Aging in a Foreign
By Ngoc B. Lam as told
to Andrew Lam
Fremont, CA: 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
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
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
When my children and grandchildren visit it's a
great time, of course. But everyone has his own
life. They come once in a while, but what do you
do with all those empty hours that stretch out before
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. - New America Media