Family Elders Cling to Old Ways as Young Look to New

Times Staff Writer

On Saturday nights, after most of his family have fallen asleep, Xuong Lam enjoys his one concession to American culture.

Shirtless and with pants rolled up to the knees, he turns on the television and begins to rock from side to side, his arms flailing wildly. Then he gives out a loud belly roar--a kind of half shout, half curious exhortation--in Vietnamese and pidgin English.

"Dap no! Dap no, Howk Hogan!" he cries. "Go get 'em! Beat 'em! Dap no!"

Tai Lam, his 18-year-old son, assures the first-time visitor that all is well inside his Rosemead home. Hulk Hogan, the professional wrestler and his father's favorite American, has just dispensed with another opponent.

"He goes crazy. We tell him that it's fake, but he doesn't believe us," Tai said. "When they bleed, he turns to us and says, 'Is that fake? Is that fake?' We've stopped trying to convince him."

Xuong Lam may have a passion for professional wrestling, but in every other way he refuses to succumb to the America that surrounds him, standing resolute in his desire to preserve his Chinese roots.

Close-Knit Family

He heads a proud, remarkably close-knit family of Chinese refugees from Vietnam who resettled in the United States six years ago. Three generations--Lam's mother, Lam and his wife and 13 children--live under one roof.

The elder Lams, steeped in Chinese tradition, go about their affairs as if they never left Vietnam, or China before that. Except for a few humorous encounters with the outside world via a large Sony television in the living room, they mostly traverse an ethnic community detached from the larger society. They shop at Chinese supermarkets, conduct their business at Chinese banks and sip tea with neighbors who were neighbors back in Saigon.

Yet the steady, inexorable changes in their children have created a parting of generations in the Lam household. Although the children refrain from speaking English at home and dislike American food, their ties to their homeland are tenuous. They have greeted America with open arms while retaining parts of their culture. The younger Lam children serve as interpreters of a strange society, accompanying their sometimes bewildered parents and grandmother through the more confusing nuances of American life.

The old hold stubbornly to tradition while the young adapt. It is a refrain heard constantly among other newcomer families in the suburban communities of Rosemead, Monterey Park, Alhambra and San Gabriel, where one of the nation's largest enclaves of ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam has taken root. An estimated 30,000 refugees--many of them "boat people" such as the Lams--now reside in the western San Gabriel Valley.

Inspiring Legacy

Their resurrection here is one of the few inspiring legacies of the Vietnam War and the violent campaign by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to repress and persecute its Chinese minority.

For Chinese-Vietnamese families such as the Lams, who built a fortune in Vietnam only to see it confiscated in 1975 by the new Communist government, the transplanted ethnic community is at once protective and isolating. It eases the shock of exile but also prevents some of the give and take necessary for integration.

Xuong Lam, 57, who has not worked since he fled Vietnam seven years ago, has made an uneasy accommodation to America. He says he will be forever thankful for the second chance and freedom afforded him. Yet he remains wary of the potential of his new country to absorb him and his children. He has learned just enough English to deal with his children's teachers and school administrators.

"We have taught our children that family is No. 1, that they must show respect to their parents," he said through a translator. "American people do not think this way. I worry that my children will meet bad friends on the outside and become involved with cocaine and things like that.

"I always keep an eye on them and tell them what is good and bad. We have taught them that they must make their parents proud. So far, they seem to be listening."

Ngoc Lam, 56, a housewife, has buried the sadness of exile in work. Her children say she is incapable of sitting still, forever busying herself even when the household chores are finished. When asked what she did for fun, she hesitated answering and her children broke out in wild laughter.

"I enjoy my children going to school without having to pay a fee," she responded in Chinese.

"No," said her 15-year-old daughter, Dung, "he wants to know what you do for pleasure."

She shrugged her shoulders. "I guess I like my garden. But I am happy if my children study, listen to me and don't go out and play a lot."

Vien Tran, Xuong Lam's mother, is 80 and a devout Buddhist and vegetarian. She has lived with the family for more than 30 years. Her husband died in 1961. Twice now she has battled the forces of an alien culture, moving from her native China to Vietnam in 1930 and from Vietnam to the United States in 1980. She refused to learn Vietnamese and her only words of English are "thank you."

She wears the traditional stand-up collar and silk garb of China. She rejects most modern conveniences, choosing to wash her clothes by hand. She will not wash her tops and bottoms together, a practice forbidden by Buddhist tradition.

Daily Ritual

Much of her day is spent fingering a string of worry beads or bowing in prayer before the simple religious shrine she has erected in a back room. Burnt holy paper, the ashes of her worship, litter a backyard of fruit trees and vegetable gardens and roaming hens and chickens. When she is not praying, she instructs her granddaughter, Dung, on the daily ritual of changing the offering of fruit at the base of the shrine.

Her grandchildren say she has the uncanny ability of knowing everything that has transpired in the house--when one of them has come home late or received a bad grade or scolding. And she does not hesitate to speak her mind. She has called her grandchildren "four-legged Vietnamese animals" for not speaking Chinese. None of her grandchildren are married; she has told them to bring home nothing less than a Chinese spouse who speaks her particular Chinese dialect, Chiuchou.

"We like American women," said Bao, 18, the twin brother of Tai. "But my grandmother told us if we ever dated an American girl, she will sweep her out of the house with a broom."

Hybrid Culture

Ranging in age from 31 to 13, the Lam children vary in the degree that they have adopted American values. The teen-agers, who left Vietnam when they were 12 years old and younger and who remember little of the life there, represent a unique hybrid of Chinese, Vietnamese and American culture. School is the launching pad that sends them into a different world day after day, distancing them from their roots.

Often, it is a painful estrangement.

"Sometimes, I wonder if there is anybody in the world that I love," Tai confided late one evening after a night of playing billiards. "My father, mother, brothers and sisters. I never told someone I loved them. The Chinese way is not to say, 'I love you.' Americans say it all the time, even when they don't mean it. I'm not sure what is worse.

"If I told my father I loved him, he'd probably laugh at me. Seriously," Tai said. "Sometimes I get the urge to say 'I love you' to someone. I almost told a girl that once.

"I guess deep down inside, I'm still very Chinese. Sometimes I stay up late at night and wonder who I am. I keep thinking and thinking. . . . I guess I think too much."

Like thousands before and after them, the grandmother, Vien Tran, and her husband, Phat Lam, left China in 1930 in search of a more prosperous life in Vietnam. Lam worked as a street vendor selling noodles that he carried over his shoulder on a stick. By the time he died at the age of 59, he owned a thriving grocery store.

His son, Xuong Lam, the second oldest of six brothers and sisters, began a small business selling cotton and other material at age 14. Fourteen years later, he opened a lucrative import-export business. Wanting to diversify, Lam decided to build his own paper mill in 1967. He imported the machinery from Taiwan and hired 11 engineers to run the plant. By 1975, just as North Vietnam invaded Saigon and established its own government, the plant had grown into the largest privately owned paper mill in South Vietnam, employing 200 workers.

"I guess we were rich," his wife said. "We had three or four cars and a maid who took care of the children."

"Up until the Communists, we were living in heaven," he said. "After they came, we were in hell."

Chance to Escape

In 1978, with the little gold they managed to stash away, the Lams paid off government officials for a chance to escape. Father, mother, 13 children and a 72-year-old grandmother boarded a ramshackle boat designed for a river, not the stormy South China Sea they were about to cross.

The memory of that trip is vague and episodic. The children recall their grandmother praying over the vessel and then asking that they bite the bow for good luck. They were concerned about her ability to withstand the rigors of traveling without food and adequate water. "If we make it, we make it together," they recall her saying. "If we die, we die together." They remember little else except endless vomiting and fighting for space with 215 other passengers.

Six days later, as they approached the Malaysian shoreline, Malaysian government officials tried to turn them away. The refugees on board told the officials that their boat was damaged. When the officials responded that they would have to repair the craft and return to the sea, several refugees took an ax and sank it.

American Sponsor

For two years, the Lams lived in the squalor of a Malaysian refugee camp. In 1980, they secured an American sponsor and were resettled in a small town outside Pittsburgh. Only two other refugee families, one related to the Lams and the other longtime friends, lived in the area. Without the crutch of a large refugee community, the school-age children quickly mastered English.

"Our sponsors and the other Americans were so nice to us," Dung said. "There were so few of us. Not like here. We were special. It felt good."

The Lams said they would have stayed in Pennsylvania had it not been for the cold weather and the lack of job opportunities. Southern California, with its mild climate and large refugee community, held out the promise of a better life, they said. They moved to Monterey Park in 1982 and then to Rosemead two years later.

In a modest home among a changing neighborhood of mostly Latino and Chinese families, the Lams continue to rebuild their lives. One son, Hung, 26, and two daughters, Chau, 25, and Ai, 24, work as postal employees. The eldest son, Hwa, 31, bakes bread and cakes at a Chinese bakery. Another son, Ty, 22, and a daughter, Le, 20, attend Cal Poly Pomona and major in computer science and math respectively. Three more sons--Tai and Bao and Qui, 13--and three more daughters--Mai, 19, Nga, 17, and Dung--attend San Gabriel High School or Garvey Intermediate.

Latino Friends

Qui is a crackerjack poker player who gloats when he wins and pouts when he loses. Two years ago, on Chinese New Year, he beat his brothers and cousins out of $100 and then floated them loans for the next several months. He spends so much time playing with Latino friends that his family jokes that he probably will end up marrying a Latina.

Mai and Nga, who are both straight-A students, plan to major in education in college. Both aspire to be teachers. Dung, who is in the 10th grade but could easily pass for a primary school student, walks around with a baseball mitt under one arm and paperbacks with titles such as "Preppy Problem" under the other. She has a habit of ending each sentence with the word "man."

Bao dreams of being a pilot but doubts his mental capabilities. "I don't know what I'm going to do with my life. I'm not good in school. Everything is fail, fail, fail. My life's going to be tough, I know it."

Tai, on the other hand, has such an easy time in school that he rarely studies and has begun staying out late at night, much to the displeasure of his parents. "You know what I hate the most? Chinese tradition," he says. "It's too strict. In my family, if you want to do something, you should do it first and then ask permission."

Bone Disease

Ta, 28, the third son, is hobbled by a degenerative bone disease in his hip. He stays at home and watches over the hens, roosters and caged birds. He has had one operation in which doctors placed a metal plate in his right leg. Now the leg is an inch shorter than the other and he tires easily. He wants to undergo another operation, but his father is skeptical of Western medicine. Ta rubs on the bad leg a home remedy he has concocted out of white wine and a pungent herb that grows in the backyard.

Grandmother and the six daughters sleep in a small back house detached from the main living quarters. Partitions provide some privacy. The parents and the seven sons sleep in the main house.

"We're used to being crowded," Tai said. "We Chinese can make bedrooms out of anything."

Living together enables the Lams to pool resources to survive. Xuong Lam is so frugal that he spends nearly 12 hours a week grocery shopping, going from one market to the next to find the best prices for shrimp and fish. He holds each fruit and vegetable in the palm of his hand, lifting and slowly turning the produce to inspect for bruises.

Primary Institution

As in Vietnam, the extended family remains the primary institution shaping their lives. When the sons marry, Ngoc Lam said, they will be expected to continue to live at home with their wives and children for a time. The daughters, she said, will move in with their in-laws.

"The custom is changing, and more and more young couples are living out on their own," said Ai, who is engaged to marry next year. "But I will observe it. My mother-in-law will be the boss of the house. You have to respect the older people."

At dusk, while grandmother prays in the back house, Ngoc Lam lights the two red candles over the small religious shrine in the family room. On her hands and knees, she prays for peace and safety for her family. But unlike her mother-in-law, she is not a practicing Buddhist. Her prayers are more ritualistic than religious, done more out of tradition than out of a fealty to one god.

As with many Chinese, her religion is the worship of family, of ancestors. The fruit she places daily before the shrine is an offering to her forebears. If something bad happens in her life, it means that the ancestors are somehow dissatisfied.

For the most part, her children reject the ritual.

"Don't ask me about religion," Nga said. "If you die, you die. If you live, you live."

"Religion is just to make people money," Tai said. "It divides people. I think the world would be better off if everyone were an atheist."

Shared Perspective

In a family where many of the children are so strikingly different, Nga and Tai share a biting wit and a perspective on life that sometimes places them at odds with their Chinese culture.

Nga says Chinese parents worry more about their daughters than their sons. She says this while wondering out loud whether her parents will give her permission to attend a high school prom this spring.

"My mother is very traditional. She thinks 18-year-olds are too young to be dating. If your children are good, they're good. If they're bad, they're bad. That's the way I see it.

"My mother and I talk about school and things like that but nothing personal. She doesn't like to talk about marriage. When I disagree with her or open up my mouth, my mother and grandmother say, 'You little kid, just listen and don't say anything.'

"That attitude gets me angry sometimes. What do they think: This is China? No."

Marriage Plans

Nga said she does not distinguish between Chinese and American cultures but will probably wed a Chinese man to increase the odds of a happy marriage. She wants no more than four children and plans to teach them Chinese first and then English.

"I would like my family to be as close as we are," she said. "We are 13 brothers and sisters and we don't have one runaway or anything like that. I have Chinese friends who don't talk to their parents, who don't communicate with their sisters and brothers.

"We stay close. My mom and dad have been together all their lives and I have never seen them have what you'd call a fight. I have a lot of respect for them. My mom always tells us that if you marry a guy, you stay with him for life. She said that if we ever got a divorce, we shouldn't even look at her again."

Tai said disagreements with his parents are typically over limits placed upon his freedom. "My father wants us to go to school, come home, go to school, come home," Tai said. "He doesn't believe in fun."

But Tai said he rarely challenges his father.

"Sometimes, when I disagree with my father and I want to argue with him, I think about what he has been through and I forget about it," he said.

'Very Strong Man'

"My father had many close friends who killed themselves. I would have too. They worked all their lives for one thing and then they lost it, just like that. My father lost everything too. But he was stronger. He's a very strong man. And he's the most honest man I ever met."

Said Bao: When you interview my father, please don't ask him about Vietnam. He'll start to shout and he'll go crazy. He hates the Communists so much that when he gets up to go to the bathroom, he tells us that he's going so he can make a donation to the Communists."

Xuong Lam said it took two years before he stopped dwelling on what he had left behind. Hatred and spite and the future of his children allowed him to carry on, he said.

"They had already taken my whole life's fortune. I wasn't going to let them take my life. I couldn't do anything about it. I couldn't save anything.

"I had lots of children. I had their futures to look forward to."

He knows full well that one day his children and his children's children may forsake their roots.

"When you are old like me or my wife and mother, America cannot change you. How many years do we have left to learn about America? But the younger ones, they will change. I am not happy about that, but I have to accept the good things about America with the bad. . . . Freedom has a price."

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