In life we meet many people that we like to refer to as “friends”, but the truth is that often we don’t take the time to really get to know them. This happened to me with an old colleague from business school. We were two of approximately 171 women in a graduating class of 780. Although we were “friends” we were more like comrades sharing an experience, supportive of each other yet not close enough to fully understand each other’s personal story. After graduation we both went our separate ways and lost contact. After 24 years I would have the opportunity to reconnect with Vera. She had just published a book and shared the information with some of her classmates. So, this summer I read her book and rediscovered an old friend in the process. After completing the book I knew I had to speak to Vera to fully understand the inspiration behind her novel, The Lonely American. Though it was written as fiction, I suspected there was much of Vera herself interwoven in the story, and it sparked a desire, almost a need to learn more. I spent three hours with Vera on the phone, not only catching up on life, but also delving into the historical period of her book from her perspective.
Vera was born and raised in Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. So naturally she chose to write a book inspired by her personal experiences with the Vietnam War, a time period that is of particular interest to me. To clarify, in Vietnam, “The Vietnam War” is referred to as “The American War”. Like many, I grew up in the 1960’s with current events of the Vietnam War playing out in television news and the papers yet I understood very little of it. Reading about the war in Stanley Karnow’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Vietnam: A History, was an eye opener. It helped me understand the context, the players, and the actions of a war. When Vera told us about her new book, I was delighted to hear the news, and at the same time intrigued by the subject. The Lonely American delineates the life of an American pilot and his kindred connections to Vietnam. After serving two tours of duty, he returns to the US as a fully decorated officer. He marries his pre-war American sweetheart and has a son. However, he never forgets a woman he had met during his Vietnam years. Years later, as his treacherous life has driven him to complete solitude, he rediscovers his special love and connections to Vietnam. I don’t want to give the story away but suffice to say that it is a story that could have and may have happened to many. The characters personify the true historical experiences that so many have lived.
I wanted to dig deeper and asked Vera about her own personal story. As we spoke on the phone, I listened intently and scribbled pages and pages of notes. Listening to Vera’s story was like reading a novel. I appreciated her openness. Although she was happy for me to share her story I have respected her request to omit some of the events due to their delicate nature. After listening to Vera’s life experience I have a newfound respect and admiration for her.
The United States supported South Vietnam in their fight against communist North Vietnam. In January of 1973 all parties finally agreed to a cease-fire. The United States pulled its troops out leaving South Vietnam to deal with its fate. Many South Vietnamese refugees chose to leave their country when the US left. But leaving the country would become increasingly difficult especially if you did not have money or connections. Soon after, North Vietnam broke the cease-fire and resumed fighting, continuing its push to the south. South Vietnam, with no military aid from the US, was forced to surrender in 1975. In 1976, the country was officially united and called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. This caused another exodus of South Vietnamese who chose to leave rather than live under communist regime.
So while I navigated the dramas of middle school and high school, watched The Six Million Dollar Man on television, and listened to Simon & Garfunkel on the radio, Vera was figuring out ways to leave Saigon in 1975. Since her father had been an ‘under cover special agent’ in South Vietnam for the Republic of China for more than two decades, he was blacklisted by the North Vietnamese. Though he had narrowly escaped by boat to the neighboring country of Thailand, Vera’s mother and her siblings were left behind. They were subsequently placed under house arrest for several months. In time, Vera obtained a pass that allowed her to leave communist Vietnam and move to Paris. After having lived through the aftermath of the war and all of its insecurities, Vera understood the importance and need for establishing “security” in her life. She decided it was time to go to America to study engineering. She believed education was the equalizer in society. In 1979, with her unstoppable resolve, Vera moved to LA and began her studies in a community college. In 1981, Vera’s family finally joined her in the United States. She would go on to win a full scholarship to the University of Southern California where she earned a degree in computer engineering in 1984. After graduating from USC, Vera started working for AT&T Bell Laboratories. Soon after, Vera’s path would cross with mine. She and I met in Boston at Harvard Business School in 1988. After graduating from HBS, she would go on to have a very successful career in business. And lucky for us that she would get inspired to write “The Lonely American”.
In writing her book, Vera wanted to express the “things” that are important to her. She wanted to remind people of the horrors of war because as she says, “we have such short memories”. In June of 2014 the UN Refugee Agency reported that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide due to conflicts exceeded 50 million people for the first time since the end of World War II. Pulling a direct quote from her book, “Bullets have no eyes”, Vera wanted to remind us that many of the victims of war are the innocent bystanders. She iterated the importance of our understanding foreign policy because it will undoubtedly impact us one way or another. Towards the end of our telephone conversation, Vera mentioned that she had bore grudges against her own family members, but later recognized the power of forgiving.
I am very impassioned with the topic of mentoring others and serving as a role model. My “rediscovered” friend is a true inspiration for the next generation. She is an inspiration, not just for young women, but also for all young people around the world living in conflict. Vera’s determination proves to us once again that we are the ones that make the choices in our lives that can alter our destiny in a positive way.
I invite you to read “The Lonely American” by Vera Lam, my friend. http://www.amazon.com/The-Lonely-American-Vera-Lam/dp/9573909111/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1410626853&sr=8-2&keywords=the+lonely+american
The UN Refugee Agency Report June 2014 http://www.unhcr.org/53a155bc6.html
For historical background read Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam A History http://www.amazon.com/Vietnam-History-Stanley-Karnow/dp/0140265473/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415295380&sr=8-1&keywords=stanley+karnows