Author’s note: Growing old in America can mean growing more isolated, and that’s particularly tough on immigrants whose home cultures stress strong family and clan ties. My mother, Ngoc B. Lam, came to America in 1975 as a refugee from Vietnam and worked as an accountant for more than 20 years. Below is an essay put together by long conversations with her in Vietnamese. She now suffers from dementia, and while her memories of the contemporary are fading she never lost her power of articulation nor her longing for the distant past and the insularities of clan and family.
FREMONT, Calif.—There’s a Vietnamese saying: America is paradise for the young, but hell for the old, and how true it seems now that I’m in my late 70s. America has all these products that cater to children: toys, movies, video games, theme parks. For the old there’s only isolation and loneliness.
Vietnamese are defined by family, by community, and when you lose that, you lose a big part of who you are. In Vietnam I never thought of living anywhere else but in my homeland. You live and die where your ancestors lived and died. You have your relatives, your clan; you have your family, your temple.
Once we were bound to the land in which our ancestors are buried, and we were not afraid of death and dying. But in America our old way of life is gone. We were forced to flee after the war ended in 1975, and we have lived in exile since then. Today, my friends and relatives are scattered across the world.
In America you lose so much the older you get — friends, relatives, memories, mobility, a sense of yourself. The phone rings. I pick it up. It’s Mrs. so-and-so in Los Angeles. She’s got diabetes and had her leg amputated. Then the phone rings again: Mr. so-and-so in Georgia has lung cancer. He’s only got a few months left. Back in Vietnam, we were all good friends. But at my age, how do you visit when they’re thousands of miles away? Can you imagine calling your close friends as they lay dying in a hospital, apologizing for not being able to go see them for one last time? Well, I do that monthly now. It’s very sad.
My husband and I, we went on a trip this a few summers ago. It was our final trip, to say goodbye to relatives and friends. We know we won’t be able to travel after this, as our strength is failing. We’ll never see them again after that. I can hardly climb down stairs because my knees hurt very badly. We sold our house and live in a condo with an elevator because it’s the only way to be independent now.
What I worry about most is that my memory is not what it used to be. I am the keeper of our family tree, but it’s all in my head. Who’s related to whom was my specialty, being the oldest daughter in the family. But none of my children know about the large clan connection, not even my younger siblings. Without me, people who used to be relatives will be strangers if they meet again on the street. I used to know all the way to my third cousins on both my side and my husband’s side of the family. I have to write down all of their names before my memory goes.
Sometimes when I get up in the morning, I stare out at the trees outside and wonder where I am. Sometimes I go to the apartment complex across the street, where there are some abandoned cats. I feed them with my leftovers. They recognize my voice. I call and they run to me. They are my source of joy.
When my children and grandchildren visit it’s a great time, of course. But everyone has their own lives. They come once in a while, but what do you do with all those empty hours that stretch out before you?
My mother, who died at the age of 97, and my mother-in-law, who died at the age of 95, were in the same convalescent home for years. I used to take the bus to see them everyday, even when I was working. I knew how sad it was to grow old in America even back then, when I was healthy and younger. The nurses told me how lucky the two grandmothers were, having all these children and grandchildren visiting them on a regular basis. “It’s the Vietnamese way,” I would tell them. All those other old people, their children rarely visit. I remember a few old women sitting in their wheelchairs waiting for their children or family, day in and day out, and no one came. There was even one who outlived her children and still, everyday, she expected her sons to walk in through the door. How tragic to live so long and to be so alone!
The old are obsolete here in America. Neither respected nor deemed important. Back home, the elders are given the highest place of honor, and it was they who dispensed wisdom and shared their experiences with those who came up after them. It’s not true here. No one wants to hear what you have to say. You feel isolated from your Americanized children and grandchildren. They laugh at things I don’t understand. America is so much more their country than it is mine.
In the winter afternoons I sit and watch the barren trees, feeling very lost. I think of how the whole world I once knew is all gone now, like incense smoke. I think of the old country, of the Tet Festivals back in Saigon, of the weddings and holidays, with gatherings of families and friends, everyone together, children running, adults gossiping, women cooking together, and I feel this deep yearning for the distant past.
New America Media editor, Andrew Lam is the author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" (Heyday Books, 2005), which won a Pen American "Beyond the Margins" award and where the above essay is excerpted, and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres." His next book, "Birds of Paradise Lost" is due out March 01, 2013. He has lectured and read his work widely at many universities.