The Refugees

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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"Black-Eyed Women"

The story focuses on an unnamed ghostwriter (a person who is hired to write literary works that are officially credited to another person), who is writing the memoir of a man named Victor Devoto. Victor is the sole survivor of a plane crash that killed his wife and children. Writing Victor’s story reminds the ghostwriter of her own trauma, and over several evenings as she writes, the ghostwriter’s brother, who died twenty-five years earlier, visits her home as a ghost. On his third visit, the ghostwriter confesses how guilty she feels that he died and she lived. The story flashes back to their escape from Vietnam by boat, when the ghostwriter’s brother had tried to disguise her as a boy so that she wouldn’t be kidnapped by pirates. But one of the pirates had seen through their ruse, and when the ghostwriter’s brother tried to stab the pirate to protect the ghostwriter, the pirate had struck her brother with his gun and killed him. The pirate and other men had then raped the ghostwriter.

In the present, the ghostwriter’s brother eases her guilt by telling her that she had died on that day as well; she just didn’t know it. The ghostwriter weeps, finally able to grieve for his death and for the time that they had lost. After the ghostwriter publishes Victor’s memoir, she resolves to write her own work: a book of “ghost stories,” tales of the lost lives of refugees.

"The Other Man"

Liem, a Vietnamese refugee, is placed into the San Francisco home of Parrish Coyne by a refugee service. Liem had left his family during the war in order to make money in Saigon and send it back to them. Following the fall of Saigon, Liem had escaped by clawing his way onto a refugee boat which had then come to the United States.

Parrish is an older British man who is very generous, but Liem is put off by the fact that he is in a relationship with a younger man named Marcus Chan. Liem is particularly upset by their relationship because of his own sexual history with men, which he had tried to forget. Over the first weeks and months, Liem gets a job, improves his English, and tries not to think about Marcus’s body.

A few months into Liem’s stay, Parrish takes a trip for a weekend to Washington. Marcus and Liem spend the weekend together, starting with a trip to Chinatown, sightseeing, and going to a movie. By the end of the weekend, Marcus implies that he knows Liem is gay, resulting in the two of them having sex. Liem says “I love you,” but Marcus doesn’t return his words, which disappoints Liem. In the final moments of the story, Liem looks out his bedroom window and sees two men on the street. He waves at them and they return his wave in a fleeting connection.

"War Years"

In 1983 in a Vietnamese community in San Jose, California, a boy, the boy’s mother, and the boy’s father live together and run a Vietnamese grocery store called the New Saigon Market. The boy’s parents escaped Vietnam when he was very young, and he has grown up caught between Vietnamese and American cultures.

One day, a woman named Mrs. Hoa shows up at the market and asks the boy’s mother and father for money to support a South Vietnamese guerilla army training in Thailand who will then try to take back Vietnam from the Communists. When the boy’s mother refuses because money is tight for them and they are supporting their daughter in college, Mrs. Hoa warns that people might call them Communist sympathizers. Still, his mother does not budge. A few weeks later, the family is almost robbed by a white man with a gun, except that the boy’s mother startles the man by screaming at him, allowing them to push him out the door of their home before he can shoot. The police aren’t able to catch the man.

A few weeks later, Mrs. Hoa approaches the boy’s mother again at the store. The boy’s mother again refuses to donate money, but this time Mrs. Hoa shouts to the other customers that shopping in the store is just as bad as supporting the Communists. The boy’s mother is worried about what these customers might say to other people in the community, and so she and the boy visit Mrs. Hoa at her home in order to tell her off. But when they get there, the boy’s mother notices that Mrs. Hoa’s husband and sons were in the military in Vietnam. Mrs. Hoa explains that she doesn’t know whether her husband and one of her sons are still alive. Touched by this story, the boy’s mother agrees to give her two hundred dollars to support the army. On the way home, she hands the boy a five dollar bill, points him toward the nearest 7-Eleven, and tells him, in English, “Go buy.” He is stunned, and doesn’t know what to choose.

"The Transplant"

The story introduces Arthur Arellano and his new friend, Louis Vu. Arthur had lent Louis space in his garage to keep the merchandise he sells: boxes and boxes of counterfeit products from expensive brands. Arthur sees this as a way of paying back Louis’s father, Men Vu, from whom he had received a liver transplant the previous year.

Prior to his diagnosis, Arthur had lost his home and his wife Norma due to his gambling addiction, and he had subsequently moved into his younger brother Martín’s house. He also works for Martín at a landscaping business that their father owned, which their father had given solely to Martín because he thought Arthur was irresponsible.

When Arthur told Norma of his diagnosis of liver failure, she supported him through his transplant and recovery. They had then been given the name of the liver donor by mistake, and Arthur had called every person named Vu in the phone book to try to find someone connected with Men Vu, until he found Louis.

After Arthur recovers from his transplant and kindles this friendship with Louis, Norma feels that Arthur is repeating old patterns and doesn’t truly care about her. Arthur doesn’t want to rely on his brother again, and so he sleeps at Louis’s house. When he returns home to pick up a few things, however, he receives a call from Minh Vu, who tells him that he is the son of Men Vu. Arthur quickly realizes that Louis has been lying to him, and he confronts Louis, outraged at being misled. Louis admits that he lied but is confused why Arthur is so upset. Arthur threatens to get rid of all of Louis’s things from his garage, but Louis says that if Arthur does that, he will call the police on his family’s landscaping business, as he knows that some of the workers there are undocumented immigrants. Arthur returns home, deflated, and tries to explain to Norma what happened. But all she can see, he realizes, is that he has nothing to offer her.

"I’d Love You to Want Me"

Mrs. Khanh’s husband, Professor Khanh, is slowly losing his memory. He confuses dates, he forgets the route to his home, and at a wedding, he mistakenly calls Mrs. Khanh by the wrong name: Yen. Mrs. Khanh is particularly upset by this last incident, as she has no idea who Yen could be.

Her son, Vinh, and her other children all counsel Mrs. Khanh to give up her job at the library so that she can spend more time taking care of her husband, but Mrs. Khanh is adamant that she’s not old enough to retire.

As time goes by, the professor becomes more and more of a stranger to her. He buys a red rose for “Yen,” despite the fact that he was never romantic in this way with her, and he continues to call Mrs. Khanh by the name Yen and recount stories that she does not remember. One day, she discovers him half-naked in the bathroom scrubbing his pants and underwear clean, and he yells at her to get out. He had never yelled at her before, not even when they fled Vietnam with their children, or when they arrived in America and were desperately poor.

Eventually, the professor’s condition becomes so bad that Mrs. Khanh decides to quit her job at the library. But when she gets back from her final day, she cannot find the professor. She circles the neighborhood until nighttime without success. When she returns to the house, she finds the professor in his library. When he grows frantic and wide-eyed, asking who she is, she tells him “It’s Yen.”

"The Americans"

James Carver, an African-American Vietnam War veteran, and his Japanese wife, Michiko, go to visit their daughter Claire, who teaches English in Vietnam. Carver and Claire do not get along very well, particularly because Carver cannot understand why she wants to live in Vietnam. Claire argues that she feels at home in Vietnam; that in America, she never felt like it was a place where she belonged as a biracial woman.

Carver, Michiko, and Claire go on tours, visit her apartment, and eventually visit a de-mining site where her boyfriend, Khoi Legaspi, works. Legaspi is developing robots that can help remove mines from fields with much less human involvement. Carver is skeptical of his work, arguing that the Department of Defense (which is funding the project) could use the robot for much more sinister purposes. Claire defends Legaspi’s work, saying that he’s trying to undo some of the things that Carver had done during the war. Carver had flown a B-52 and dropped tons and tons of bombs on the country, but he felt that he was doing it for the right reasons. Outraged at Claire’s words, he storms off and takes a walk. A monsoon hits soon after, and Carver slips and falls in the mud.

Carver winds up in the hospital for three days with both pneumonia and a fever. Claire stays by his side the whole time. When he wakes up, he asks her to help him get to the bathroom. He leans on her as they walk. He is reminded of when Claire was a little girl, barely potty-trained, and had asked him to take her to the bathroom in the middle of the night. When he and Claire reach the hospital bathroom, he has started to cry.

"Someone Else Besides You"

At the beginning of the story, Thomas meets Mimi, his father’s (Mr. P’s) girlfriend. Thomas’s mother had died the previous year of an aneurysm, but even when she was alive his father had often cheated on her with multiple girlfriends. Mr. P. had fought in the Vietnam War and was very tough on his children growing up.

Thomas works two jobs: as a customer service representative for a medical supply company by day and as a watchman at a high-rise by night. He has also gotten divorced from his wife, Sam, the previous year, because he was unable to commit to having a child with her. He had been living alone for six months when his mother died, and had asked his father if he wanted to move in with him. His father agreed.

After meeting Mimi for the first time, Mr. P. says he wants to help Thomas get Sam back, as he says that Thomas is only half a man without her. Mr. P. drives Thomas to her doorstep. They are both surprised to find Sam is very pregnant. She is surprised to see them, but lets them in. Thomas discovers that Sam is having her child alone, and argues with her that a child needs a father. She is frustrated because she believes that Thomas had his chance.

When they leave, Mr. P. decides to slash Sam’s car tires, and Thomas doesn’t stop him even though he’s furious with his father afterward. Two days later, Sam shows up at his doorstep, outraged that he has done that, though she says that, in an odd way, it showed that he cared about getting her back. Thomas puts his hands on Sam’s stomach and tells her that he wants to be the father of her child.

"Fatherland"

Phuong’s father, Mr. Ly, had had three children prior to the Vietnam War with the first Mrs. Ly. When he had been forced into a labor camp during the war, the first Mrs. Ly had fled to America with her three children. When he got out of the labor camp, Mr. Ly had remarried Phuong’s mother, and he had had three more children, whom he named after his first set of children. Phuong is the oldest of this second set of children.

Phuong’s older sister goes by Vivien, and Vivien decides to visit Vietnam for the first time. Mr. Ly had always had a preference for his first set of children, because they were very accomplished: Vivien had graduated from a series of prestigious schools and is now a pediatrician. When Vivien visits, Mr. Ly’s preferential treatment only grows worse. Vivien takes the family to an expensive restaurant where Phuong usually works, and Mr. Ly invites Vivien on one of his tours of various Vietnam War sites. As Phuong starts to experience what Vietnam is like as a tourist, she realizes that, to most foreigners, all Vietnamese people seem indistinguishable and quaint. Phuong does not want to serve these tourists any longer.

Phuong and Vivien grow closer over the course of her trip. Vivien gives Phuong black lingerie and tells her about her life in America, before revealing that she doesn’t really love their father because she doesn’t know him. On Vivien’s last day, Phuong asks if Vivien would sponsor her to come to America, because she wants to be like Vivien. Vivien reveals that she and her mother lied about her life—that Vivien is actually a receptionist and has quite a bit of debt. Vivien tells Phuong that she cannot sponsor her. Phuong is shocked and upset.

After Vivien leaves, the story concludes with Phuong burning the photos that the family had taken over the course of Vivien’s trip. Phuong resolves to find a way to leave Vietnam any way she can.