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WEST WORDS

Sons of war

November 27, 2005|Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to the Book Review, is working on a study of the biblical book of Revelation and its role in U.S. politics and pop culture.

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Perfume Dreams

Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora

Andrew Lam

Heyday Books: 144 pp., $14.95 paper

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Come Back to Afghanistan

A California Teenager's Story

Said Hyder Akbar and Susan Burton

Bloomsbury: 340 pp., $24.95

WAR is one of the great engines of immigration, a fact that helps to explain the richness and diversity of the California landscape and, in particular, the experiences of recent arrivals from places as disparate as Afghanistan and Vietnam. "Perfume Dreams" and "Come Back to Afghanistan," parallel tales of war and peace, let us witness the immigrant saga from the inside out.

Both books are written by men whose fathers were high-ranking figures in their homelands. Both had their origins in radio broadcasts. Andrew Lam contributes commentaries to National Public Radio, where some of the pieces collected in "Perfume Dreams" first aired, and Said Hyder Akbar's "Come Back to Afghanistan" is based on two radio documentaries on Public Radio International's "This American Life." Both authors attempt to understand and explain, as much to themselves as to their readers, the accidents of history that landed their families in the United States.

Lam's father was a general in the South Vietnamese army. During the last days before the fall of Saigon in April 1975, 11-year-old Andrew was assigned to burn the family photo album -- photographs of his father in the company of his U.S. comrades-in-arms, which the victorious Viet Cong would see as evidence of treason. "I put them all in a pile in the backyard and lit a match," Lam recalls. "When I was done, the mementos of three generations had turned into ashes."

Lam and his family managed to leave Vietnam, and the short prose pieces collected in "Perfume Dreams" represent Lam's struggle to retrieve what they left behind and make sense of what they found on their arrival in America. "But no matter how articulate a Vietnamese becomes ... when we set foot on the American shore, history is already against us," he muses. "Our mythology is merely a private dream in America."

In each chapter, Lam confronts the barriers of language, experience and aspiration that separate his Vietnamese origins from his American destiny. "If Vietnam has become, to Americans, a buzzword for ill-fought wars, a metaphor for disaster, America has become, to the Vietnamese, the symbol of freedom and happiness," he writes. And yet, ripped from an ancient culture deeply rooted in its native soil, the Vietnamese in California are strangers in a strange land: "Ours is an epic filled with irony: the most fatalistic and sentimental people in the world found themselves relocated to a state created by fabulous fantasies, high-tech wizardry, and individual ambitions."

Lam shatters the assumptions of readers who have encountered the Vietnam experience only through American pop culture. The horrors depicted in "Apocalypse Now," "The Deer Hunter" and the "Rambo" movies are laughable to Vietnamese of a certain generation, a caricature of the complexities and contradictions of the war. But the Vietnamese, too, buy into the war's myth.

For example, according to Lam it was a common belief among Vietnamese leaving their homeland that the recovered bones of a dead GI, "carefully washed by impoverished Vietnamese hands and carried along as a treasure," would bring a bounty from the American government. " 'A set of GI bones is worth a whole family's tickets to the United States,' so goes the gossip in Vietnam," he writes. The "boat people" who launched themselves into the South China Sea in the hope of rescue by a passing U.S. ship would display a poignant hand-painted sign: "U.S. remains on my boat."

Lam is a journalist by profession, but he writes with the delicacy and intensity of a poet. At a Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco, he contemplates two wooden clocks, one in the shape of Vietnam and the other in the shape of the continental United States: "`Tick, tock, tick, tock. I was born a Vietnamese. Tick, tock, tick, tock. I am reborn an American. Tick, tock, tick, tock, I am of one soul. Tick, tock, tick, tock. Two hearts." And when he describes the disparagement of his rebellious older brother by family and friends, Lam renders the whispered condemnations as a poem:

"He's not Vietnamese!

So American, a cowboy.

How quickly he changed!

Can't trust him: he

opposes his father."

Said Hyder Akbar grew up in California, where his Afghan father sold hip-hop apparel in Oakland's inner city. He returned to his family's homeland when his father was invited to serve as spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai and later as governor of Kunar province. With the assistance of journalist Susan Burton, Akbar recalls his experiences as an American adolescent who is an eyewitness to the rebirth of his country.

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