The Refugees

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Refugees: Someone Else Besides You Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Thomas and his father (Mr. P.) drop by his father’s girlfriend Mimi’s condo. Thomas has never met Mimi before; when he meets her, he sees that she is slender and has full, auburn hair. Thomas thinks about his mother, who by the end of her life had gained weight and worn wigs because her hair had faded.
Thomas sees the relationship that his father has with Mimi in contrast to the relationship that his father had with his mother. She becomes like a ghost to him, her memory creeping into all of the interactions that Thomas has with his father.
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Thomas goes to the bathroom (although saying he had to use the bathroom was just an excuse to go to the condo and meet Mimi), and when he returns, Mimi is preparing coffee in her kitchen, which has a stainless steel oven and electric stove. Thomas’s mother had had a vintage gas oven and stove, and she had been in her kitchen when she died of an aneurysm the year prior at age 53. Mimi offers Thomas coffee, but Thomas says that he only came by to drop his father off because his father’s car had been stolen the previous night. Mimi tries to make more conversation, but Mr. P. says Thomas has to go.
Once again, the memory of Thomas’s mother lingers as he surveys Mimi’s apartment. Like many of the other stories, this ghost provides a glimpse into what a different future might have looked like. Thomas’s mother’s death at such a young age becomes a point of contention between Thomas and his father, as Thomas eventually reveals that he believes his father drove his mother to her death by cheating on her.
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Thomas explains that he is 33, but that Mr. P. didn’t think anyone was a man until he became a father. His father had had five children, and though all of his sons had outgrown him, his height became largely forgotten. He is a broad-chested man and still trim enough to fit into the paratrooper’s uniform he’d worn during the Vietnam War.
Mr. P.’s experiences in Vietnam, though they help to shape his identity and the way in which he relates to his sons, largely fade into the background. This demonstrates that refugees do not have to be defined by a single culture or a single experience.
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Mr. P. walks Thomas to the door and says he’ll need a ride home the next morning, and then he closes the door. Thomas thinks back to when his father had arrived at his apartment six weeks prior with everything he owned in the car. While Thomas had struggled with the suitcases, his father, at 63, had braced them with his leg and dragged them up the stairs. Thomas had realized that living with him now would be harder than it was during his childhood.
Even though Mr. P. projects an outwardly tough appearance, there is a tension in his character between intimacy and isolation. Even though he wants to remain independent and feels somewhat at odds with his son, he clearly desires intimacy following his wife’s death and relies on his son to provide it.
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The next morning, while Thomas processes refunds and listens to his service representatives, Thomas pictures Mimi and Mr. P. lounging on the couch together. She is the first of his father’s mistresses and girlfriends that he’s seen, though he (and his mother) had known that there had been many others.
The fact that Mr. P. had many mistresses even while his wife was alive complicates Thomas’s feelings about him. Thomas understands the desire for intimacy, but not at the expense of his mother’s feelings.
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During Thomas’s lunch break, he calls his ex-wife Sam’s home number just to listen to her answering machine. Sam is a tenth-grade geometry teacher, while Thomas is a customer service manager for a company that sells hearing aids, oxygen tanks, and wheelchairs, and at night he is a watchman at a luxury high-rise.
Thomas calling Sam reveals the crux of his own conflict: he feels isolated, as well, to the point where he calls her phone simply to hear her voice, even if he cannot have a real conversation with her. Yet, as Nguyen will reveal, he also has his own struggles with intimacy.
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Thomas says that the job is perfect, because after Sam left him and Thomas’s mother had died, he could no longer sleep. He mostly sits in the lobby, watching video monitors. He reads the newspaper or plays solitaire, occasionally calling Sam and saying nothing, just to hear her say “Hello?”
Thomas’s need for intimacy appears more and more desperate, as Nguyen reveals that he calls her sometimes, but never actually speaks to her.
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Sam is patient, but her patience ran out the previous year when she turned thirty-four. She had told Thomas she wanted a child, but he wasn’t sure if he was ready to be a father. This was not the first time they’d had this conversation. He thought about Mr. P., who had treated his sons like his own personal army and cheated many times. Sam had told Thomas that he is not going to turn out like his father.
The limits of Thomas’s desire for intimacy are revealed here, as he isn’t sure that he would be a good father. This determination can be seen in comparison with the ghostwriter’s comment that motherhood would be too intimate for her in the first short story.
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Thomas’s shift ends at dawn, and he returns to the apartment into which he’d moved after his divorce. By the time Thomas’s mother passed away, he was very familiar with loneliness, and invited Mr. P. to live with him, suspecting he might also be lonely. His father, to his surprise, had said yes.
Moving in with Thomas allows both Thomas and his father to combat the isolation they feel as a result of having lost their wives. Yet each of them still feels somewhat empty, because they have a difficult time expressing love for each other.
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Thomas sleeps for two hours, and then drives back to Mimi’s apartment. Mr. P. is showering, so Mimi makes Thomas a cup of coffee and he tells her a bit about his two jobs. Then Mimi says that it’s not good for a boy his age to be without a woman and begins describing some young women at her temple. She explains that Vietnamese women are better for men than American women, and that they liked men like Thomas: “Neither too American nor too Vietnamese.”
Mimi’s comments reveal not only certain stereotypes within  the Vietnamese community, but also some of the changing culture, as well. Thomas could be seen as a grown-up version of the young boy, caught between two cultures. Mimi’s counsel is also in direct conflict with the way that Thomas’s father feels: he believes that Thomas should follow his love, rather than marry because of a shared culture, like he did.
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Mr. P. appears and he and Thomas leave soon after. In the car, Thomas’s father asks when the last time Thomas spoke with Sam was. Thomas responds that they spoke after his mother died. His father asks how he would get her back without talking to her and chastises him for giving up too easily. His father also notes that he looks terrible—that Thomas was only “half a man” before he met Sam, and he is now half a man again.
Mr. P. points out the way in which Sam’s love made Thomas a better and more whole person. Now, without that intimacy, Thomas is in some ways a ghost of who he could be. Later he sees this more concretely when he realizes that he doesn’t want to miss out on the possibility of being a father.
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Related Quotes
Thomas questions Mr. P., asking if he’s going to marry Mimi and then find another woman to have on the side. He remembers once when Thomas’s mother had asked him where his father disappeared to on Friday nights. He had no idea, and was terrified by her questioning.
Even though Thomas understood his father’s need for intimacy, he is more sympathetic to his mother because of the collateral emotional damage that Thomas had endured as a result of his father’s affairs. Perhaps this is why, even though he understands his father is much happier with Mimi, he still harbors some bitterness towards him,
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Mr. P. says that Thomas should never have let Sam go. Thomas starts to cry. He remembers that he had not cried during Thomas’s mother’s funeral, but when he drove from the church to the cemetery, the tears gushed out. In that instance, his father had waited until Thomas was finished before saying anything. But now, his father says that it’s time they did something about Thomas’s situation.
Thomas understands that he would be much happier with Sam, but his fears about fatherhood continue to plague him. As Nguyen continues to elaborate on the dynamic between his mother and father, one can see that Thomas’s fears also spring from the fact that he had a difficult childhood due to issues in his parents’ marriage, and his own father’s difficulty in parenting.
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Thomas doesn’t know what “doing something” means; only that Mr. P. usually said it when he was going to punish his sons. It is also what he’d said when Thomas had come home one day from fourth grade and reported that a kid had spat on his lunch and called him a “slant-eyed fag.”
The discrimination and bullying that Thomas faces is exemplary of the discrimination that many refugees face in a new country, as they are viewed as both foreign and easy targets.
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Mr. P. had taken Thomas to the boy’s home and knocked on the door. He spoke with the other boy’s father in low, angry tones so that Thomas couldn’t hear what he said, until his father kicked the man in the groin and then punched him in the throat. As the man fell down on his porch, Thomas saw the kid behind him, wide-eyed. They had then left.
This reaction again plays into Thomas’s conflicted feelings about his father. He agrees with the sentiment, asserting that he belongs in America, but perhaps not the violent way in which his father goes about it. Likewise, he agrees that love in relationships is important, but cheating on his mother was unethical.
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Thomas and Mr. P. go to pick up a rental car, then to a barbershop, where Thomas gets a very short haircut. Thomas’s father then takes him to Sam’s doorstep. As he knocks on the door, Thomas says that this is a mistake. His father says that they’ll have the advantage of surprise, but neither one of them is prepared for the fact that Sam opens the door and they see she is pregnant.
Thomas’s haircut, and his decision to go with his father to try to win Sam back, are representative of his relenting to his father’s opinions and outlook on life. Thomas doesn’t have to listen to his father, but by accepting his plan, he still clearly needs the support from his father to chase after what he wants.
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Sam is surprised to see them, and says they should have called. Thomas says they were just taking a drive and thought they’d stop by. She is skeptical, but she lets them in. Thomas enters cautiously, looking for another man. Sam and Thomas start to catch up, and Thomas explains that Mr. P. has moved in with him. Sam responds that that must be an interesting situation.
Now with the knowledge that Sam is pregnant, Thomas’s outlook has shifted. He worries about the man who could be the father of Sam’s child, not only because he wants to win her back, but because he slowly comes to the realization that he is jealous of the depth of the relationship that this man could achieve, and which he could not.
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Mr. P. compliments Sam on the house, but she says that most of the decorations are her roommate’s. Thomas’s father points to a pipe on top of the TV and asks where she bought it. He and Thomas are surprised to hear it’s from Hue, and that Sam visited Vietnam. Thomas’s father says he would never go back—that the Communists would call him a war criminal. Sam goes to the bathroom, trying to avoid an argument.
This discussion of Vietnam between Sam and Mr. P. highlights the difference in the way that many tourists treat Vietnam versus the way that some Vietnamese people treat Vietnam (a dynamic that is explored further in the next short story, “Fatherland”). It demonstrates the difficulty for refugees to return to their home country, even decades after having left it.
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When Sam leaves, Thomas looks for traces of a man, but can only find mementos from their life together. When Sam returns, she shows them pictures of her vacation. When Thomas sees a picture with her and a man with sandy-blond hair, he asks if this is the father. Mr. P. excuses himself out the front door. Sam tells Thomas that a woman doesn’t need a man to have a child. He says that she might as well say the earth is flat. He asks her who the father is, but she says he doesn’t have the right to ask her.
Thomas’s feelings take a sharp turn here, as his jealousy flares. He realizes, upon seeing Sam pregnant, the possibilities and the future that he gave up with her. Thomas is not haunted by a literal ghost, but he is haunted by the hypothetical child that he lost due to his uncertainty about his ability to be a father.
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Thomas leaves and gets in the car with Mr. P. As they pull out of the street, Thomas’s father sees Sam’s car and tells him to stop. He gets out of the car and slashes all four of Sam’s tires. When he gets back in, Thomas yells at him, asking why he would do something like that. His father asks why he didn’t say  or do anything—he could have easily stopped him.
Again, Thomas may agree with his father’s emotion (he is, after all, angry with Sam over her actions), but he does not agree with his methods. Yet his inability to stop his father also validates his father’s assessment that he has lost courage as a result of leaving Sam, and can only feel whole when he is with her.
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As they argue and drive away, Mr. P. claims that Thomas wouldn’t know right from wrong because he never makes any choices. Thomas questions if it was right of his father to cheat on Thomas’s mother, or if it was right to drive her to her grave. Thomas’s father says he never loved Thomas’s mother. He wants Thomas to be with a woman he loves.
Thomas’s father’s attitudes throughout his life become more clear here: he prioritizes deep emotional connections, even at the expense of Thomas’s mother. Thus, he feels that Thomas’s goal should be to rekindle the connection he had with Sam.
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At home, Mr. P. takes a pill, thinking he might have pulled a muscle in his neck, and Thomas gives him a massage. After he falls asleep, Thomas hangs his shirt in his closet and notices his mother’s wig on a Styrofoam mannequin.
Even though Thomas’s father never loved his mother, Thomas still sees the respect that he held for her and that he has not completely forgotten her.
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The next day, the police find Mr. P.’s missing car. His father goes with Mimi to retrieve it from the impound lot while Thomas sleeps between shifts. When they return, his father goes to clean the car, leaving Thomas alone with Mimi. Seeing his father and Mimi together, he realizes that Thomas’s mother and father should have married other people, even though he would not have been born. He wonders if Sam had realized this before he did, and that’s why she divorced him.
Perhaps Thomas’s biggest issue is that he is haunted by the incidence of his own birth. Knowing that his parents might have been happier with other people, he wonders if it were better for him not to have been born. Yet Thomas also realizes that he does in fact love Sam very deeply, and that their child would not experience the same conflict that he does.
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Mimi starts to chat with Thomas, but he’s in a dull mood. He asks her, “You know he’s going to cheat on you, don’t you?” Mimi doesn’t react at first, but then she gets up and walks over to the door. Before she leaves, she turns back and says, “Aren’t there times when you’d rather be someone else besides you?”
Mimi means her question to point out that Thomas is being cruel to her. But the question is also important because Thomas felt incomplete as a son and as a husband, and he worries that someone else might have been better for Sam than him.
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Thomas goes to work, changes his clothes, goes to his second job. Near dawn of the next day, he falls into bed until he hears a knock on the front door: Sam. She asks how he could have slashed her tires. Thomas retrieves an envelope full of cash that he had withdrawn the day before and gives it to her. He had planned to slide it under her door that evening.
Even though Thomas’s father’s methods were odd, his actions ultimately enabled Thomas and Sam to rekindle their romance. Like the story of the bully at school, he took the actions that Thomas was unable to take in order to allow them to regain their intimacy. This action is in some ways parallel to Thomas inviting his father to live with him, preventing him from feeling isolated.
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Sam tells Thomas that when she saw the tires, she wanted to kill him—but that she also thought he cared in some strange way. Thomas steps forward and puts his hands on Sam’s stomach. He places his ear against her belly. He speaks softly to the life within it, saying, “I can be the father.” He says it again, louder, to make sure that Sam can hear it.
Thomas’s resolution stops him from being haunted by his earlier indecision. Whereas before he thought he had given up on the possibilities that the future might hold, now he understands that he wants to own and be a part of that future with Sam.
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Related Quotes
Sam tells Thomas to stand up and asks if he knows what he’s saying—or what he’s doing. He says he has no idea. Thomas reaches up to touch her face, noticing age spots that had not been there when they’d divorced the year before. They hear a floorboard creak upstairs: Mr. P., who has crept out of his bedroom and is wondering and waiting for what is to come, just like Sam and Thomas.
Though the story ends with a degree of uncertainty between them, Thomas finally acts and proclaims his definitive desire for intimacy with Sam, fully reciprocating her earlier wish to have a child with him. Thus, their uncertainty stems from a hopeful sense of possibility, rather than the fear of the unknown that had plagued Thomas earlier.
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