James Carver and his wife Michiko take a trip to Vietnam to see their daughter Claire. James hadn’t wanted to return to the country—he knew nothing about it except what it looked like at 40,000 feet—but Michiko wanted to see it and visit their daughter and her boyfriend, Khoi Legaspi.
“The Americans” offers a different perspective on the Vietnam War: that of a man who fought in the war but who had no connection to the country. This demonstrates the sprawling impact that war can have, not only on the people who lived in the country at the time.
Legaspi annoys Carver. On their first tour in Hue, Legaspi tries to sympathize with Carver, who has walked with a limp since falling down and breaking his hip three years prior, by saying that his own father walks with a cane. Carver, frustrated by this statement, quickens his pace.
Carver views the entirety of Claire’s life in Vietnam—including her boyfriend—as a means of rebelling against his life and his culture. Thus, he finds nearly everything about the trip to be frustrating.
Along the tour, Michiko and Legaspi speak about his research, which is in robotics. He invites Michiko and Carver to see a demonstration of his robot in action. Carver is hesitant about it: they had visited a war museum in Saigon and he didn’t want to see any more horrors. Claire responds that he’ll get to see the future of de-mining. They bicker over the merits of the project, especially as it is funded by the Department of Defense, before Legaspi breaks up the argument by saying that they should take a picture next to one of the tombs by the Perfume River.
Despite the fact that Carver participated in the Vietnam War, he seems largely untroubled by the impact he might have had in flying bomber planes (which Nguyen elaborates later). But the museum he mentions, the de-mining site, and many other things in Vietnam remind him of some of the violence that he carried out in the country.
As they take the picture, Carver thinks that he’s becoming stupider in old age. He feels as though he hasn’t been this slow since Claire and his son William were newborns. He dates the beginning of his decline to six years ago, when his son graduated from the Air Force Academy. William had become a pilot like Carver, but he was unhappy flying a plane that was meant for refueling, believing that it’s boring.
Carver views Claire’s life in contrast with the life that his son has chosen. Whereas William follows a path very similar to Carver, Claire’s path to Vietnam is later revealed to be not only in defiance of Carver, but also in an attempt to rectify the harm that he caused.
Carver is happy that William is flying something safer than the plane he flew: a B-52. But he had never been happier than flying that plane, a “majestic machine” that carried thirty tons of iron bombs. He knows that if he could live life all over again, he wouldn’t hesitate to climb into the cockpit again.
Nguyen continues to reveal Carver’s ignorance. The fact that the harm that he caused in the war is at odds with the fact that he gained a great sense of purpose and joy from flying his plane in the war.
The next morning, Carver and Michiko take a van to Quang Tri, where Claire lives and where Legaspi’s de-mining operation is based. Claire’s apartment is not what they’re used to: a twin-sized bed, cinder blocks and wood boards for a closet, a shower head on a hose and a drain in the floor. When they ask if she could find a better place to live, she says that this is better than what most people have. Carver tells her that she’s “not a native”; she’s “an American.”
Claire’s life in Vietnam comes out in full force here as a point of contention between her and her father. Her rejection of American culture in favor of thinking of herself as someone who feels at home in Vietnam frustrates her father, because he feels as though it is a rejection of his life, his choices, and his culture.
Carver, Michiko and Claire go to a café beneath her apartment. Children giggle and stare at them. Claire says they’ve never seen a family like theirs before: an African-American man, a Japanese woman, and their daughter. Carver says he’s used to it, having traveled in Japan and Thailand and gotten the same reaction. Claire argues that he could always go home, though—but there was never a place that felt like home for her.
The scene in the café reveals some of the trouble that Carver has had with his own cultural identity in various Asian countries, and he doesn’t seem to see how Claire has experienced a parallel discomfort in America, which is what drove her to come to Vietnam.
Carver remembers Claire coming home as a teenager, sobbing at a comment from a peer or stranger that amounted to “What are you?” He sees that, in Vietnam, Claire exhibits a confidence she’s never had before, as she hails a taxi, gives directions in Vietnamese, and greets her students at the school where she teaches English. At the school, Carver and Michiko discuss how long she’s planning to stay. When she says indefinitely, her father is patronizing and confused as to why she would want to stay. Claire says that she feels like she’s home—that she has a “Vietnamese soul.”
Claire argues strongly that Vietnam is the place where she feels she fits in culturally, in contrast to America where people didn’t seem to be able to identify her mother’s or her father’s culture. However, as family is instrumental in giving a person a sense of cultural identity, Carver only sees Claire’s move away from America as a means of separating herself from him.
Carver responds that that’s the stupidest thing he’s heard. Claire gets upset, saying that he’s said that about all of her big decisions, like leaving Maine for school, majoring in women’s studies, and going to Vietnam in the first place. Claire begins to cry, and is frustrated when she sees a few students have gathered at her door and can see her upset.
Claire’s list demonstrates how Carver cares about Claire’s move because it is a rebellion against him, rather than the fact that it is a separation from his culture, because the other examples she cites are life choices with which he disagreed that do not have as much to do with cultural identity.
Michiko tries to calm the situation, taking Claire shopping. This forces Carver to find something to do alone. He passes the time by sitting outside at a bar and watching boys play soccer across the street. He thinks that the beer hasn’t changed since he drank it thirty years earlier, that it was “insipid then and it was insipid now.”
Carver again reveals some of his ignorance of the consequences of his actions during the war. Rather than trying to get to know the people and the culture thirty years ago, the thing he remembers the most is the taste of the beer.
Carver, Michiko, and Claire set out for the de-mining site the following day with Legaspi. As they tour through the countryside, Carver thinks that the country looked more beautiful from the altitude of his B-52. Seen up close, he thinks, the poverty is not picturesque. The sights and smells depress Carver, combined with the fact that Claire is not speaking to him.
Like Carver’s thoughts on the taste of beer in Vietnam, his opinions on the appearance of the country seem quite insensitive to the plight of its people, particularly when taken in conjunction with his actions in the war and the experiences of refugees in other stories.
Legaspi plays jazz on the radio, having been informed by Claire that Carver loves jazz. Of all the places Carver has travelled, he liked France and Japan the best because the people also loved jazz. He had met Michiko at a jazz bar in Roppongi when he was on R & R from Okinawa.
The reference to jazz touches on the fact that even though he and Michiko may not have shared much between their cultures, the commonalities were important in creating a bond. Perhaps this is a reason that it is important for Carver to share some common cultural ground with his daughter.
They reach the de-mining site and two teenage boys greet them. Carver immediately forgets their names, so he nicknames them Tom and Jerry (the same names that he and his roommate had bestowed on their houseboys when staying in Vietnam during the war). They both have prosthetic limbs, and Legaspi explains that they lost them when they were kids. Now, they guard the site and look after the mongooses.
Carver’s insensitivity (and even prejudice) comes out again in this moment. He appears not to care about the two young boys, who lost their limbs in the conflict that he took part in, to the point where he also views them as interchangeable with two individuals he had known thirty years prior.
The mongooses, Legaspi explains, are too light to trip mines, and they can be trained to smell explosives. Legaspi goes on to say that he steers the robot with a remote control. When the mongoose smells a mine, it sits up. A human team would take months to clear out the area, and bulldozing would ruin the soil for farming. But their method only takes a few weeks for a fraction of the cost.
Legaspi’s work reveals the way in which the Vietnam War has left long-term scars on the country and its people at home, making it difficult for them to use the land and endangering their lives if they tried to rid themselves of these mines even thirty years after the war.
Carver criticizes Legaspi’s naïveté, saying that the Department of Defense could figure out a way to put a landmine on the robot and then send it into tunnels to kill terrorists. Claire tries to defend Legaspi’s work, and says that he’s trying to make up for the things that Carver has done: killed thousands of people with the bombs he dropped. Carver says that he doesn’t have to listen to this. He argues that Claire was coddled and protected from what he and Michiko had to worry about in their lifetimes. He then walks away.
The argument between Claire and Carver comes to a head as they clash over both cultural identity and generational differences on war. It is the confluence of these two things that is so frustrating to Carver: the fact that Claire is rebelling against him, and that she is doing it in a way that criticizes his life’s choices and his service.
Fifteen minutes later, a monsoon strikes. Carver walks on the road away from the site and thinks about how he had never watched his own payload drop or explode, but he could see the results of what others had done. He thinks that Claire didn’t understand the need for striking the enemy in order to protect Americans. This had led her to join Amnesty International in high school and march against Desert Storm at Vassar. She seemed to empathize with masses of strangers who would kill her if given the chance, but did not extend this sympathy to him.
Carver’s thoughts on war reveal more complexity than the story has given him up to this point. Nguyen introduces the idea of the necessity of protecting one’s own culture and one’s own people over others. Yet it seems as though Nguyen is in some ways inherently criticizing Carver, because far more Vietnamese lives were at stake in the war than American lives, and so again Carver seems unaware of the culture he truly fought to protect.
As Carver continues to walk, the rain becomes a deluge. He is uncertain of whether to keep heading back or to return to the de-mining site. Carver hears the car they came in honk behind him, and as he turns toward the car, his step falters and he trips into the mud, his leg locking and his body pitching forward. Legaspi helps him to his feet and into the car, shivering and cold. Legaspi wonders where he was trying to go—he didn’t even know where he was.
This incident is symbolic of the fact that Carver feels like his previous perception of the war is slipping away. He is becoming increasingly isolated, as his family no longer sympathizes with the part that he played in the war.
By evening, Carver has a fever and is in a hospital. He dreams about floating in a black stream, then about being in a plane without a pilot. He had risen, passing all of the passengers—all of whom were Vietnamese—and when he opened the cockpit door, the pilot’s seat waited for him.
The dream could have several different interpretations, but it is possible that he realizes now the duality of his job during the war. He had caused harm and violence, yes, but he had also protected people who were at the mercy of the North Vietnamese. But perhaps his largest realization is the priority of the Vietnamese people whose lives he affected, not simply the Americans in his life.
Carver wakes up and sees Claire. She gives him water and tells him he’s been here for three days. He has pneumonia and a fever. Carver tells Claire he needs to use the bathroom. He puts his arms around her and she pulls him up from the bed. She maneuvers him down the hallway. She tells him he’s going to be okay, but he is still frightened.
The final piece of this short story demonstrates that even for the cultural and philosophical differences between Carver and Claire, there is still a familial intimacy that cannot be shaken.
Carver realizes that Claire has been sleeping on a bamboo mat near his bed for three days. Carver starts to remember when Claire had been an infant, she had slept in between himself and Michiko. He was so worried about rolling onto her that he had often climbed down to the floor and slept on the carpet.
This early anecdote has echoes in the present: Claire’s need for love and support leads Carver to be uncomfortable and feel more isolated.
A few years after that, when Claire was barely potty-trained, she would wake up and jump onto Carver’s chest, demanding to be taken to the bathroom. He would lead her down the hall, her hand wrapped around one of his fingers. In the present, Claire and Carver reach the bathroom. She asks him if he is crying—he says he isn’t, even though he is.
Now, with their roles reversed, the intimacy and love between Carver and Claire still exists, but like other parents within Nguyen’s short story collection, he must realize that his daughter has grown up and must be given a measure of independence—be it cultural, or simply the freedom to live her life the way she wants to live it.