Memo from Vietnam

Sacramento writer finds an evolving American dream

Lien Hoang is a regular SN&R contributor now living in Vietnam

My story doesn’t make much sense to people who see the United States as the land of opportunity. Read: my parents.

They sneaked out of Vietnam in the 1980s and lived out the immigrant dream in California, complete with the house, car and college for their children.

And here I am now, giving up all of those luxuries, to move from Sacramento, back across the Pacific.

When I told my parents I would return to Vietnam to work, they thought it was the dumbest decision I’d ever made.

Why, oh why, my mother lamented every time we talked, would I leave the comforts of home for that Third World country?

Even while driving me to the airport, she hoped I would reconsider, or at least wait until she was dead so she wouldn’t have to worry. Human life is cheap there, she said, and war with China (over ongoing territorial disputes) could break out any day.

Vietnam has a per capita income close to $1,000, and while my parents never seriously demanded I become a doctor or engineer, they sensibly expected I would earn more than that. How could I waste my Ivy League degree on a place like that?

Indeed, as I look around at this very moment, their question seems to be the only sane one. Surely, I have not resigned myself to sleeping on ceramic tile, squatting over toilets and scrubbing my laundry beneath a faucet.

Within hours of landing in this city, I was explaining my poor life choices to one Vietnamese person after another. Not that they were all clamoring to go to the United States, but there certainly is a culture here that pines for the land of air conditioning and four-wheeled cars. Some joke about it (“If you’re good, I’ll let you go to nuoc my with that lady,” one mother tells her 5-year-old when we meet); others pay for marriages of convenience or, in my family’s case, escape.

My parents felt everyone was heading in or looking toward one direction, and I was running in the opposite direction. Or perhaps I was like the daughter in The Little Mermaid II, returning to the ocean.

These days, I am wondering if the American Dream has evolved.

The narrative no longer has to be that immigrants work hard so their children don’t have to. Our parents aren’t giving us the tools just to become wealthy, but also to have freedom in the kind of lives we want.

I am simply taking the resources my parents gave me—education, curiosity, a stable upbringing—and investing them elsewhere. I don’t have a mission in Vietnam, like someone who made it out and then returned to give back. But I think my background will go much further here.

As a champion of globalization, I’m pleased to hear about friends and others who also are setting out and settling down in far-flung locales for whatever reason—adventure seeking, wanderlust, employment.

In some of their cases, and in mine, the journey somehow brings the immigrant story full circle. My parents abandoned Vietnam when it felt like a sinking ship. Decades of conflict had devastated the nation; global politics isolated it. Then economic reforms began to bring the country back into the international fold, even to the point of friendship with its former enemy. Vietnam’s turnaround hasn’t quite reached the level of South Korea or Japan after U.S. involvement, but it’s no longer the country my parents left behind.

This seems like a good time to go back.