Virtually all of us are children of migrants to the United States, if not ourselves then several generations in the past. In some of our families, we celebrate historical stories of achieving the “American Dream”, moving from poverty and distress in the first generation to happiness and economic and social success in later generations. But is achieving the American Dream a realistic portrayal of American life?
Pearl Rotarians heard on March 19th from Vu Pham, a Vietnamese immigrant to the United States who is skeptical of the Dream story. Vu, now a Portland resident spends much of his time making movies about the experiences that he has had, some vaguely remembered while others are troubling to him and others. Movie reviewers have described his film work as “noir”, meaning that he focuses on the socially tangled underbelly of human life.
Vu was born in 1975 in Saigon at a time when the U.S. supported regime in the South was collapsing as the North Vietnamese and their Southern allies completed a long-term struggle to control the whole country. In 1981, he fled Vietnam through the South China Sea, relocating several times in refugee camps. Like many of those who left Vietnam, he was a religious Catholic, a characteristic that posed problems in a situation where the atheism of communist thought was emphasized. More problems occurred when Vu was eight years old as his beloved mother was killed.
Vu’s early life in Portland was also difficult. He attended school the day his mother died, not understanding that school attendance can give way to grief. He spent the next nine years with his mom’s half-brother; according to Vu, “pushed off into the badlands”.