Left Behind

February 01, 1994|By ANDREW LAM

On a plane to Bangkok, a Singaporean businessman shows me his passport. Thicker than a Tolstoy novel and full of entry and exit stamps, it bears evidence of Asia's porous borders and cosmopolitan souls. ''A new Asian middle class is rewriting Asia's future,'' the businessman declares.

To counter such optimism I remind him of Asia's long, grief-ridden history: how in the 19th century Asia's metaphor was the geisha -- demure, passive, her fate dependent on the power of her European lover. For most of the 20th century, the American century, Asia was ravaged by ideologies foreign to her agrarian soil but so potent they inspired brothers from the same village to shed each other's blood.

I remember that Asia very well -- an Asia where my paternal grandfather showed more deference to his French colonial masters than to his village gods and then overdosed on opium at 35; where my mother's brother turned against the family to follow Uncle Ho and fought against my father, for almost 30 years.

Tell me, I ask my seat mate, couldn't too many dark memories -- of religious rivalries, land conflicts, nationalist hatreds, family feuds -- undermine what the neon billboards hail as Asia's bright future?

The businessman waves his hand as if to wipe away Asia's perennial complaints. ''You have lived in America too long. Americans like to dwell on their past glory. If you want to see the future, you should live in Asia.''

Such bold words! But they are in tune with the new optimism that pervades this region. Where once East Asians could see only wars, famines and poverty on the horizon, today they see themselves living at the center of the world. In a high-tech karaoke bar in Bangkok, a young man sings in accented English to an elegantly dressed audience of Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Malays:

''Our separate lands are one from now on. We are Asians/We sing in one voice/We sing in one song.''

A hundred years of imagination stretch across the Pacific Ocean, separating me, the Asian-American immigrant, from the new Asia. As irony would have it, I am the one who has been left behind.

I am formed, after all, by my childhood myths, the stories my grandmother told me: The princess dies, husbands go to war never to come back, faithful wives wait hopelessly for their warrior husbands only to turn into stone. The problem with the wisdom of the suffering world, the Singaporean businessman would tell me, is that it gives investors a bad case of the nerves.

''The 21st century man will be a Chinese,'' an American business executive in Hong Kong predicts with a trace of sadness as he acknowledges the passing of his own century. The 21st century man or woman is about 24 years old, has two or three addresses, negotiates across continents in two or three different languages.

He or she believes in the future, and why not? They have their clan, their relations, but they also exist in a civil society that is now global. They do not suffer the insecurities of their parents' generation. They are going to show America the new Asian ambition, Asia's version of the American dream.

The continent's vocabulary is full of English acronyms -- AFTA (Asian Free Trade Agreement), Pan Asian Cultural Renaissance, Asian MTVs and so on. What good are the tragic endings of my grandmother's fairy tales when they have to compete with the purr of the fax machine, the crackle of satellite dishes?

Optimism and pessimism, two versions of Asia, struggle for my soul. I remember the lunar festival in Hong Kong last year. A colorful procession full of singing and laughing children moved slowly down the road from a fishing village toward the brightly lighted cosmopolitan city. I remember walking alongside it, trying to keep up with the pace.

Andrew Lam, a Vietnamese-American writer, wrote this commentary for Pacific News Servie.

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