A while back, when I was visiting my mother's ancestral village in Thai Binh province, North Vietnam, it occurred to me that, after a barrage of questions from distant relatives, not once did anyone ask that common question in America: 'So, what do you do?' Instead the questions were familial and personal: 'How is your mother? Do you own a car? Are you married?'
When I volunteered my profession - 'I am a journalist' - I was met with polite nods and smiles. A guaranteed conversation-starter in the US went nowhere among my mother's distant kin, who were mostly farmers. 'You know, for magazines and newspapers,' I added. 'I get to travel to many places.'
One old woman patted my cheek and said, 'Don't travel so much. You should marry and settle down.' Then, at her insistence, I went and lit incense at the graves of my great grandparents and mumbled a silent prayer while half of the village watched in approval.
The idea of work as an identity and vocation is still new in many parts of the world. Vietnam, for one, is a country where, despite recent changes towards modernity, 70 per cent of the population still lives in rural areas. Work for them is arduous and repetitive, really nothing to talk about. In fact, the Vietnamese colloquial word for work is keo cay, which literally means 'to pull the yoke'.
'What do you do?' is a meaningless question when everyone has his feet in the mud and his back bent.
Yet, as an immigrant to America, I am all too aware how a strong work ethic ultimately helps newcomers succeed. In America, where mobility weakens blood ties, work is still a highly honourable thing, a point that can connect strangers. Hard work took my family out of poverty and into that coveted, five-bedroom suburban home with a pool. And ambition turned my cousins, siblings and me into engineers, businessmen, doctors and journalists - successful American professionals. What we do is an enormous source of pride, not only for ourselves, but for our family and clan.
Immigrants' strong work ethic built the American dream, which in turn merges with the old Protestant work ethic, which built America. To have vision is to move forward. For those who want to do, and do well, America is still the place to be.
But there is a price to pay for having ambition. Already, second-generation Vietnamese in America feel that deterioration of clanship, the loss of the insularity that their parents' generation valued and upheld. Indeed, somewhere along our highly mobile and cosmopolitan lifestyles, that close network that held the first generation together is thinning out a generation later. So much so that, increasingly, we take our identity from what we do and less from who we know or who we are related to.
Back in my mother's ancestral village, however, as I watched as my kinfolk gathered their crops and sang, I found enviable their sense of communal love and insularity. It's back-breaking work, but you live and die by the land, and you are never left alone - someone is guaranteed to take care of you. Yet despite my claim of kinship, despite the fact that my ancestors are buried there, I felt myself a stranger in the village.
One young woman came and sat down with me. She was a good student, she told me. She dreamed of life in the big city. There was nothing in the village for her. She imagined herself doing well in Hanoi. And then perhaps, if she did well, who knows, she might even go abroad. 'To America,' she said.
Listening to her, I was struck by the enormous gap between hard work and ambition. An immigrant with a cosmopolitan vision can move away from a rural past quickly and fiercely.
From the far end of the road that led out of that village, I wanted to warn her of loneliness, of the journey's unrequited longings, of my yearnings for a more connected, insular world. I mentioned none of that. Instead, I felt a different kind of kinship with her. And I said: 'So what do you plan to do when you get there?'
Andrew Lam is an editor of New America Media and the author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. His book of short stories, Birds of Paradise, is due out in 2013