New American frontier? It's Asia

November 12, 1995|By Andrew Lam

AMID THE HIGH-TECH glitter of Hong Kong a young American woman nonchalantly told me that ''America's reputation as the land of opportunity is overrated.'' A graduate of UCLA in liberal arts, she grew tired of ''temping'' and moved to Hong Kong where she is now fluent in Cantonese and a jet-setting junior executive for an import-export company. Her future, she says, lies in East Asia.

I felt a vague impulse to defend the sacred myth we immigrant Americans tell ourselves: that America is a land of milk and honey, that one comes here to reinvent oneself, not vice versa.

On the other hand, having traveled to East Asia regularly over the last seven years, I have been struck by the diaspora of America's young. In Japan alone, there are at least 100,000 American expatriates. In China and Vietnam, large American colonies are growing. ''No one says the American dream has to be within America's borders,'' observes a twenty-something American working as an interpreter in Bangkok.

Americans, of course, have ventured in waves to the Orient many times before, usually bent on some form of conversion. By contrast, the new generation ventures abroad with a surprising sense of humility and open-mindedness, eager to rid themselves of America's ''parochialism,'' bent on reinventing themselves through immersion in local cultures. In the process they are ultimately redefining the American frontier.

Laura Stephens, an English major from UC Berkeley, fled a waitressing job to teach English in Yokohama. Now fluent in Japanese, she says ''I make more money teaching English here than an engineer makes in Silicon Valley.'' After four years, she has saved enough for a substantial down payment on a house back in San Francisco while spending luxurious vacations in a dozen East Asian countries -- a lifestyle close to what she had always envisioned.

A cure for pessimism

Peter Seidel interned for several different newspapers in California before going to Vietnam. He first taught English in Saigon but moved on to edit an English-language business magazine in Hanoi. Now a prolific writer who has mastered Vietnamese, he has fallen in love with a country his parents' generation viewed as ''hell in a small place.'' His few years in East Asia have cured him of his generation's pessimism.

American immigrants too are discovering that the new frontier lies in the lands their parents abandoned. In Hong Kong Asian-American actors tell me they have found more work than Hollywood ever offered. In Saigon and Hanoi, a parade of young, well educated Vietnamese-Americans, who once saw themselves as history's losers, now feel they are riding a new historical wave.

East Asia beckons. And young Americans are responding (along with young Australians, British and countless other Europeans). I would not be surprised if America soon experiences a reverse brain drain similar to what the Old World once experienced.

Americans abroad

Ironically, emigration out of the United States remains a little noted phenomenon -- no federal agency has a mandate to count emigrants. The State Department estimates 3 million U.S. citizens now live abroad, but most expats believe the actual number is much higher. Work-exchange and education-abroad programs report a steep rise in the number of students and young graduates seeking to work abroad. U.S. companies overseas are growing at 20 percent a year.

If restlessness is a human impulse, Americans in particular have made it a national trait. It follows then that a country built on the proposition of expanding territory and transcending history requires a trans-Pacific imagination if the new generation is to have room to reinvent itself.

The future? I have seen it, but it belongs not to the old politicians cashing in on anti-immigrant hysteria, nor to the cranky intellectuals insisting America should look back to its European roots.

Karaoke singer

The future belongs to the young American executive who sings Japanese songs in a karaoke bar in Tokyo ''very well and without an accent,'' according to his Japanese counterpart; to the Cantonese-speaking American who negotiates across the continents as easily as she straddles two dissimilar cultures; to the Vietnamese-American businesswoman who could have told us that home for her, for a while now, consists of two addresses, two time zones, two languages, two senses of history.

When he was growing up in Maine, Brian Cox knew nothing about ''the Orient.'' By pure chance, he was offered a lucrative architectural job in Taipei. Today he ''can't get enough of Asia'' and backpacks throughout the continent whenever he can ''in search of my new self.'' A more humble Columbus, he is nevertheless picking up that 500-year quest that Columbus started. Alone, on foot, he climbs the Himalayas and imagines a new frontier.

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

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