The Refugees

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Refugees: Fatherland Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Phuong’s father (Mr. Ly) had named his second set of children after his first, and Phuong, who is the oldest of this second set of children, had believed throughout her life that her older siblings were much more blessed. The first Mrs. Ly had sent many letters and photos over the years from America, and the first Phuong (who goes by Vivien) seems much more beautiful and more accomplished, as the letters say that she is a pediatrician in America. Mr. Ly had laminated each of the photographs to protect them.
Phuong’s story explores the legacy of refugees, both for those living in America (her older siblings) and for those who were forced to remain in Vietnam (herself and her younger siblings). Vivien and the photographs come to represent, for Phuong, the alternative life that she might have led in America.
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The children had never written them letters, however, until Mr. Ly receives a letter from Vivien. Phuong thinks that she must have taken her name from Vivien Leigh, star of Gone with the Wind—her father’s favorite film. Vivien plans to come to Vietnam for a two-week vacation and hopes she can stay with them.
Even though Phuong believes that her half-sister took her name to be connected with her father, it also represents a way of distancing herself from his culture and assimilating into American culture (giving up her Vietnamese name for an American one).
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When Vivien arrives, she is wearing enormous sunglasses, glossy lipstick, and has crimson luggage. Phuong is thrilled to see that she bears no resemblance to the Vietnamese people around her. Even after a week, Vivien is more easily mistaken for a weary Japanese tourist, her makeup melting under the sun.
Vivien lives up to her namesake by arriving like a movie star, again connecting herself more to her American culture than her Vietnamese family, as Phuong notices. This is appealing to Phuong, who has an immense desire to leave Vietnam and follow in her sister’s footsteps.
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When Vivien takes the family out to dinner at Nam Kha, however, she is clearly more in control of her domain. Phuong had worked as a hostess at the restaurant for two years, but had never eaten there because it was too expensive—yet Vivien insists on paying for the family. Mr. Ly and Phuong’s mother object to the expensive tourist prices of the restaurant. Phuong, on the other hand, says she could get used to this treatment.
Throughout Vivien’s stay in Vietnam, Phuong continues to see the dichotomy between herself and her sister. While she works as a hostess in a restaurant whose food she cannot afford, Vivien treats the family to dinner in the restaurant. Vivien represents, in Phuong’s mind, the better life that Phuong might have had in America.
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Phuong observes the other guests in the restaurant, all white except for one Indian couple, who take pictures and comment on how the people are so “delicate and tiny.” Night after night she had observed comments like this and was often forced to pose for pictures. She had pretended not to be a hostess but instead a model, or a starlet, or Vivien. She never knew what she really looked like, however—no one ever sent her the pictures.
Phuong is also frustrated by the commercial tourism that Vietnam has fallen victim to. Like during the Vietnam War, foreigners feel more connected to what the country represents (i.e., the fight between capitalism and communism) than the actual people living within it. For the tourists, Phuong comes to realize, the Vietnamese people are interchangeable.
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When Vivien had arrived, she carried an itinerary of sights she wanted to see. Mr. Ly, who worked as a tour guide, told her that he couldn’t have made a better one himself. Mr. Ly rarely praises anyone, except his first three children. The first Mrs. Ly had fled with them after the war, when Mr. Ly had been banished to a labor camp for five years and his mistress had come demanding money. When he returned, he married his mistress (Phuong’s mother) and had three more children.
In this story, Nguyen introduces a different kind of refugee—a refugee within one’s own country. Mr. Ly was forced to leave his home and he lost everything as a result. When he returned, he then attempted to rebuild his life, just like many of the characters in the other short stories.
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Mr. Ly often compared Phuong with Vivien as she was growing up, which gave her a sense of yearning for her sister and also jealousy. Sitting in the restaurant, Mr. Ly asks Vivien what she’d like to do the following day. Phuong’s brothers, Hanh and Phuc, ask if they can go to an amusement park. Mr. Ly suggests that she come take his tour instead. Vivien agrees, and they clink glasses.
By comparing Phuong and the sister that she’s never met, Phuong is haunted by a ghost of herself, essentially, as Vivien represents the person she might have been in America. Readers can see the connection between this story and the imaginings that the boy has in “War Years” about the communist child who might be sleeping in his old bed in Vietnam.
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Related Quotes
Mr. Ly comments that they are a lucky generation. When Phuong tries to protest, he says that she has never appreciated what she has. He talks about his experiences in the labor camp, where he ate roots and rice with worms in it to survive. Every week, he says, he had to come up with a different way to criticize himself for being a capitalist. Phuong sighs; she’s heard this all before.
Phuong’s father highlights again the disastrous nature of war for those who were forced to remain in the country—not only in terms of the physical hardship of near starvation, but also in terms of the mental hardship of being forced to bend to ideas in which one does not believe.
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Vivien, who has been listening intently, asks Mr. Ly why he named his second set of children after his first. He says he knew she would want to come back to see the daughter he named after her. Vivien glances at Phuong before toasting once more with her father.
Mr. Ly’s statement implies that he thought Vivien might also be haunted by the half-sister she never knew in Vietnam, just as Phuong has wondered about her half-sister in America.
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Mr. Ly had never asked Phuong to take one of his tours. Though she had never wanted to go, she thinks that it might have been nice to be asked. Yet Vivien doesn’t seem to appreciate her father’s special regard. Instead, as they take the bus to his tour, she complains about the heat and the mosquitos, even though she wears T-shirts and short shorts and neglects to wear mosquito repellant.
Phuong is again frustrated with her father’s special treatment of her sister, particularly as he views her as someone to be treated like an American rather than as Vietnamese, again highlighting the life that Phuong has missed out on.
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Mr. Ly gives his tour in English, showing off various remains of the Vietnam War: a trapdoor for capturing soldiers; a tunnel where guerrillas would hide and attack Americans; a shooting range where tourists can use a machine gun. Phuong is confused why tourists would want to visit, but Mr. Ly explains that the war is all they know about the country.
The war continues to be a source of disruption for the Vietnamese people who have remained in Vietnam, not only because of the hardships the people have endured, but also because their country is defined by it in the eyes of the world.
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The American tourists take pictures, and Mr. Ly asks for volunteers to go into the tunnels. When no one does, he scowls and raises his fist, crying “We reunite our country through courage and sacrifice!” Phuong assures Vivien that this is an act, but she also knows that the tourists cannot tell the difference between a Communist and a man that the Communists had exiled. She grows frustrated, realizing that all Vietnamese people are the same to them.
Like in the restaurant, Phuong is upset that their cultural identity appears to be in service of foreigners (particularly Western foreigners) who come to the country as tourists, and she is also frustrated with her father for playing into this dynamic.
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Related Quotes
On Vivien’s penultimate evening in Saigon, she and Mr. Ly drink four flasks of milky rice wine at a Chinese restaurant. While Mr. Ly and Phuong’s mother go on a walk, Vivien and Phuong go upstairs to the room Phuong shares with her parents. Vivien takes out a gift from her suitcase: lacy black lingerie. Phuong blushes and protests that her parents would never let her wear them, but she tries them on. She is thrilled by sight of her body in the underwear.
The lingerie that Vivien gives to Phuong serves as a physical representation of the life that she might have had—and might be able to have—in America: a life that is more exciting, less conservative, and less constricted by her parents. Additionally, the gesture creates a sense of intimacy between the two sisters. 
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Phuong puts her pajamas back on and she and Vivien lie in bed together. Vivien says that she wants to tell Phuong a secret: that she doesn’t love Mr. Ly, because she doesn’t remember him. They hear their parents climb the stairs, and become silent. Phuong realizes, in the darkness, that her sister has brought her to the realization that she pities her father and does not respect him.
The intimacy between the two sisters only grows as Vivien confesses to Phuong the fact that she doesn’t love her father. Following the pattern that Nguyen has set up, however, this statement makes sense: Vivien and her father do not share a sense of cultural identity, and therefore she doesn’t feel connected to him in a familial way.
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At the amusement park the next morning, Mr. Ly takes photos of his children with the disposable camera that Vivien had brought them. They drive the bumper cars before moving on to the Ferris wheel. As Vivien and Phuong survey the park in their own cabin, Vivien reveals that she once worked at an amusement park so that she could meet boys. Vivien tells Phuong about her boyfriend, Rod, and how they would drive home together and kiss on side streets.
The photos that Mr. Ly takes become mementos of his time with his daughter, but later on in the story they become reminders to Phuong of Vivien’s lies and the fact that Vivien gets to continue her life in America while Phuong is stuck in Vietnam.
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Phuong, who is still wearing the lingerie from the previous evening, tells Vivien that she hasn’t had a boyfriend because doesn’t want anyone holding her back. When Vivien asks from what, Phuong says that she wants to be like Vivien—she wants to go to America and be a doctor. She doesn’t want to spend her life waiting on people. She doesn’t want to marry a boy with no future and have children too soon.
Back in the restaurant, Mr. Ly saw Phuong’s desire for a better life as ingratitude, but Phuong is simply ambitious and doesn’t want to be stuck doing the same things her parents have been doing. Armed with this sense of individualism and a desire for opportunity, she is more culturally connected to Vivien than she is to her family.
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Vivien reluctantly confesses that she and Vivien’s mother did not tell the truth about her life. She is not a doctor, she is a receptionist. She had dated her boss, and when he broke up with her and she lost her job, she decided to take a vacation to Vietnam. She used her severance package to fund her trip. Phuong is shocked, but she still presses her case, saying that Vivien doesn’t have to be a doctor to sponsor her.
Vivien’s lies reveal the pressure that she is under, as someone who has been able to leave Vietnam and to make a better life in America, to appear to be doing well. This attitude is what prompted the lies that her mother told the family—that often refugees are under enormous pressure to be exceptional in order to feel like they are worthy of the life that they have been given.
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Vivien starts to cry, saying that when she gets back, she has to put her life together. She has to pay off her credit cards and her student loans, and she won’t have time to worry about a little sister. The Ferris wheel has made a full rotation, and Vivien steps out, followed by Phuong. Mr. Ly snaps a photograph, but when it is developed, Phuong realizes that Vivien is visible, but Phuong cannot be seen.
These lies have shaped Phuong’s sense of what she might be able to achieve or accomplish. Whereas before she thought she might be able to generate a relationship with her sister and be able to create a new identity for herself in America, now she feels more isolated than ever.
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A month after Vivien’s visit, the family receives a letter from her with a stack of pictures enclosed. The letter recounts her memories and how much she wants to come back. Mr. Ly instructs Phuong to have the photographs laminated so that they’ll have something to remember her by until she returns. Phuong contemplates telling him the truth about Vivien, but refrains. All she can think about is how she will leave Vietnam someday, as well.
The end of Phuong’s story, and her resolution to leave despite her sister’s inability to help, highlights some of the complicated contradictions of the refugee experience. The legacy of the war prompts her to want to leave not because of the difficult living conditions, but because she sees the life that she might be able to build in another country.
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The next morning, Phuong is alone in the house and she decides to look at the photos. The first picture is from their last stop at the amusement park that day—the Ice Lantern, an enormous refrigerator with ice sculptures of the world’s landmarks. Phuong had taken a picture of Mr. Ly and Vivien, who looked more like her father than her sister. It is clear to Phuong now that their father loved Vivien more than he loved her.
Phuong’s bitterness stems from the fact that her father loves her sister because she is more successful, but Vivien’s success is due to the accident of her birth, the fortune of being able to make it to the United States, and the lies that she and her mother have told rather than anything Vivien has actually accomplished. Still, Phuong does not resent her sister—she still views Vivien as a model towards which she aspires.
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Related Quotes
Phuong lights the photo on fire with a match, dropping it into a bucket. She feeds the fire with more photos until only one is left: a photo of Phuong and her sister at the airport. Vivien is smiling, but Phuong is not. She lights this final photograph and scatters the ashes in the alley next to her home. A gust of wind catches them and sweeps them up into the clear blue sky.
In burning the photos, Phuong symbolically rids herself of the ghost of her sister, who has haunted her throughout her life. This serves as a turning point in her story and her life, as she is determined to make it out of Vietnam and to make a better life for herself outside her given family and her given culture.
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