The Refugees

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Refugees can help.

The Refugees: The Other Man Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Liem, a refugee, arrives at the San Diego airport and meets his sponsor, Parrish Coyne. Parrish is middle-aged and British, and upon meeting Liem, pronounces his name incorrectly. Before Liem can correct him, Parrish says that he didn’t expect Liem to be so pretty. Liem is caught off guard by this comment.
Like the ghostwriter, Liem is another example of an individual whose life is irrevocably altered by the Vietnam War. But Liem’s situation also introduces the idea that cultural identity is tied to family: here, without any family, Liem feels culturally isolated.
Themes
War and the Refugee Experience Theme Icon
Cultural Identity and Family Theme Icon
Parrish then introduces Marcus Chan, who appears to be in his early twenties, only a few years older than Liem. Liem notices how nice Marcus looks—his straight posture, his white teeth. Liem nervously introduces himself and the three walk back through the airport together.
Liem’s noticing of Marcus’s physique and teeth lays the groundwork for the later admiration that Liem will feel toward Marcus, and the intimacy that Liem wishes to have with him.
Themes
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
In the car on the way to Parrish’s home, Parrish asks if Liem has had a rough time getting to America. Liem casually responds that it hasn’t been that bad, because the prospect of explaining his story again fills him with dread after having repeated it so many times to various immigration officials and refugee services. He gives a shorter account of how he had to leave his parents to work in Saigon before fleeing to the U.S. He is exhausted from giving even this abridged account.
Liem’s exhaustion highlights another difficulty facing refugees: that in order to receive aid, people must relive traumatic memories over and over again. In Liem’s case, it is also apparent that escaping Vietnam was a difficult choice in and of itself, because it meant having to leave his family, as well as the only life he had ever known.
Themes
War and the Refugee Experience Theme Icon
Memory and Ghosts Theme Icon
Parrish and Marcus give some introductory information about living in San Francisco before going on to tell Liem that they are a couple. Liem thinks he must be misunderstanding, until he realizes that they are gay. He is shocked and nervous, but he realizes that he doesn’t really have another refuge besides Parrish’s home.
Parrish and Marcus’s revelation becomes yet another culture shock to Liem; however, unlike the past sexual experiences that he goes on to describe, Parrish and Marcus represent an intimacy that allows them to feel less isolated.
Themes
Cultural Identity and Family Theme Icon
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
Get the entire The Refugees LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Refugees PDF
Liem remembers the face of the men he had worked with and known in the tea bar in which he worked in Saigon. At the end of the night, lying together on reed mats, they all masturbated together. Liem realizes that he had forgotten these nights, and tries not to think of them. No one wanted to speak of them at the time, either: he describes what had happened “as if it were an atrocity in the jungle better left buried.”
Liem’s sexual experiences with other men in Vietnam cause him to be ashamed of himself. As a result, he represses sexual desire entirely and has tried to isolate himself from sexual relationships—that is, until he realizes that he can once again pursue intimacy with Marcus.
Themes
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The car arrives at Parrish and Marcus’s home, which is mauve. The woman at the refugee service had warned Liem that people in San Francisco might be “unique,” and for the first few weeks Liem wonders if he should call her and ask her to change his assignment. But Parrish’s generosity prevents him from doing so.
Again, Liem’s hesitation springs mostly from culture shock. He has tried to forget his sexual relationships with men so much that it fosters disgust for people whom he realizes later that he really loves.
Themes
Cultural Identity and Family Theme Icon
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
Liem thinks about how he hadn’t complained when he had been dispatched alone to Saigon to make money for the rest of his family. He hadn’t complained when he had to leave school at age twelve to shine American soldier’s boots. He hadn’t complained at age eight when he had picked through garbage for toys.
Liem’s examples of sacrifices he has made also serve as examples of how deeply tied his life had been to the events of the Vietnam War, and the destitution and hardship that the war had brought to the Vietnamese people as a whole.
Themes
War and the Refugee Experience Theme Icon
In the spring of 1975, six months prior, rockets and mortars began exploding over Saigon, and Liem found himself clawing his way aboard a river barge and shipped to Camp Pendleton, San Diego, waiting for sponsorship. He tries to forget the people who had not made it onto the barge, or who had been shot by soldiers trying to clear their own way to escape.
Like the ghostwriter of the previous story, Liem is haunted by what he had seen in trying to escape Vietnam. Just as she asks why she lived and her brother died, Liem could just as easily have been shot trying to get on the boat instead of someone else.
Themes
War and the Refugee Experience Theme Icon
Memory and Ghosts Theme Icon
Liem doesn’t mention any of this in the letter he writes to his parents from Parrish’s house, only his second letter since arriving in America. He assumes that the Communists will read it, and so he only explains where he is living and how to get in touch with him. Downstairs, Liem finds Marcus and Parrish eating breakfast. They had started arguing more seriously in front of him, and this told him he was becoming more of a part of their household.
This is the first hint that readers receive of what life is like in Vietnam even after the war. For all of the difficulties that refugees have, they can also provide hope and a lifeline back to families who have it even worse. Thus, Liem keeps his hardships from his family.
Themes
War and the Refugee Experience Theme Icon
Despite the fact that Parrish refuses to let him pay rent, Liem finds a job in a liquor store. He runs the shop from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. six days a week. During his downtime, he reads Everyday Dialogues in English to improve his English skills. However, he finds that the book lacks guidance for certain scenarios, like when he encounters two prostitutes on the street. He describes how the woman prostitute dismisses him quickly, but the transvestite does not.
It is here that Liem’s cultural identity starts to evolve. He makes attempts to assimilate, both by learning English and by getting a job so that he might eventually be able to support himself. Additionally, the descriptions of the two prostitutes once again imply that Liem himself is gay, and that others can see his need for intimacy.
Themes
Cultural Identity and Family Theme Icon
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
When Liem returns home, he showers off the day’s sweat and tries not to think of Marcus’s body. After he exits the shower and wraps a towel around his waist, he runs into Marcus in the hallway, who playfully shuffles side to side, not letting Liem pass. He eventually lets Liem go, and Liem hurries into his room.
Nguyen continues to make clear that Liem wants intimacy with Marcus, despite the fact that he continues to try to isolate himself and suppress that desire.
Themes
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
A few months into Liem’s stay, Parrish takes a trip to Washington for a conference on nuclear power. Parrish explains that the government buries uranium and plutonium in the desert, threatening both the environment and people’s lives. Parrish describes this as “a gigantic minefield in our backyard.”
Parrish seems unaware of the insensitivity of his phrasing, as Liem has come from a country littered with deadly mines. This statement implies the ignorance of many people of the conditions of the Vietnam War and its effect on civilians—even those who live in a country that took part in its destruction and who seem to want to rectify some of its damage.
Themes
War and the Refugee Experience Theme Icon
After Liem and Marcus drop Parrish off, they go to Chinatown for food. Marcus explains some of his own backstory: he had lived in Hong Kong until he was eighteen, sent by his father to study business so that he could inherit his father’s rubber company. But Three years prior, an ex-lover had sent “very candid pictures” to his father. His father had disowned him, and now Parrish pays his expenses. As Liem listens, he wonders what candid might mean.
Although Marcus and Liem’s circumstances are very different, there are some similarities between their two situations—having been thrust into a new culture, and then separated from their families by circumstances beyond their control. This shared experience makes Liem feel less alone.
Themes
Cultural Identity and Family Theme Icon
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
Liem tells Marcus, in turn, about his own family. In his hometown of Long Xuyen, no one traveled far unless drafted by the army. Liem was the first in his family to leave. Before he got on the bus, his father had told him that he trusted Liem not to lose himself in the city. Liem promised not to, but he forgot to tell his parents that he loved them in his haste to get on the bus. He has not seen them since.
Marcus sharing his own story causes Liem to open up in a way he had not yet previously done, affording the two a sense of shared intimacy. In providing some of his own backstory, Liem reveals the isolation he feels from both his culture and his family.
Themes
Cultural Identity and Family Theme Icon
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
Marcus tells Liem not to dwell on the past: that the best way to help them is to help himself. Liem thinks that this is a very American way of thinking. Marcus asks him what he wants to do with his life; Liem had never asked himself this, especially because he knows how fortunate he is compared with his friends back home. Liem says in response only that he wants to be good.
Even as Marcus and Liem share some ways of thinking, Liem still feels somewhat culturally adrift. Marcus understands neither Liem’s refugee experience nor Liem’s cultural attitude about the responsibility he has to his family.
Themes
Cultural Identity and Family Theme Icon
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
The next day at the liquor store, Liem rushes home when his shift ends. He recalls how after he and Marcus had finished eating, Liem had paid the check. They had then walked through Chinatown together and visited the Golden Gate Bridge. They had then seen a movie, their knees brushing each other, before getting sushi for dinner. They returned to the house and drank a bottle of wine. Never having drunk wine before, Liem had woken up with a massive hangover.
Yet for all of their differences, Liem clearly values and longs for the human connection that Marcus provides. Nguyen demonstrates how they reach a new level of intimacy not only in experiencing new things together, but also through physical touch—like their knees brushing against each other.
Themes
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
When Liem returns from the liquor store, Marcus presents him with a letter from his family. Liem doesn’t open it. Marcus says that “they think we’ve got a Western disease.” When Liem looks puzzled by Marcus’s comment, Marcus implies that he knows Liem is also gay. Liem asks Marcus what “candid” means. Marcus explains that it means being caught by surprise in a photograph. Or it means someone who’s honest and direct. Liem says that he wants to be candid, and puts his hand on Marcus’s knee.
In this moment, Liem starts to feel a new tension: between staying true to the culture and expectations of his family, who would not approve of relationships with men, and feeling close and more intimate with Marcus. In this respect, at least, Liem starts to rebel against his cultural identity, in the same way that other characters do in other short stories.
Themes
Cultural Identity and Family Theme Icon
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
After Liem and Marcus have sex, Liem realizes that things may not have gone well. They did not get undressed smoothly, and his rhythm seemed to be off. Marcus had told him to stop apologizing and just enjoy himself. Liem isn’t surprised to discover how little he remembers, as he has tried very hard to repress these experiences.
Liem’s difficulty in having sex with Marcus reveals how much he has distanced himself from sexual relationships on the whole, because previously he could only view those relationships as shameful.
Themes
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
Lying in bed, holding Marcus, Liem says, “I love you.” Marcus says nothing, and Liem starts to put his clothes on, embarrassed. Marcus tells him to stop, explaining that Liem just got caught by surprise. A week from now, he explains, Liem won’t know why he said it, and a year from now other people will be saying it to Liem instead.
Contrary to Liem’s prior sexual relations, with Marcus, Liem realizes that sex doesn’t have to be shameful. This intimacy is so overwhelming to Liem that he believes he is in love, demonstrating how in need he was of human connection.
Themes
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
Marcus and Liem continue to hold each other, until Marcus asks whether Liem is going to read his letter. Liem had forgotten about it, and isn’t sure what he would write to his parents in return. He could only tell them that he’s working hard, making friends, and saving money for them. Liem’s mind wanders until he asks Marcus a question he wanted to ask the day before: “Am I good?” Marcus responds, “You were very good.”
Marcus’s rejection of Liem shows, however, that intimacy only alleviates isolation when it is returned. Marcus’s answer to Liem’s question reveals that he is focused on their physical intimacy. Liem’s question, however, was clearly not about the sex—but instead about his value as a human being. This missed connection and communication makes Liem feel misunderstood and once again isolated.
Themes
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
After Marcus falls asleep, Liem sneaks out of bed and takes a shower. Parrish calls to check in, and Liem tells him that they’re doing fine. Liem then opens the letter from his father. His father describes how their family is doing well, and that their uncles and cousins were “reeducated” with the other enlisted soldiers and “donated” their houses to the revolution. He warns his son against a sinful life in America, and sends the family’s love.
The letter reveals a tension for Liem: he wants to support his family and he knows that they are struggling under the Communist government, but at the same time he has in some ways rebelled against aspects of their culture. The reference to a “sinful life” is particularly important, because a relationship that is sinful to his family is no longer sinful to Liem.
Themes
Cultural Identity and Family Theme Icon
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Liem sets the letter aside and looks out the window. He sees his reflection and realizes that he doesn’t recognize himself. Outside, he sees two men walk quickly through the rain. They brush shoulders and laugh at each other. Before, he might have thought they were friends. Now, he sees, they could easily be lovers.
Like the narrator of the previous chapter, Liem realizes that he is in some ways a ghost of his former self. The memory  of what he once was has been  replaced by his new life, his new attitudes, and his new culture in America.
Themes
Memory and Ghosts Theme Icon
Liem stares at them, still half-naked, and the two men turn towards him. One of the men waves to him, and he returns the wave. After this fleeting connection, the men pass by the house, and Liem remains with his hand pressed against the window. He wonders if someone, behind a blind or a curtain, might be watching him.
The two men here are echoes of Marcus and Parrish. Liem is drawn to them and looks to them for intimacy, but he realizes that only when that human connection is genuinely reciprocated will he feel less alone.
Themes
Intimacy and Isolation Theme Icon
Related Quotes