Asia discovers America -- or vice-versa?

June 04, 1996|By ANDREW LAM

SAN FRANCISCO -- Sitting by my window in the afternoons I often hear the distinctive sounds of martial arts coming from the karate dojo down the street. Aiee! shouts the blond instructor as he punches the air. Aiee! shout his students, punching the air along with him. It occurs to me they are announcing my arrival.

I had resigned myself to the idea that the public and private cultures in America would never meet. Born in Vietnam, I came here when I was 12 and spent my teen-age years and much of my twenties lurking between Little Saigon and the shopping mall. I felt like an invisible person, living at least half my life in the dark.

Then in the blink of an eye, what was once private spilled irrevocably into the public domain. The exotic went mainstream. Papa's acupuncture needles are now coveted by HMOs in search of cheaper therapies for arthritis or back pain. Mama's memories of ghosts and favorite recipes and stories with tragic endings become the grist for her daughter's ambitious new novel.

Andrew Lam

''My father was a great kung fu master but I never learned from him,'' a Chinese-American friend confides with regret. ''Maybe if I had, I could have gone to Hong Kong to make movies or opened a martial-arts school.''

For those of us who kept our feet planted in both worlds, on the other hand, there are reasons for jubilation. Transpacific magazine enthuses that ''being Asian, especially a bilingual Asian, may be the best qualification for a high-paying [corporate] career.''

Last February, when Jackie Chan's movie ''Rumble in the Bronx'' ousted John Woo's ''Broken Arrow'' from number-one slot at the American box office, a Taiwanese-American actress friend announced she was moving to Hollywood. And why not? Just as generations of Americans once ventured to Asia to spread democracy, a horde of young and ambitious Asian Americans -- children of immigrants or immigrants themselves -- are staking their claim on the American imagination.

A century ago, Carl Jung, a great interpreter of the psychic differences between East and West, described the Westerner as basically extroverted, driven by desire to conquer, and the Easterner as a classic introvert, driven by desire to escape suffering. The introvert tends to dismiss the ''I,'' Jung wrote, because in the East it is identified with selfishness and libidinous delusions. To reach spiritual maturity, the I must be dissolved.

All that has been turned on its head as the century draws to a close. The Westerner, tired of materialism, turns slowly inward in search of spiritual uplift (think of Shirley MacLaine and Robert Bly) while introversion and ego-dissolving are no longer Asian quests. Knowledge of the suffering world is old hat for the new Asian who, while not completely abandoning communal obligations, strikes out in feverish pursuit of the I.

Among my immediate circle of yuppie Asian-American friends the talk is of writing their own autobiography or producing and directing their own films. ''We've been so quiet and introspective for so long,'' a cousin, a Vietnamese-American psychologist, observes. ''Now everyone wants to spill their guts.''

America needs us

Ten years ago film school, drama school, music school, journalism and creative-writing programs rarely saw an Asian face. Today Asian-American applicants are clamoring to get in. When Amy Tan's ''A Hundred Secret Senses'' hit the best-seller list, a Chinese-American student in mass communications who wants to be the next Connie Chung declared bravely: ''America needs us.''

Why does America need us?

''For one thing,'' says Canh Le, a Vietnamese refugee who now heads a high-tech firm, ''Asian immigrants are building the information superhighway, just like the Chinese built the railroads.'' Indeed, half the high-tech firms in California's Silicon Valley are headed by Asian immigrants.

For another, America's romance with the East is destined to deepen over the next century. ''To believe that acupuncture can treat arthritis requires believing that the Chi exists, that it is the energy flowing through all life,'' says Montgomery Hom, an actor whose father is an acupuncturist. ''Both acupuncture and martial arts involve a completely different way of viewing the world.''

Then too, America may be hungry for a new way to reinvent itself. The story of America began, after all, with a vision of the East: It was in search of Cathay and the Indies that Columbus found America. So who better to lead the search than the American who straddles both sides of the Pacific, who has seen the New World and now imagines the sphere as whole?

Andrew Lam, Vietnamese-born, wrote this article for Pacific News Service.

Pub Date: 6/04/96

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