Can you ever truly return home again? Andrew Lam says 'you have to let go'

Can you ever truly go home again? At a time when more people have been forcibly displaced from their homes than at any other time in history, IDEAS explores what it means to return years — or decades — later. This is the first episode in our five-part series, The Idea of Home.

'You will be cursed with longing' searching for the feeling of home you had in the past, says writer

Writer Andrew Lam fled Vietnam during the Fall of Saigon as a child and moved back nearly 45 years later. In his first collection of essays, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, he explores his lifelong struggle for identity as a Viet Kieu, or a Vietnamese national living abroad. (Submitted by Andrew Lam/HeyDay Books)

*Originally published on June 13, 2022.

This is the first episode in a five-part series called The Idea of Home exploring the multiple and contested meanings of home. Scroll to the bottom for other episodes in this series.

Nearly 45 years after writer Andrew Lam left as a refugee at age 11, he moved back to Vietnam part-time. 

Lam and his family fled during the Fall of Saigon in April 1975, back then he remembers home as a "sleepy town."

"The mega city that I live in now is very much a cosmopolitan society and full of international people, high rises — it is nothing like the world before 1975 where everything was smaller and slower," the journalist told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed. 

"What used to be rice fields across the river is now a new city and it keeps expanding like an amoeba. So there is very little of the past here."

Lam remembers a childhood that was joyful during the war but sometimes returning home can mean contending with the distance between the place in your mind and the place on the ground. He still hasn't visited the house he grew up in. After finding out it has been rebuilt, the writer worries he may corrupt what he remembers.

"There's a different house that stands in that lot. And so I just don't know if it's worth standing in front of it anymore. I have such a fond memory of my childhood that I think I rather preserve it in memory rather than seeing the reality of it."

As the city has grown, old villas have been torn down to accommodate high-rise condos and a growing population. Lam lives in one that overlooks the river — a view that has special meaning to him.

"I can still see the spot from which my father boarded the ship on April 30th, 1975 and sailed out to sea. It is now part of a high-rise condo as well but I can still see the port where all the navy ships used to dock in my memory. So it's a stone's throw away from where I am now."

Lam doesn't believe you can truly return home, because you move away from your former sense of home through both time and space.

"The childhood, the happiness, that sense of insularity is all gone. The human condition is that you have to let go. You will be cursed with longing," he said.

Still, Lam welcomes moments when he can be transported to his past by a song that's played in a coffee shop or a rainfall. 

"The feeling is just exactly like I was as a child... it shocks me that you retain all those things in you and it can be evoked. And that sense of place, a sense of time they are all in you. We carry all this."

Guest in this episode:

Andrew Lam is a Vietnamese-American writer and journalist. His books include a memoir called Perfume Dreams and a short story collection called Birds of Paradise Lost

Ashley Bach is a member of Mishkeegogamang First Nation and the former president of Youth in Care Canada.

Kamal Al-Solaylee is the Director of the UBC School of Journalism, Writing, and Media. His most recent book is called Return: Why We Go Back to Where We Come From. He is also the author of Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes and Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone)

*This episode and the Idea of Home Series was produced by Pauline Holdsworth.

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