The term “American Dream” has become so politicized, sloganized and often trivialized that it can easily slip into a cliché. Anyway, to Cam Nguyen, the word “dream” is too gauzy for her definition. She substitutes “opportunity,” a word that sweats, breathes and can be grabbed and squeezed.
Cam is a 30-year-old Vietnamese immigrant of 2011, one of thousands of Asians who in recent years have looked east to these shores for a new life. For 10 years, she and her family saved pennies and planned until they could afford to make the leap across the Pacific with American visas in hand.
When her first-ever airplane trip ended at LAX and the plane doors opened onto this bewilderment called California, her family stepped into their future with $1,300. In our society, that amount can trickle through the fingers on a weekend shopping frenzy. But if that’s all you have — period — you don’t visit shopping malls.
The family of five first moved temporarily into an unimproved, one-car garage in San Diego made available by a family acquaintance. They were grateful to have it, plus they didn’t have to shout to hear each other.
Cam is a slim woman of medium height. Her manner is quiet and watchful, deferential with a shy, self-effacing smile. However, one senses that beneath the demure cultural cloak is a woman of tough resolve. Her smile may say, “My only goal is to please you,” but you will notice that her feet haven’t budged.
Cam and her family come from a small village near the southern tip of Vietnam where, as subsistence rice farmers, they could make $250 to $300 per year. They also raised shrimp as a cash crop, but the income from that was iffy.
Even for that developing country, theirs was a scratch living. They lived in a two-bedroom house with her husband’s parents, who occupied one bedroom while Cam’s family lived in the other.
Because of their industry, Asian immigrants have been called the “new Jews.” That’s a compliment, because they are reminders of those ambitious Eastern European immigrants of a century and more ago who disembarked at Ellis Island and lost no time looking for an English night class. They sought education and a toehold and found both. By so doing, they enriched themselves and our society.
Unlike many Americans who obsess over, argue about, and even re-enact our own past civil “unpleasantness” — Pickett’s Charge, Lee vs. Grant, ad infinitum — Cam says she never heard people in her village talk about their nation’s protracted and bloody civil war: no recriminations, no open hatred, no public discussion.
“There’s been peace for a long time. It was over a long time before I was even born. People are too busy trying to make a living to even talk about it.”
I don’t know how U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War might feel about that.
To Cam, opportunity means three things. There’s hard work and English. If hard work is the engine, English is the lubricant on which opportunity moves forward.
The third thing? Family, and the belief that what is good for one must be good for all — Cam, husband Kiet Lam, 33, and their daughter and two sons, ages 11, 10 and 5. (In Vietnamese custom, the wife retains her maiden name while the children take the father’s surname.)
Just as soon as the family landed in the U.S. and made its way to San Diego, Cam and Kiet joined an English as a Second Language class. Cam found a job as a tailor for low wages. She worked long hours, scrambled to get home to take care of the kids, and then went to class, finally putting her head on the pillow at midnight.
Kiet went to work for his brother as a technician in a smog-test garage. His brother had immigrated earlier as a boat refugee and was the sponsor for the family.
After only two years, everyone in the family has their hands firmly on the ladder and their feet on the rungs. They now live in a three-bedroom rental in City Heights. The kids are excelling students, and Cam’s husband has earned a raise sufficient to allow her to focus on being a homemaker and mother, and to double-down on her English lessons.
She says her role model is Kiet, whom she describes as determined and ambitious. He works six days a week and still finds time for night school. She has no doubt he will someday own his own business.
ESL teacher Mimi Pollack says Cam’s diligence has lifted her English skills to high intermediate, adding that her strength is reading. Conversational English is much tougher, and that is what she’s concentrating on.
A cultural experience that still makes Cam’s eyes glitter happened one day at a stop at an am/pm store. “My co-worker bought two hot dogs, one for each of us. It had relish and other toppings, and it was delicious. I am overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of food in this country.”
Compared to the unsexy but healthy Vietnamese diet of rice, fish and vegetables, American food is a wonderland of taste. Family favorites are pizza and fried chicken. Though Vietnamese food is still the family staple, the smell of pepperoni causes a rush to the table. She may learn that American food has a way of growing on you.
Cam has pretty much ignored American politics, thus far, espousing neither party and having no opinion of President Barack Obama. She wants her children to grow up with a “global” perspective. That seems common among many immigrants today in which American citizenship, though desired, has lost some of the luster of an earlier day.
I recall a Belgian immigrant from the 1940s saying, “American citizenship was magic. It was what everyone in the world dreamed of. No more proud possession could be had than an American passport. The Statue of Liberty was almost a deity.”
City Heights is a polyglot of immigrants from several continents. It’s also a lock-your-doors area of central San Diego.
Cam sees the drugs on the streets of the neighborhood, and she tells her children that it’s always her fear that they might fall into something like that, even though all are obedient and studious.
“I tell them what the family has sacrificed in order for them to be here. While I’m at school, my 11-year-old daughter cooks rice and washes the dishes and helps me in that way. So, whenever I come home, my daughter says, ‘I’m doing these things to help you feel less tired in your day.’ ”
As are many uprooted immigrants, Cam is ambivalent about the cultural Babel she has brought her family into. She recognizes that English and American customs are the keys to advancement, but her Catholic Vietnamese roots are deep, and she fights doggedly to plant them in her children.
“I have this rule that when they’re outside, they can speak English, but when they’re in the house they must speak only Vietnamese, and if they speak English they are sent to their room for 15 minutes before they can come back.”
Sometimes her 5-year-old, who doesn’t know much Vietnamese, will ask if he can tell a story in English. Cam tells him no. And even though the boy speaks English better than Vietnamese, she will not allow it.
Intuitively, Cam must know the battle she fights is a losing one. As the years pass, cultural and language ties for her children and grandchildren will, at best, weaken and be bound only by the thread of convenience, and perhaps some sense of nostalgia.
Informed that the English equivalent of her name is Violet, Cam says she has no intention of Anglicizing it, though she might when she and Kiet qualify for citizenship.
Cam says that her aged parents, living sparsely on their small savings back in her home village, have never left her mind. Her hope is to be able to provide comfort to them in their old age. “I often think that if I have one less cup of tea, one less cup of noodles, it will bring nearer the day I can do that.”
Still uncertain of her ability to carry on a sustained conversation in English, especially in an interview, Cam spoke through an interpreter to describe an epiphany she believes will change her life:
One day, when she was picking up her youngest from day-care, she looked at the children sprawled napping on the floor, and an old ambition flared up like dry kindling. She had long nursed an image of herself as a teacher of small children, and the sight at that moment re-energized the goal. She described the old dream to Kiet, but he pointed out the implausibility of getting a college degree and teacher certification. Again, the dream went quiet.
However, in a discussion with ESL teacher Pollack, she was told that the school she attends also has a program for certification to run a preschool center, and that Cam is within two to three years of achieving it. Her teacher’s encouragement told Cam it could be on her horizon to one day operate her own center.
And then, her castle in the air would be provided a foundation.
A professional status and also her own business? That would be the yin and yang of the Asian immigrant. Life, already good, would be better.
Even though she has a doable means to fulfill her ambition, her husband is getting raises and her kids are earning straight A’s, I’m sure Cam sometimes closes her eyes at night to the hum of tropical insects, the pungent smell of rice fields and her parents’ happy laughter, all of which fades into the wall as sleep covers her.
In a few years, the couple’s diligent parenting and all those classroom A’s might pay off in a road trip. It would start by driving north on Interstate 5 for a long way, then west on Interstate 580, then north on Interstate 80. Finally, exit on University Avenue and follow it east to UC Berkeley. Cam will know when they arrive.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions. Contact him at [email protected]