Aging in a Foreign Land

 

 

(A commentary posted on New American Media on 10 Jan 2007)

This article is an account by Ngoc. B Lam as told to her son Andrew Lam.


 

     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 mid-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 are planning a trip this summer to Europe. It's

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.