Nationalism requires a sense of identity. This is due to its supplementation of the characteristics that allows the individual’s creation of a self based on his conception of the cultural link between his group and its land. In relation to this, the most important facet of national identity is the description of a common national history that all occupants of a nation share. If such is the case, it thereby follows that national identity [and the creation of such] involves the political act of enabling the validation of a particular account of national history and hence that of national culture.
The relationship of national history and that of national identity is apparent if one considers that national identity is based upon the rhetorics of memory. According to Gillis, “identity depends on the idea of memory (as it ensures) a sense of sameness over time and space” (3). In relation to this Eric Leed argues that such a view of identity leads to a highly simplistic account of identity since it is based on the assumption that identity is “an object bounded in time and space…with clear beginnings and endings, with its own territoriality” (qtd in Gillis 3-4).
However, it is important to note that as opposed to such a claim each particular relationship between identity, space, and time must be understood as situated within different contexts that allows the continuous construction [or in this sense reconstruction] of an identity. If such is the case, it thereby follows that the political aspect of identity is not merely defined by the process of validating historical accounts but it is also dependent upon the economic and transnational aspects involved in the continuous formation of identity.
This is apparent in the case of individuals who have led their lives bound by two cultures such as Vietnamese-Americans. In line with this, the task of this paper is to assess the conflict experienced by individuals bound by two cultures such as Vietnamese-Americans in the creation of their identity. In the process of doing this, I will discuss Andrew Lam’s views regarding the Vietnamese-American identity as it is discussed in his book Perfume Dreams.
I will argue that for such individuals the creation of an identity involves bridging the gap between one’s past and one’s present which results in the redefinition of both the Vietnamese and American identity. In “Notes of a Warriors Son”, Lam initially describes the process of his identity formation as being bound by his father’s concept of his own identity. He states, “He (his father) saw himself as a political exile…as his children it was understood that we were to accept that exile identification for ourselves as well” (Lam 33).
For the exiled individual, the necessity of both nationalism and national identity is apparent if one considers that it enables exile [the experience of exile] to have meaning since “without the belief that there is a connection between an individual and a place, exile has no meaning” (McLennen 21). The paradox, however, is evident if one considers the experience of nations [or individuals within a nation] exiled from their land. Lam describes this paradox fully as he describes his experiences within America.
He states, I was growing up with two different ideas of history, two sets of civilization, two traditions, two languages, two sets of behaviors, and I was, for what seems now a long, long time, floundering between them. (Lam 34). Lam was bound by Vietnamese culture as a result of family ties at the same time he was also bound by American culture as a result of his participation within the community. In order to remedy this conflict, Lam chose to embrace American culture along with the “freedom and happiness” that it promised (93).
This promise lies in the new beginning that the country offered for the individuals who have been exiled. Lam argues that this freedom and happiness ought to be used by exiled individuals as a means for “self-invention” (34). He states, “In America…the past is not important; the future is always bright. America approves of amnesia…offers redemption at the end of the road and, for the newcomer, a marvelous transformation of the self: a rebirth” (Lam 35).
In a sense, one might state that America provides an environment where in the self can reinvent itself through the different signs available for communication within the country (Kron 116). In addition to this, for the exile, America proves to be the land devoid of suffering (Lam 94). It is important to understand this within the perspective of the exile or the refugee. For the refugee, America stands as the land that allows diversity. This may be seen as an offshoot of the liberal and democratic setting within the country.
Within a liberal and democratic setting, diversity was allowed since the maintenance of freedom and equality required the tolerance of different values and beliefs as well as the existence of individuals with different ethnic backgrounds. However, in opposition to this view, Anna Quindlen argues that “tolerance is a vanilla-pudding word , standing for little more than the allowance of letting others live unremarked and unmolested” (62).
In her essay, “A Quilt of a Country”, Quindlen states that current American society is characterized by the tension between individualism and pluralism (61). She states, initially pluralism within the country was allowed since the existence of individuals with different ethnic backgrounds proved the existence of other individuals who countered “world wars and the electrified fence of communism” (Quindlen 62). According to Quindlen, when these events ended, the result was the disappearance of a national identity. She states,
With the end of the cold war there was the creeping concern that without a focus for hatred and distrust, a sense of national identity would evaporate, that the left side of the hyphen–African-American, Mexican-American, Irish-American–would overwhelm the right. (Quindlen 61) The struggle between individualism and pluralism, within this context, is thereby apparent in the creation [and/or emphasis] of identities connected with the American identity which stands as a result of individuals’ desire to separate themselves from those who do not share their own culture.
Despite of this creation of new identities, Quindlen however argues that the power of American society may also be traced in its patriotism, its “ability to throw all of us together in a country that across its length and breadth is as different as a dozen countries, and still be able to call it by one name” (61). From the refugee or exile’s point of view, one might state that the power of American society lies in its ability not only to enable the creation of a new identity which is both merged with and separated from the past but also in its ability to show the unity of a nation characterized by different individuals from different origins.
Lam recognizes this himself. In an interview regarding his book Perfume Dreams he states that he recounts the tale of his family since he believes that it is an American story. He states, I don’t feel complete as an American unless my Vietnamese past is bridged with my American present…The struggle of my family in America is worth telling…it adds to the fabric of American stories. (1) As can be seen in Lam’s views above, the power of American society and American culture itself lies in the freedom that the land provides for exiles and refugees from other countries.
As Lam states, “anything is possible in America” (12). Within the country, it is possible to envision “individual fame and glory, a larger sense of the self” (Lam 57). Given this context, I myself am proud of being an American since this country enables the existence as well as the practice of different values. In addition to this, it allows the continuous evolution of its own culture as it incorporates the culture of the individuals who have chosen to take refuge or to start a new life within the country.
In addition to this, the country practices the foundations of its constitution that being liberty and equality. This can be seen in its practice of values pluralism within the country. Through this practice of values pluralism, it also allows the evolution of American society and American identity as well. As Andrew describes this process of evolution as he describes the merging of two identities and two nationalities within an individual. He states, When did this happen?
Who knows? One night America quietly steps in and takes hold of one’s mind and body, and the Vietnamese soul of sorrows fades away. In the morning the Vietnamese American speaks a new language of materialism. (Lam 68). It is this language which is a result of the combination of his Vietnamese heritage which he derived from his familial ties and his American heritage which he derived from his participation within American society or within American culture.
In summary, the beauty of American society as presented in Andrew Lam’s Perfume Dreams lies in its promise of forging a new identity which is not bound by a refugee or exile’s defeat in another country. This new identity is enabled by the practice of liberty and equality within the country. Within this country, which I am proud of, each individual is capable of practicing his own beliefs while in the process enabling of the creation of his own identity as can be seen in the case of Andrem Lam in his book Perfume Dreams.