America, America: Life as lived and life as dreamt about

By Dang Hanh, Thanh Nien News

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Nguyen Thi Thanh Luu poses with her son in the US. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Thi Thanh Luu Nguyen Thi Thanh Luu poses with her son in the US. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Thi Thanh Luu

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Nguyen Thi Thanh Luu receives dozens of phone calls and messages from young women across Vietnam every week, asking for tips to land an American husband.
Most of the time, she just laughs because she doesn't know what to tell them.
Everything she knows about love and marriage, she has written in her bestselling book, “Làm dâu nước Mỹ” (Being a daughter-in-law of America). 
Luu is a hot name in Vietnam's literary circles even though she is living thousands of miles away, with her American husband and their two children. 
During a short trip to her hometown Hanoi recently, the 32-year-old writer was greeted by hundreds of young readers.
Her autobiography, published last August, is considered by many readers as a guide book to a wealthy, happy life in America. 
The author, however, claimed that the book was not intended as such. It was only to satisfy her passion for writing in her native language while living in the US, she said.
“I just never intended to write a training manual of how to catch an American husband,” Luu said with a smile.
“By telling my own love story, I have no other purpose but to share what I think about life and look for empathy. My book has never tried to create the trend of getting married to foreign husbands.”
In the 300 plus pages of the book, Luu describes in details how Cupid has brought her, a "traditional, old-fashioned girl who always wears collared shirts with the top button done up," to a foreigner who could “never ever ever" be her type.
The love story faced strong opposition from her big family, which has many veterans fighting and losing their relatives and friends in the war against the Americans in the 1960s.
Some relatives even believed Jason, her future husband, was a CIA agent because of his fluent Vietnamese. 
Luu strongly fought for her love, finally moving out from her house and getting married to him. 

Nguyen Thi Thanh Luu poses with her husband Jason.
American dream  
The second part of the book chronicles her life in the US, where she has not only found a new home but a new beginning. 
She also spends many pages praising her parents-in-law, who have generously helped her adapt to the new life in the US. 
Luu says the success of her book mostly comes from the fervent interest of Vietnamese youths for everything America.
To say that Vietnamese love American culture is an understatement. This is a country where young people often queue in long lines for a new Hollywood blockbuster, or a new Starbucks store. On busy streets in Ho Chi Minh City, it is easy to find teenage girls wearing American outfits, humming a Miley Cyrus song. 
The publishing industry also loves bringing hot American titles into Vietnam, while local authors love writing about American life. 
“The demand to read, to know, to hear about the US is absolutely understandable. Not only a large, rich, beautiful and modern country, the US is a heaven where many dreams come true, thanks to its appreciation of personal ability,” said Luu.
Van Thuy Vy, a 20-year-old fan, said the book is a fairytale with a happy ending that most of the young girls at her age would love to read. But at the same time, it feels real and the dream is "touchable," Vy said.
But it is not only happy stories that sell well.
Another author, Nguyen Huu Tai, has published a five-book series about the US, impressing local readers with his vague sadness covering page to page.
In the latest volume, “Nước Mỹ có gì vui?” (Anything fun in America?), published last year, Tai retraces the steps he has taken in the US, from Mount Rainier, where his solitude was as white as the snow, to a New Orleans pub which soothed his melancholy with jazz music. 
Joining him on his trips, readers easily feel his homesickness and his love for Vietnam, which he left 14 years ago for his second home in the US.
Dark side of heaven   
The same theme can be found in another hit series, “Viết về nước Mỹ” (Writing about America), an anthology of essays by a group of writers who find it hard to bridge an invisible gap between them and the “white Americans."
They came seeking for a sufficient life, only to find a big void in their soul.
Phuong Thao Ngo, who has spent five years studying and working in the America, said that she found herself in these stories.
“Here in the US we also experience a darker side of heaven. Tough deadlines. Long shifts days by days. Frozen fast food heated in the microwave. Having breakfast and dinner while driving to work. Having no Tet.”
In "Xuyên Mỹ" (Trans-America), the second in a two-part autobiography of 37-year-old writer Phan Viet, readers could see an American dream that is more bitter than sweet. 
For Viet, whose real name is Nguyen Ngoc Huong, the US is simply a context for her story of love and heartache, and the strength she gains through the process. She has taught at University of South Carolina.
The story gets darker as the author, a Vietnamese wife, struggles with traditional values and prejudices in a new culture. But it's also a story of rebirth as she finally finds the courage to free herself from a deadlock marriage. 
Many readers admire Viet for being brave and sharing her story publicly, neither under the state of anonymity nor in the form of fiction. 
They believe even if she couldn't find the happiness she had hoped for in America, the new culture has without a doubt influenced her and allowed her to speak out, loudly. 
“The more people tell their stories, the more transparent our life is. The more transparent life is, the easier it is for everyone to live," Phan Viet told her fans in Ho Chi Minh City last year. 
Young women reading Viet's book may not be too eager to ask for tips to find an American husband.
But her writings still give them hopes for a better future, in which anyone can create their own happiness and bravely live the life they wish to live. 
As Luu, the happily married writer, has suggested, America is sometimes just a literary device, a pretext to talk about hopes and dreams in general. 
“I believe the young people who read books about America not only want to contemplate on a particular faraway land, but also to nourish their dreams and make those dreams come true, in their own homeland.” 

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