American Comedy: Birth of a Salesman

ANDREW LAM

September 21, 1991|By ANDREW LAM

SAN FRANCISCO. — San Francisco -- Sometimes late at night a Vietnamese countryman of mine appears on TV and calls me his ''friend.'' ''Come to my seminar, my friend,'' he urges with a strong accent. Tom Vu is his name. He has made millions buying and selling properties with the ''Tom Vu Method.'' ''My friend, so can you.''

Tom Vu is an American success story. He tells you that poverty and suffering belonged to his past, shows you a faded photo of himself standing with half a dozen siblings in a Vietnamese refugee camp -- a Mr. Nobody. He shows you this, sitting on a yacht surrounded by bikini-clad blondes or in his Porsche with a mansion in the background. He has made his millions through real estate; the Porsche and the blondes on the yacht are evidence of his being a somebody now.

Vietnamese do not have a tradition of selling houses and selling land. Our culture is more often deeply rooted in rural life where a person's bond to the land is strong and enduring. For instance, when I was born, my mother buried my umbilical cord in her garden. As a result, she told me, no matter where I go the land will always remember me. Or consider this: When my grandfather built a new house for my uncle in Saigon he invited a geomancer to place talismans at the gate of the estate to ward off evil.

Recently on a trip to Vietnam I saw well-tended graves rising among the green rich rice fields. ''Why are there so many graves on your rice fields?'' I asked a young Vietnamese farmer on an oxcart making his way home. ''They're my ancestors,'' he said. ''They worked here and they died here. We pay them respect and their spirits in turn protect the land.''

The farmer, who had never seen a city, asked me if we in America invest as much sweat and blood in our land as he does. Not the same way, I told him. Americans live in towns and cities, and we move about, from city to city, restlessly.

Years ago, when we first came to America my family and I dreamed often of Vietnam -- the land. My grandmother especially had many vivid dreams such that we thought her spirit had actually gone back. ''The guavas are ripened,'' she informed us one morning, or another time: ''The rain has flooded the garden again.''

But time passed and grandmother became senile and her visions of our homeland faded as her children and grandchildren became Americans. My family learned quickly to shrug off our old ideas of home and hearth. We speak passionately now of the American dream and we speak the language of escrow, down payments and collateral.

Tom Vu, like it or not, epitomizes that shift in the immigrant perspective -- a transition that many of us who came from a rural culture have undergone. What America taught him, and taught all of us, is that we don't have to have strong ties and reverence to the land. Sell, buy, auction properties, my friend, it is only a piece of paper, a deed, a commodity that, in the end, could make you very rich.

''The majority of American millionaires make their millions from real estate,'' Tom Vu informs his TV audience cheerfully. ''Why don't you?'' With the Tom Vu Method, you can retire in a few years' time.

A picture then of irony. Tom Vu, the Vietnamese refugee, becomes the main character in a new American comedy: ''The Birth of a Salesman.'' He sells America to Americans. He sits on his yacht and in his Porsche and offers his audience the chance to transcend human hardship and suffering with his get-rich-quick schemes.

And a potent vision, indeed. Thousands, I hear, flock to his seminars. Alone on his podium, the Vietnamese-American salesman preaches on. He learned what many newcomers are learning. In America, my friend, you can escape nostalgia and parochialism. In America, you can even escape your previous rustic self. Just embrace the profitable nomadic faith and, in the morning, become American.

''Don't you have the guts, my friend?''

Andrew Lam, born and raised in Vietnam, wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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