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Family Elders Cling to Old Ways as Young Look to New

ASIAN IMPACT: Third of four parts.

April 16, 1987|MARK ARAX | Times Staff Writer

On Saturday nights, after most of his family have fallen asleep, Xuong Lam enjoys his one concession to American culture.

Shirtless and with pants rolled up to the knees, he turns on the television and begins to rock from side to side, his arms flailing wildly. Then he gives out a loud belly roar--a kind of half shout, half curious exhortation--in Vietnamese and pidgin English.

"Dap no! Dap no, Howk Hogan!" he cries. "Go get 'em! Beat 'em! Dap no!"

Tai Lam, his 18-year-old son, assures the first-time visitor that all is well inside his Rosemead home. Hulk Hogan, the professional wrestler and his father's favorite American, has just dispensed with another opponent.

"He goes crazy. We tell him that it's fake, but he doesn't believe us," Tai said. "When they bleed, he turns to us and says, 'Is that fake? Is that fake?' We've stopped trying to convince him."

Xuong Lam may have a passion for professional wrestling, but in every other way he refuses to succumb to the America that surrounds him, standing resolute in his desire to preserve his Chinese roots.

Close-Knit Family

He heads a proud, remarkably close-knit family of Chinese refugees from Vietnam who resettled in the United States six years ago. Three generations--Lam's mother, Lam and his wife and 13 children--live under one roof.

The elder Lams, steeped in Chinese tradition, go about their affairs as if they never left Vietnam, or China before that. Except for a few humorous encounters with the outside world via a large Sony television in the living room, they mostly traverse an ethnic community detached from the larger society. They shop at Chinese supermarkets, conduct their business at Chinese banks and sip tea with neighbors who were neighbors back in Saigon.

Yet the steady, inexorable changes in their children have created a parting of generations in the Lam household. Although the children refrain from speaking English at home and dislike American food, their ties to their homeland are tenuous. They have greeted America with open arms while retaining parts of their culture. The younger Lam children serve as interpreters of a strange society, accompanying their sometimes bewildered parents and grandmother through the more confusing nuances of American life.

The old hold stubbornly to tradition while the young adapt. It is a refrain heard constantly among other newcomer families in the suburban communities of Rosemead, Monterey Park, Alhambra and San Gabriel, where one of the nation's largest enclaves of ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam has taken root. An estimated 30,000 refugees--many of them "boat people" such as the Lams--now reside in the western San Gabriel Valley.

Inspiring Legacy

Their resurrection here is one of the few inspiring legacies of the Vietnam War and the violent campaign by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to repress and persecute its Chinese minority.

For Chinese-Vietnamese families such as the Lams, who built a fortune in Vietnam only to see it confiscated in 1975 by the new Communist government, the transplanted ethnic community is at once protective and isolating. It eases the shock of exile but also prevents some of the give and take necessary for integration.

Xuong Lam, 57, who has not worked since he fled Vietnam seven years ago, has made an uneasy accommodation to America. He says he will be forever thankful for the second chance and freedom afforded him. Yet he remains wary of the potential of his new country to absorb him and his children. He has learned just enough English to deal with his children's teachers and school administrators.

"We have taught our children that family is No. 1, that they must show respect to their parents," he said through a translator. "American people do not think this way. I worry that my children will meet bad friends on the outside and become involved with cocaine and things like that.

"I always keep an eye on them and tell them what is good and bad. We have taught them that they must make their parents proud. So far, they seem to be listening."

Ngoc Lam, 56, a housewife, has buried the sadness of exile in work. Her children say she is incapable of sitting still, forever busying herself even when the household chores are finished. When asked what she did for fun, she hesitated answering and her children broke out in wild laughter.

"I enjoy my children going to school without having to pay a fee," she responded in Chinese.

"No," said her 15-year-old daughter, Dung, "he wants to know what you do for pleasure."

She shrugged her shoulders. "I guess I like my garden. But I am happy if my children study, listen to me and don't go out and play a lot."

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