled to make sense of his Vietnamese memories. His science career came to an abrupt end and he began to write, first for the Pacific News Service in San Francisco. Lam traveled to Laos, Burma, Cambodia, China, India and Vietnam.
Before returning to Vietnam, Lam says, "I was full of anxieties."
"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? 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?"