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
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
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
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.