One of the most enduring images of the Vietnam War is its end: The last helicopter taking off from the American Embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975, with would-be refugees clinging to the landing skids.
At the age of 11, Andrew Lam escaped Saigon just two days before the city fell to the Viet Cong, on April 28, 1975. Along with his mother, his older sister, and his grandmothers, he flew to Guam and then to Camp Pendleton, near San Diego.
They were some of the first refugees to arrive in the United States after the war, and the very first to arrive in Daly City, just south of San Francisco, where Lam’s aunt had opened the area’s first Vietnamese restaurant.
Lam is now a celebrated journalist and author of books like "Perfume Dreams" and "Birds of Paradise Lost." But when he arrived in 1975, Lam spoke only Vietnamese and French. He recalls the experience in "Show and Tell," a story in his recent collection, "Birds of Paradise Lost." In that story, Cao Lung Dinh, a young Vietnamese refugee, arrives in a sixth-grade classroom just after the end of the war.
Like Cao, Lam says he encountered "some racism," but that the American media coverage of Vietnam made him an object of fascination.
"I was the first refugee kid to enter into America’s classrooms in 1975, right off the television, because it was the first television war in America," Lam explains. "So the kids, even though they didn’t know much about Vietnam, they saw images of it nightly with Walter Cronkite. And here I was, this kid that was at the other side of the TV set, emerged into their classroom. So they were really fascinated."
Takeaway Producer Jillian Weinberger accompanied Lam on a tour of Daly City, the author’s first home in the United States. While the tech boom has sent real estate prices skyrocketing across the Bay Area, Daly City hasn’t strayed too far from its working-class, immigrant roots, just as Lam remembers it.
"When we got here, there was a mixed group of people, which is always the case of Daly City," he says. "Black, Filipinos, Samoans, Nicaraguans...It was an extraordinary America that welcomed me."
Lam now lives at the north end of Mission Street in a luxury building that feels quite far from his beginnings in Daly City. His parents bought their first home near the south end of Mission Street in 1981. And while his current residence is only 10 miles from his original Bay Area neighborhood, he hadn’t seen that first house in 34 years.
"I remember when we bought that house—we were so happy because we had become a middle class, American family within three to four years time in America," he says. "Instead of refugees, we became immigrants. We were not just a people fleeing anymore—we were people who slowly had roots embedded in America."
When they arrived in 1975, Lam and his family first lived in an apartment above the Vietnamese restaurant owned and operated by his aunt—an apartment that, at one point, housed 16 of his family members. Lam’s aunt eventually sold the restaurant to his mother and his family spent the next four years there. Today, it’s called Manila Restaurant and it’s owned by a Filipino family.
Over two plates of Filipino barbeque and rice, Lam tells Weinberger about his life upon arriving in the Bay Area, then the epicenter of the anti-war movement.
"There were a lot of anti-war people in this country," he recalls. "And back then I wouldn’t have wanted to talk with them because the American withdrawal from Vietnam basically caused South Vietnam to fall apart. It’s fine to be anti-war, but what about the people you encourage to fight and then abandon in the middle of the battlefield?"
He continues: "I ran into the same attitude when I was in [UC] Berkeley, for instance, where people romanticize Ho Chi Minh, whereas I regard him as the cause of my own suffering."
For many refugees, that suffering made talking about life in Vietnam, before or after the war, difficult or impossible. But not in Lam’s family, at least when it came to the war and its aftermath.
"I’m really lucky because my parents were in sort of leadership positions; they were public figures," Lam explains. "So for them, articulating about history, about what happened, is kind of normal."
He continues: "But I’ve run into kids, Vietnamese kids who were born in this country, who read my book and came up and said, 'I really want to thank you for writing this book because now I know what it’s like for my parents. They never talk about it.'"
So many of these refugees, silent on their suffering and their personal lives, landed in the Bay Area at a time when the division between the private and the public was eroding, an era of frank talk and action on race, gender and sexuality. As Lam explains, "One of the most conservative people in the old world were picked up and then deposited in the land where you have love-in, drop-out hippies—you know, the summer of love. It’s a culture shock for sure."
The murder of Harvey Milk particularly stands out in his memory. "When I was a young teenager, I remember Harvey Milk being killed and I didn’t know what that was about. And my aunt would drive us, afterward, down Castro and she would say, 'These are gay people' and I didn’t know what that means except that my eye started to wander."
It seems that while Lam’s parents talk frankly and openly about their wartime experiences, their fully-Americanized son knows there are some topics he can’t broach.
"The story of my life, unfortunately, is on Wikipedia!," he says, laughing. "But there is no such thing as coming out in my family because you don’t talk about these things."
He pauses and then says, "You can read my work if you care to."