Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Meeting Lan Cao

If someone were to ask me about the person I most wanted to meet, living or dead, my answer would be unequivocally the same: Lan Cao. Unknown to American pop culture compared to the Bachelorette or the Kardashians, my heroine is somewhat of a celebrity in Asian-American literary circles.

She wrote the first novel about the immigrant experience from the Vietnamese perspective, weaving folk legends and war-torn memories of a divided nation with a young girl's coming of age in America. Monkey Bridge. I first became acquainted with her work back in 1999 and was immediately enthralled with her lucid prose and the transcendence of her words: bridging gaps between generations and realities, in essence telling a universal story for all of us hyphenated Vietnamese-Americans.

Daughter of the venerable South Vietnamese general Cao Van Vien, Lan is a woman of many talents. By day, she is an accomplished attorney who is currently teaching international and business law at the College of William and Mary. By night, er…early mornings preceding the dawn, she writes.

As fate would have it, we were acquainted. Her late father worked intimately with my grandfather back in the days of the Republic of Vietnam, and my mother actually remembered Lan in the French-run convent schools proper young girls attended back then. So we were both daughters of a fallen dynasty.

After a long email correspondence, I stopped by her home in Williamsburg. A beautiful woman opened the door and introduced herself. She resembled Vera Wang in her sheer elegance and simplicity. An equally exquisite little girl of eight or nine stood and stared at me unabashedly, as if she had no conception of fear. Lan kissed her, and introduced her daughter Harlan.

I was a bit tongue-tied and quite awed, but Lan chatted as if we had known each other for years and in many ways, perhaps we had. Recently returned from a trip to Vietnam where she and Harlan assimilated back into the native heritage, she spoke of letting go of the anger for the political regime in order to embrace your roots. It boiled her blood to see the Communists desecrate old monuments and symbols of Southern Democracy. Yet, she couldn't hate the land or the people, and the motherland continued to call to her in a mysterious way.

There was a liberation in Lan that I hadn't realized. In fact, Harlan's surname is Van Cao, an amalgam of her parent's surnames as surely as she is a melding of their flesh. She encouraged me to follow my heart, my writing, and to never be satisfied with the conventions of others. She also gave me the most useful advice about men and romance. How well a man treats a woman when he is courting her is not important; all men look deceptively charming and considerate. How he treats the woman that he leaves is profoundly more telling about his empathy, compassion, and true capacity to love you.

Harlan took to me, and guided me throughout the house, as it consisted of many rooms and I feared getting lost on the concise journey from the dining room to the bathroom. Dinner with them was lovely and her husband was a prestigious law professor, so prestigious that he seemed a pillar of contemporary legal and intellectual thought. I was intimidated, but he was so human and down to earth that I understood why Lan had fallen in love with him.

Then I returned to the Marriott, to the parking lot where I was camping out in my rental car, since I ran out of hotel points. I was poor and unemployed, remember? Well, Lan and her husband wouldn't have it. She called me and Harlan left me a message imploring me to come back to spend the night.

And I did. I spent the night in their spacious home, with the entire west wing all to myself.

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