The Refugees

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Refugees: I’d Love You To Want Me Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mrs. Khanh and her husband, Professor Khanh, are at a wedding banquet. They had attended many others like it, usually out of obligation. The professor had jotted down his blessing and the name of the couple, whom they had never met. When the couple visited their table, he called them by their correct names and bestowed good wishes upon them. But Mrs. Khanh can’t help but think of the night of the professor’s diagnosis, when he had wept for the first time in their four decades of married life.
This short story shares some elements of the previous story. Like Norma, Mrs. Khanh understands her husband’s need for emotional and physical connectivity and support, even if she feels more isolated as a result of remaining with her husband. At this point, the professor’s diagnosis is unnamed, and therefore readers focus on Mrs. Khanh’s experience of heartbreak.
Themes
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
Mrs. Khanh tells the professor that the couple is honeymooning in Paris and the French Riviera. They reminisce about their own honeymoon, forty years prior, when she was nineteen and he was thirty-three. But it is clear to her that the professor’s memories are slipping away from him. When the band begins to play “I’d Love You to Want Me,” he comments that they used to listen to it all the time before the children were born—but the song hadn’t been released before her first pregnancy.
As the professor’s diagnosis comes more and more into focus, Nguyen once again associates the loss of memory with tragedy. The professor loses not only his ability to experience the present fully, but his past also becomes erased. This also leads to Mrs. Khanh feeling more and more isolated: despite the fact that she still has a loving husband, he starts to forget their relationship.
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Memory and Ghosts Theme Icon
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
The professor tries to get up to dance, saying “You always insisted we dance when you heard this song, Yen.” Mrs. Khanh hides her surprise at being called by a name that is not hers. She tells him to sit down, and he obeys, wounded, not realizing that he is in no condition to dance.
The first appearance of Yen is surprising, and Mrs. Khanh does not know how to correct her husband. This hints at her later resignation to being called by this name, effectively making herself into a person she does not know.
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Memory and Ghosts Theme Icon
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
As they drive back from the wedding, the professor takes a wrong turn, driving to the community college from which he had recently retired instead of going home. After coming to America, he’d been unable to find work in oceanography and settled for teaching Vietnamese. When he realizes his mistake, he asks Mrs. Khanh why she didn’t tell him they were going the wrong way. Mrs. Khanh had not been paying attention, worrying about who Yen might be.
Even in the stories whose main conflict does not center on the refugee experience per se, Nguyen still manages to weave in details that elaborate on that experience: here, the professor could not find work in his field after coming to America, and thus had to settle for a different profession.
Themes
War and the Refugee Experience Theme Icon
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The next morning, Mrs. Khanh tells the professor about the previous night’s events, as he had asked her to inform him of the moments when he no longer acted like himself. His shoulders sag when he hears about his lunge for the dance floor, knowing that he must have looked ridiculous at his age, and in his condition.
The professor starts to become a ghost of himself, as the memories that people have of him do not fully align with the memories of his own experiences. It is almost as though he becomes a stranger to himself as he hears what he did the previous night.
Themes
Memory and Ghosts Theme Icon
The professor and Mrs. Khanh’s son Vinh arrives, fresh from his graveyard shift at the hospital. He has brought them a gift: a replica of a Picasso painting in an ornate frame that he bought in Saigon the previous month. He says that studies have shown that Picasso’s paintings can help people like the professor. Vinh goes on to say that he and his five siblings think that Mrs. Khanh should retire from the library so that she can take care of the professor. Mrs. Khanh argues that she’s not old enough for retirement.
Despite the fact that Mrs. Khanh understands her husband’s need for support, it is difficult for her to give up both her independence and to isolate herself from the rest of the world, particularly as her husband becomes less and less present through the story.
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Memory and Ghosts Theme Icon
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
When Vinh tells Mrs. Khanh to be reasonable, she can’t help but think of him as an irresponsible teenager, sneaking out of the house at night to be with his American girlfriend. When the professor had nailed his windows shut, Vinh had eloped soon after his high school graduation. He had shouted that he was in love—and that she wouldn’t know anything about that, because her marriage had been arranged. Still, Vinh’s marriage had not lasted more than three years.
Vinh becomes another example of characters rebelling against their cultural identity and family. Vinh, believing that his parents never truly loved each other because of their arranged marriage, subsequently pursued love in defiance of his parents.
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Vinh continues to argue that Mrs. Khanh doesn’t need the money, but that the professor needs her at home. He points to his father’s shirt, which is stained by hollandaise sauce. Mrs. Khanh cleans him up. Later, she takes the painting and is disturbed by the image of the woman with two eyes on the side of her face. She sets it facing a wall in the professor’s library.
Mrs. Khanh’s feelings of being disturbed by the painting echo her feelings about Yen. Both are women who the professor keeps bringing back into her life.
Themes
Memory and Ghosts Theme Icon
Not long after this visit, the professor and Mrs. Khanh stop attending Sunday mass and gradually see less and less of their friends. The only times she leaves the house are to go shopping or to go to the library, where she was ordering a sizeable collection of Vietnamese books and movies for the residents of nearby little Saigon. When her shift ends at noon, she always leaves with a sense of dread.
Like the ghostwriter in the first story, Mrs. Khanh and the professor slowly become versions of ghosts as they remove themselves from the outside world. Yet Mrs. Khanh still maintains a broader connection to her culture in trying to make sure that there are materials in the library for refugees like herself.
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Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
At home, Mrs. Khanh continues to make the home easier for the professor to navigate. She tapes out a path from the bed to the bathroom, and posts lists strategically around the house reminding the professor to do certain tasks. The professor, in turn, hires a handyman to install iron bars on the windows.
The professor even isolates himself more fully by attempting to make it difficult for him to leave the house. Subsequently, they rely on each other more and more for the connection they lack from the outside world.
Themes
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
For Mrs. Khan, the most disturbing problem is when the professor comes home as a stranger. One day, he returns from an afternoon walk with a single red rose in a plastic tube, despite the fact that he was never romantic. When he presents it to her, she takes it reluctantly and asks him what her name is. He responds, “Yen, of course.” Mrs. Khanh resists the urge to snap the rose in half.
Even more than the sense of isolation, Mrs. Khanh becomes frustrated by the fact that he seems to have a deeper or more intimate connection with another woman than with her: he brings Yen a rose, which he has never done for Mrs. Khanh.
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That evening for dinner, Mrs. Khanh and the professor talk about the postcard they received from their eldest daughter, who works in Munich. The professor reminisces about his own travels. The professor then asks why Mrs. Khanh bought the rose on the table. She corrects him, telling him that he bought it. He is shocked and says he hopes it doesn’t happen again. Mrs. Khanh is angry, convinced that he had intended the rose for another woman. As she carries the dishes and glasses to the kitchen, the load becomes too much and she drops them. She sighs and says she’ll take care of it.
Mrs. Khanh is particularly disturbed by the professor’s hope that he won’t buy a rose again. It is an intimate and romantic gesture, but she thinks that he believes she is not worthy of that gesture—and yet another woman is indeed worthy of that gesture. These thoughts weigh on her so much that she has trouble doing her regular tasks, and additionally, her husband is unable to provide her with any support himself.
Themes
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Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
That evening, Mrs. Khanh goes to the professor’s library, which is filled with hundreds of books. He cultivated the collection after they were forced to leave his books behind when they fled Vietnam. She finds the notebooks where he’s been tracking his mistakes over the past months, but there is no mention of Yen. Mrs. Khanh writes, under the most recent entry, “Today I called my wife by the name of Yen.”
Yen continues to haunt Mrs. Khanh, to the point where she feels she needs to deceive her husband (writing in his handwriting in his own notebook) in order to rid herself of the specter of who this person might be.
Themes
Memory and Ghosts Theme Icon
Over the next few days and weeks, the professor calls Mrs. Khanh “Yen” again and again. Mrs. Khanh is consumed with curiosity about this woman. She records every incidence of this mistake in his notebook, but each day the same thing happens, to the point where she thinks she might burst into tears if she hears the name again.
Each time the professor calls Mrs. Khanh by the name of Yen, she continues to feel more and more erased. Her mindset reveals that she is nearly going crazy herself in trying to rid the professor’s mind of this woman.
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Memory and Ghosts Theme Icon
One day, Mrs. Khanh finds the professor in the bathroom, naked from the waist down and furiously scrubbing his pants and underwear under hot water. When he sees her, he screams at her to get out. He has never lost control of himself in this way, not even when they’d been desperately poor in the first days after arriving in California. She thinks that that had been true love—going to work every day and not complaining about the lives that they had lost.
Unlike the ghostwriter, who pushed away her memories, and the boy’s family in “War Years,” who simply moved past their memories in order to create a new life, Mrs. Khanh provides a different perspective. She sees their memories and their hardship as the times that brought them together.
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War and the Refugee Experience Theme Icon
Memory and Ghosts Theme Icon
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Nor had the professor yelled at Mrs. Khanh when they were lost at sea with their children, huddled together on a refugee boat and hoping for rescue. The professor had made up tales about how they were heading straight for the Philippines. When they finally did see land, she had blurted out, “I love you”—something she had never said in public and hardly ever in private.
As Mrs. Khanh explores her memory, she continues to see the value in what they have experienced: that their adversity in being refugees has provided them with their most intimate moments. Perhaps this is the greatest tragedy of the professor’s condition—that their love is found only in memory.
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War and the Refugee Experience Theme Icon
Memory and Ghosts Theme Icon
The professor and Mrs. Khanh had never spoken of this incident at sea, even though he spoke of many events of which she had no recollection. Mrs. Khanh begins to worry that her own memory is faltering, but she fears even more that the professor is forgetting who she is. She turns off the phone so that the professor wouldn’t answer the calls, afraid that if their children asked for her, he wouldn’t know who she was.
Even though the professor is the one who is losing his memory, Mrs. Khanh also fears her own memories are slipping as he starts to replace experiences they shared with experiences that he might have had with other women—like the vacation in Dalat he mentions later.
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Memory and Ghosts Theme Icon
Mrs. Khanh speaks to Vinh over the phone. She is more forthcoming with him about the professor’s condition than with her other children, but she grows frustrated when he encourages her to quit her job at the library again. When she hangs up, she changes the sheets that the professor had bed-wet the previous evening. Her body is sore and tight from doing chores and worrying, and she cannot sleep.
Mrs. Khanh’s situation reveals a dichotomy: even though she is providing him with intimacy and support, since he appears less and less like her husband, she feels more and more isolated in having to be her husband’s sole caretaker.
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Months pass. Mrs. Khanh follows the professor on his walks, discreetly staying at a distance of ten or twenty feet away. They read together, but the professor reads aloud, and very slowly, until one day he realizes that he’s been trying to read a sentence for five minutes. He thinks that he is losing his mind. After that incident, Mrs. Khanh reads to him, stopping whenever he begins to recite a memory from their old life, or the trip they had taken to Saigon three years prior.
Even though it is the professor who has started to become merely an echo of who he once was, Mrs. Khanh also leans into this dynamic. In her obsession with making sure that her husband is okay, she literally becomes his shadow: trailing him, and becoming his voice when they read together.
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Memory and Ghosts Theme Icon
The professor starts to talk about how, when he and Mrs. Khanh had visited their home in Vietnam, a night masseur biked past, and they had heard the clink of a glass bottle filled with pebbles announcing his line of work. He recounts that she had called it the loneliest sound in the world—but she doesn’t remember saying that. He talks about how they enjoyed ice cream in Dalat, but he had gone to Dalat only once, without her. As he continues to talk about the ice cream, he calls her Yen once more.
As the professor recounts more and more memories that she does not share, Mrs. Khanh feels more and more isolated from him—as if they do not have a common past, even though they have been married for four decades now.
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Mrs. Khanh tells the professor that Yen is not her name—her name is Sa. The professor is shocked and pulls out his notebook. That evening, when the professor has fallen asleep, she reads the notebook. He had written, “Matters worsening. Today she insisted I call her by another name. Must keep closer eye on her for she may not know who she is anymore.” Mrs. Khanh shuts the book abruptly.
Reading this is particularly disturbing to Mrs. Khanh because it starts to nag at her sense of reality and makes her question her own identity and memories.
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Memory and Ghosts Theme Icon
The librarians throw Mrs. Khanh a farewell party for her last day of work and give her a box of travel guides for the vacations they knew she always wanted to take. When she returns home, she cannot find the professor. She drives her car around the block, and then drives in wider and wider circles through the neighborhood. She shouts his name out the window, louder and louder.
Mrs. Khanh continues to reveal her devotion to her husband in giving up her job, and in isolating herself from the rest of the world. It is ironic that the librarians give her travel books, as she knows that she will never be traveling with her husband while he is still alive.
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Mrs. Khanh returns home after dark. She smells gas; a kettle is on the stove but the burner hasn’t been lit. She turns it off and sees light spilling from the professor’s library. He is shelving the travel guides that the other librarians gave her. When he sees her, he cries out, “Who are you?” She responds, “It’s just me,” she said. “It’s Yen.” He calms down and sits in his armchair. Mrs. Khanh pulls out a short story collection that the professor had given her and which she had never read, and begins to read aloud. She realizes she may not know much about love, but she knows what she would do for her husband until the very end.
Mrs. Khanh’s final acceptance of the name Yen demonstrates her level of sacrifice: she is willing to make herself into a ghost in order to allow her husband to maintain his sanity. As he loses his memories, so too must she relinquish the memory of who she was and who they had been together in order to prevent him from feeling like he is losing his mind—and to give her some sense of connection to a husband she is losing.
Themes
Memory and Ghosts Theme Icon
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
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