LitDaily

Daily Notes on Literature, Pop Culture & Media, and Academia

Writing and the American Dream

Posted by litdaily on September 27, 2010

Vietnamese American author Andrew Lam writes about the anguish his family experienced when he told them about his decision to become a writer:

And for Vietnamese in America, education is everything. So, for someone lucky enough to escape the horrors of post-war Vietnam and be handed through the hard work of his parents the opportunity to become a doctor, to say “no, thank you” was akin to Confucian sin. By refusing to fulfill my expected role within the family, I was being dishonorable. “Selfish,” more than a few relatives called me.

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Lam’s essay illustrates the extent to which writing and arts are considered antithetical to the American Dream. Writing is not considered hard work or labor, which is the core of the meaning of American Dream, especially for immigrants. Lam’s choice to be a writer also brings to the fore tensions between individual aims and community expectations, as the community labels his decision “selfish.” It is ironical, then, that being a professional—such as a doctor, lawyer, or engineer—which involves amassing personal wealth and fortune is considered “honorable”; while writing a book or creating a work of art, which does not bring equal financial returns but instead brings visibility to the history and story of the entire community, is “selfish.”

Hmong American author Kao Kalia Yang’s memoir The Latehomecomer, on the other hand, represents her family, especially her father, as encouraging her ambition to be a writer to tell the story of Hmong persecution. Her father says:

It is very important that you tell this part of our story: the Hmong came to America without a homeland. Even in the very beginning, we knew that we were looking for a home. Other people in moments of sadness and despair can look to a place in the world: where they might belong. We are not like that. I knew our chance was here. Our chance to share in a new place and a new home. This is so important to our story. You must think about it, and tell it the way it is (Yang 273).

Part of the difference between Lam’s and Yang’s stories can be attributed to gender considerations, especially because Yang’s book dwells at length on the cultural value assigned to sons. The contrast between the two above passages demonstrates that while Asian American daughters might be encouraged to become writers; for Asian American sons, the decision to follow a career in writing invokes feelings of betrayal.

Yang’s memoir is remarkable because it cements the idea of attainment of the American Dream through writing. Throughout the book, Yang family has to continually defer their attainment of the American Dream because of their poverty. For a family that faced the consequences of America’s recruitment of Hmong in the “Secret War” against communists in Vietnam and Laos, the achievement of American Dream is finding refuge, a home, and family, even if they be in writing the words in a book: “We, seekers of refuge, will find it: if not in the world, then in each other. If not in life, then surely in books…. Together, we are typing on the keyboards of time” (Yang 274).

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