It was not always so. I grew up in the late '70s and, as a teenager, had
resigned myself to the idea that Confucian ethos and incense smoke and
Vietnamese refugee memories were affairs told largely in the dark, a
private preoccupation of sorts. The public world belonged to white and
black folks whose dialogue did not betray any knowledge of the color
yellow or brown. Besides, my family collective drive was simply to reach
a comfortable middle-class life. Our voice muted, our past stored away,
we let sense rule over sensibility and trained our eyes instead at the
five-bedroom suburban house with a swimming pool winking in the backyard.
As the youngest member of my family, I finally rebelled. After I
graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a biochemistry degree and started working
with a team of cancer researchers at Cal, I was suddenly plagued with a
deep yearning to make sense out my Vietnamese memories. My fledgling
scientific career thus came to an abrupt end: Two years into research I
put down the test tube and picked up the pen and began to write.
It was, all in all, the right decision. The late '80s were an interesting
time to be a writer and journalist. When I started writing for the
Pacific News Service, a small wire news service based in San Francisco,
the Berlin Wall fell and college students were being massacred in
Tiananmen Square in Beijing. And I myself began to travel: to Laos, Burma,
Cambodia, China, India and even to my beloved homeland, Vietnam. The Cold
War was thawing in front of my eyes and I got the front row seat. I saw
the iron curtain coming down and the borders becoming more and more porous,
trampled underfoot by mass migration and individual ambitions.