Inherent in the concept of being a refugee is the idea that one has been ripped from one’s own culture and transported into another. As many of Nguyen’s characters grapple with their status as refugees, they are also forced to reevaluate their cultural identity in a new country. One’s cultural identity, Nguyen shows, is mutable, and for three young characters at the center of three different short stories, culture becomes also inextricably linked to their families. As each character grows up and assimilates into a new culture, separating themselves from their heritage also becomes a way of distancing themselves from their families.
In “War Years,” a young boy lives in a Vietnamese community in San Jose, California. As the months pass, he finds his own identity shifting away from his Vietnamese family and community and toward his new American cultural milieu. Throughout this story, there are near-constant details implying how the young boy is becoming Americanized: references to Reagan beating the Communists, the boy’s love of Captain America and Star Wars, and reading about American Reconstruction in school. This Americanization starts to affect the boy’s view of his own home and family. The young boy describes how he prefers school, where he can speak English, to the grocery store that the boy’s mother and the boy’s father own, where English is hardly ever spoken. The young boy also wonders why his parents’ grocery store doesn’t sell TV dinners or bologna—two quintessentially American products. When he mentions bologna to his mother, she says she could never sell something she can’t pronounce, highlighting the cultural divide developing between them. While the boy’s transformation is particularly upsetting to his mother, she eventually sees that to remain close with her son and aligned with his own sense of culture, she has to bend to some aspects of American culture. In the final moments of the story, she gives him five dollars—a remarkable thing to the young boy, as his parents have never given him an allowance. She then points toward the nearest 7-Eleven and says “Go buy” in English. This symbolic language adjustment emphasizes her willingness to compromise, and her desire not to be alienated from her son.
The main character of “The Americans,” Claire, veers in the opposite direction as the young boy. Claire rebels against her American culture in favor of Vietnamese culture, which creates both a metaphorical and literal feeling of separation between her and her family. Claire is the daughter of a Japanese woman, Michiko, and James Carver, an African-American pilot who fought in the Vietnam War. After growing up in America, Claire returns to Vietnam and becomes a language teacher. Returning to Vietnam serves as a way of literally distancing herself from both her American culture as well as her family. Vietnam also represents a place where she fits in. Carver recounts how, in Claire’s teenage years in the U.S., she would come home crying when other kids questioned her identity, asking, “What are you?” Choosing to live in Vietnam, then, is an acknowledgement that she doesn’t feel that she fits in either with her father’s African-American heritage or her mother’s Japanese heritage. When Michiko and Carver travel to Vietnam to visit their daughter, Claire and her father bicker about when she will return to America. Claire tells him that she has no intention of returning to America, and that she has a “Vietnamese soul.” Her father likens this decision to other stupid rebellious decisions she has made, thus emphasizing that Claire’s cultural shift is also a symbolic shift away from her parents.
In “Fatherland,” the main character, Phuong, lives in Vietnam but is attracted to the life that her half-sister has made in America, particularly because it provides an escape from a father who does not love Phuong. Phuong’s older half-sister, whose name is also Phuong but who goes by Vivien in America, visits the family in Vietnam twenty-seven years after fleeing Vietnam as a young girl. Vivien is quintessentially American, arriving like a movie star with big sunglasses, glossy makeup, and large crimson luggage, all of which delights Phuong. Vivien introduces Phuong to the life she might have in America, eating in an expensive tourist restaurant where Phuong usually serves as a hostess, buying her lacy black lingerie, and describing the American boys Vivien has dated. Phuong is both jealous of Vivien and also longs to remain with her—she wants to separate herself from her father (Mr. Ly), who feels that she doesn’t appreciate the life she has in Vietnam. Phuong also acknowledges that her father loves Vivien more than he loves her; for example, when he invites her half-sister to come on a tour he gives for tourists, while he has never asked Phuong to visit him at work. Thus, when Phuong asks Vivien if she can come back to America with her, it is both to leave behind a country that prioritizes tourists over its own citizens and to escape a father who prioritizes the American daughter he has never known over the Vietnamese daughter he has always had.
Many of the stories in The Refugees reveal how cultural identity and family are intimately tied to one another. However, as children grow and start to develop their own sense of identity outside of their families, it makes sense that this maturation would also include a kind of cultural rebellion. Many of the characters in The Refugees, some of whom already have their feet in multiple cultures, tend to grow away from the cultural identity their family provided, and instead gravitate towards a cultural identify they feel they can choose.
Cultural Identity and Family ThemeTracker
Cultural Identity and Family Quotes in The Refugees
My American adolescence was filled with tales of woe like this, all of them proof of what my mother said, that we did not belong here. In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.
This summer, your uncles and cousins were reeducated with the other enlisted puppet soldiers. The Party forgave their crimes. Your uncles were so grateful, they donated their houses to the revolution […] The cadres tell us that we will erase the past and rebuild our glorious country!
“And what about bologna?”
“What?” My mother’s brow furrowed. “If I can’t pronounce it, my customers won’t buy it.”
“Go buy,” she said in English, motioning me inside. Whenever she spoke in English, her voice took on a higher pitch, as if instead of coming from inside her, the language was outside, squeezing her by the throat.
He often compared Phuong with her absent sister, which had cultivated in Phuong a sense of yearning for Vivien but also some undeniable jealousy.
In the Ice Lantern’s glow, her sister’s face looked more like her father’s than her own, the symmetry rendering clear what Phuong could now say. Their father loved Vivien more than her.
The photograph ignited easily when Phuong lit it with a match.