LITR 4333: American Immigrant Literature

Sample Student Research Project 2002

Angela Branch
Dr. Craig White
LITR 4333
Spring 2002

Research Journal Project

The Lands and Mysteries of Karma

The research journal that I have chosen to write involves the use of karma through literature in both the new and old worlds of American Immigrants.  I have chosen to take a closer look at the immigrant experience through a personal interview with a Houston Police Officer, Truc Nguyen.   The project begins with the main two authors, Lan Cao and Brad Newsham whose literature will be covered.  Through websites I have studied Lan Cao and Brad Newsham biographies, two authors that have proven themselves as writers.  Both of the authors express karma in their everyday life, but with a completely different attitude towards the idea. 

The journal continues on to give the religious definition of karma and how the concept of karma can change at any instant.  Which leads us to discuss the use of karma in two immigrant narratives.  Although the use a karma is distinctly different for each writer, the association is made because of the need for  karma and the traditions of the Old world.

Next, I chose the journal to focus on a closer view of the people and their hardships from the Old World to the New World through the essay In The Land Of The Free.  In this essay you will see the Asian Immigrant fight to come to America and the land of promises broken.  The history of the Vietnamese immigrant is visited through a personal interview with Truc Nguyen, a Houston Police Officer.  Through his story you feel the truth and pain and just how karma might affect all immigrants.

To begin the search for the insides of karma, I first found selections of literature that I felt were relevant to the karma theme.  I felt that the authors of the essays should also be studied to better understand their use of karma in writing.  I first used Duke Law University’s website which proved to be very useful in the great detail that is given regarding Lan Cao’s life and the symbolism through karma that can be seen in Monkey Bridge through her own experiences.  I have found the information to be widely spread in many websites, but I chose this one because of the organization and writing style that allowed the information to be intense but enjoyable.

 Lan Cao, author of Monkey Bridge, is currently a professor of International Law at Brooklyn Law School in New York.  She discusses her childhood memories because they are the seed of her writing.  She described in an interview with Mirinda Kossoff (1), that her memories are as whole pictures in which she can remember not only the stories that were told, but the time, place, and surroundings of the stories.  These “sights, sounds, smells and textures of her native Vietnam” give the American reader a view that has before only been seen through the “American war veterans” (Kossoff 1).  “Cao was the first author to write a book about Vietnam from the Vietnamese perspective” (Kossoff 1).  Her explosive debut novel envelops the Vietnamese immigrant struggle to the promise land and the hardships of assimilation of the New World. 

It was Lan Cao’s uncle who filled her head with myths and stories; furthermore, he became the “model for the character of the grandfather in Monkey Bridge” (Kossoff 2).  Her own life would once again appear through the character of Uncle Michael whom she new in real life to be “Papa Fritz, an American army colonel who was to become her friend” and indeed her safe escape from Vietnam (Kossoff 2).  The concept of karma that is seen in Monkey Bridge is also a reflection of the author, like that of her characters.  Cao herself believes in “karma as consequence-of actions taken in this life” (Kossoff 4).  This is displayed throughout the novel by Mai’s need to think before she acts or reacts and her ability to keep her own life in balance while dealing with the abnormalities of the New World. 

“Instead of writing a memoir, Cao says she chose fiction, because it gave her the freedom to embellish and create a compelling story that still conveyed the emotional truth of her experiences” (Kossoff 4).  Through the author’s personal experiences and the novel, Monkey Bridge, the Vietnamese American journey becomes a facet of culturalism and identity.

I chose the home page of Brad Newsham to locate biographical information for purposes of insuring accuracy.  I was intrigued in my research to find that there are several persons with this name.  I therefore had to be review the information of each website for the exactness of information.  I found that he “was born in Chevy Chase, Maryland in 1951, and raised in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.”(Newsham 1).  He is a third generation Czech immigrant whose parents were Christian Scientists.  He does declare that he was raised in that faith, but he claims that he has no religion.  Although through his writing, Driving Your Karma, Newsham does show his belief in the cause and effects of the deeds done in this world.  He has encountered many traveling experiences such as hitchhiking around the United States and circling the globe four times (Newsham 1).  Newsham has also worked many odd jobs in his life experience, but has been a San Francisco Yellow Cab driver since 1985 (Newsham 1).   Through these personal experiences as a cab driver the inspiration for the essay Driving Your Karma flourished. 

Through these two authors, Lan Cao and Brad Newsham, the use of karma is displayed quite differently.  To develop this thought further I believe it is necessary to define karma and its uses in everyday life.  In the Anthropology Of Religion: A Handbook karma is defined as “the endless chain of causes and effects that points to an ethical stance of nonattachment or disinterestedness” (Glazier 312).  The definition is continued by Glazier (344) to say, “that karma, like all phenomena, changes every instant.”  With this said, karma changes with our every action and reaction.  Through these action we can always change our karma destiny, because the belief is that fate is not set in stone.

With this definition in hand I will turn to the two works of literature to recognize the use of karma in each.  In the novel, Monkey Bridge, Mai discusses karma when she speaks of her mother and the Old World.  “In giant paper bags slit with round openings, were canaries and hummingbirds which my mother bought, one hundred at a time, and freed, one by one, into our garden; it was a good deed designed to generate positive karma” (Cao 34).  The mother throughout the book performs acts of kindness related to the Old World habits.  Mai’s last memory of Vietnam is when her mother “burned three sticks of incense, added several photographs to the family altar, pasted strips of paper colored a bright, auspicious red…as if she hadn’t summoned enough good luck or done enough to appease our ancestral spirits” (Cao 19).  Mai remembers the “good-luck preparations” that were prepared by her mother the day she left Vietnam.  She also remembers the “karmic charm” that was spread about her when her mother would place the bird on top of her head before it would take flight (Cao 34).  The use of karma is also found in the father of the novel through his belief in “one wrong move” (Cao 26).  Mai describes how her father had infused “that ‘one wrong move’ was to invite catastrophe” (Cao 26).  The thought of any one event in American could control our entire life is almost ludicrous compared to the Vietnamese father who was afraid that it would be that one move that would put his child on the wrong receiving end for life.  Mai realizes in America that “there was no such thing as ‘one wrong move’” for her friend Bobbie (Cao 27).  It is through this friend that she sees a break in karma and a way to assimilate into American life an existence she has been held from through her mother’s use of the Old World in the New.

In the essay, Driving Your Karma, Brad Newsham uses karma within the American experience which is a contradiction to Monkey Bridge where karma was an Old World tradition.  In the essay a newly licensed cab driver finds a cosmic balance in the world through his experiences with his fares.  The cab driver picks up his first client of the night and begins to size him up to determine if he is a paying customer.  “Even if you see it coming, and even if you consider that a customer running on you is just part of the territory…it still aggravates when it does happen” right, of course the customer runs off without paying the metered fare.  However, all is not lost when the cab driver picks up a customer at the airport.  The customer and cab driver talk about several things, but unlike the first customer, this customer tipped the cab driver fifteen dollars.  The cab driver realizes that he had an “almost euphoric” night in the he has gotten “a $15 no-pay and a $15 tip back-to-unlikely-back” (Newsham 320).  The cab driver realizes that the two incidences are an equalization of the world.  “In the cosmic scorebook everything, somehow, added up darn close to perfect” (Newsham 320).  Instead of the need to be bitter at losing fifteen dollars, the cab driver is satisfied that the end of night all is balanced. 

The use of karma in this essay shows the cab driver, who is a third generation immigrant, use of the old world to satisfy his life in America.  In developing the stage 5 of the immigrant narrative the cab driver is rediscovering things of the old world that have been brought over with his grandparents.

When speaking of karma the Old World of Asian Americans is greatly experienced.  The karma is a thought of many people of different nationalities and different religions.  The karma began with the Buddhist, but has been carried over to the New World and into Christianity.  The plight of Asian immigrants to America is one of perseverance, hard work, and dedication.  “The high cost paid in anguish when unjust immigration restriction are enforced without regard to human feeling” (Ling 3).  Even though many families were able to come to America, they faced hardship on the voyage to the new land.  Once the immigrants did complete their journey, American Immigration would remove children from parents because of a lack of paper work to document the child.  In the fiction piece, In The Land Of The Free, Sui Sin Far gives a first hand experience of coming to the land of the free; however, the land quickly becomes a mystery of tears.  The story depicts the life of an immigrant coming to America with her child to meet her husband whom has made a prosperous life in America.  All that is quickly shattered which symbolizes the heartache many immigrants have encountered when entering into the United States.  The society of America is seen in this essay through the young lawyer who is willing to get the child from immigration for a price.  Through Asian eyes the importance of oneself is the person not the success.  The lawyer quickly displays the American society by demanding a large sum of money to retrieve the child, money that is impossible for the immigrant to obtain.  Furthermore, the lawyer refuses to take the family jewels for payment “but something within him arose against accepting such payment for his services” (Far 10).  The American for a moment feels some sentiment regarding the jewels, but in the end the American Dream is to have success no matter what the cost.  This essay shows the immigrant experience for many Asian Americans through their view of the American society and the lust of America to have the success of wealth, an attribute that is not adorned by the Asian American immigrant.  In the old world the customs were traditional with the sons contributing to the family income and carrying the lineage whereas the females in the family were married off at a young age, with some even being sold to families (Yung 11).  Along with the Confucian tradition, women were to stay inside the home and speak to only family members.  However, the American Dream creates a fascinating change in the life styles of the immigrants. 

With the American media and society, Asian Americans soon assimilation or at least become a part of the melting pot of America.  I had a  extensive interview with a Vietnamese American, Truc Nguyen, who is a second-generation immigrant.  He was only a child when he came to the land of milk and honey, but a vivid picture he gave to me like it was only yesterday.  He began with telling me of the many hardships of the Vietnam War, which was called the American War in Vietnam.  His family left the country in search of safety from the war with no intention of coming back to Vietnam.  His father thought that it would be too hard on the family to move back once they had enjoyed and been successful in American life.  He spoke of the manners, customs, values, expectations, and ideas of the family that were traditions that faced hardship in America.  He told me of the dramatic difference between his homeland and America the greatest being the material culture of America.  They went from a land of poverty, but they did not realize this until they were in America.  They were happy in Vietnam with the little they had, but once in America they quickly found themselves lusting for the things that could only be found in America. 

The Vietnamese hierarchies of family, as he explained, were very different than Americans.  In Vietnam men were the highest regarded with children following, with women being the lowest level even under pets of the family; however, this would change in America where women have the opportunity to break away from the family.  He told me that it would never be acceptable for a woman to leave her husband or children in Vietnam. 

Having been a young child when he came to America, Truc informed me that he learned much of his English from the television and the radio.  His parents on the other hand learned limited English skills and had to depend upon the children to translate when out in the community.  He portrayed how some families were torn apart because the children could not be controlled by the parents because of their lack of understanding in the new world.  The children would control the home because they were the English speakers of the home and would acquire friend in the white community who would know how to take advantage of the non-English speaking parents.

Truc continued to speak of the American culture by discussing diet.  He did admit that he enjoys American food, but it makes him very sick after eating a meal.  His mother always cooked for him as a child and only for special occasions did they eat out at a restaurant; however, the restaurant would be one that served their native food.  He still today as an adult eats the native food instead of the American delicacies that haunt us through the night. 

Marriage was a strong part of our discussion in that he was told as a child that under no circumstances was he to marry outside of Vietnamese.  He stated that he never even thought of being attracted to other women, but Truc was married at the age of seventeen.  In American culture seventeen is an age of fun and enjoyment not an age of making a family.  This is a great difference in the culture that is recognized by Truc. 

Truc admitted to his assimilation through discussing his families quest to become middle class by owning a car, television, and a phone.  These were the extras of life that are taken for granted in America everyday.  However, Truc did point out that earthly wealth was not as important as self worth in the Vietnamese culture.  This led us to religion in his culture.  Although his family is now Vietnamese Catholic, they do still relish in the act of karma.  He compared it to being a Christian and the good deeds that would be counted when you go to heaven.  The thought of karma in his family are the acts that will come back to you in heaven, at the time you are judged by God.  Your good deed will be your reward and your evil will keep you from reaping these rewards.  He also used the age old saying “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.  I found this to be true because the karma we show to others is our good deeds.  And by showing these deeds to others we are sharing our good karma.  He agreed with me on the fact that karma is a cause and effect reaction and that person react to the way you act upon them.

When I asked him to discuss his experience with immigrant literature in regards to his own personal experience, Truc hesitated for a moment.  Although not proud of it he said that he did not feel the need to read the literature because “I lived it” (Nguyen).  He has immersed himself in learning as much of the American culture to make himself a well rounded Vietnamese American.  He stresses to his children to learn both the traditions of the old world through diet and culture; furthermore, to also encompass all that American has to offer in terms of education and success.   

Our interview ended with me thanking him for giving me so much of his time and knowledge.  It is truly splendid to see someone who has became part of America, but as strong ties to the land he use to call home.  Truc is an extraordinary person with many experiences to learn from.  His children, through his teachings have become well rounded individuals with values of both the new world and the old.  

I have learned a great deal of information about the use of karma in the everyday lives of immigrants.  I had before thought that this belief was associated with only Asian Americans, but I have found that many groups associate karma as just being a good person and all things will equalize in the world for you. 

The immigrant experience is one of trials and tribulations that are overcome with every immigrant who succeeds in America.  Whether they depend on the karma of the Old World or the New World, immigrants are able to converge into American in their own diverse way.

If I were to continue this research journal I would extend it into the religious aspect of the Asian American from the Old World to the New World.  I would be interested in the religious  conversions that occur from these two worlds.  I briefly touched on this topic when I spoke to Truc Nguyen about his conversion to Vietnamese Catholicism when coming to America.  I found the use of karma in the Christian belief system to be a topic that I would also pursue. 

Thank you for the opportunity to research this topic.  The information contained in this paper is only a small part of a great amount of information available on the topic of karma and the Asian American immigrant experience.    



Works Cited

Cao, Lan. Monkey Bridge. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Far, Sui Sin. “In The Land Of The Free.” Imaging America. Ed. Wesley Brown and Amy Ling. New York: Persea Books, 1991. 3-11.

Glazier, Stephen D., ed. Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook. London: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Kossoff, Mirinda. Duke Law Magazine. 22 March 2002.

Ling, Amy. Teaching Asian American Literature. 19 April 2002. Heath Anthology Newsletter. <>

Newsham, Brad. “Driving Your Karma.” Travelers’ Tales San Francisco. Ed. James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger, and Sean O’Reilly. San Francisco: Travelers’ Tales, Inc., 1996. 319-321.

Newsham, Brad. Home page. 4 April 2002.

Nguyen, Truc. Interview. By Angela Branch. 5 April 2002.

Yung, Judy. Chinese Women Of America: A Pictorial History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1986.