While some of Nguyen’s stories focus specifically on what it means to be a refugee, many of them focus on what it means to have human connection. Several of the characters deal with severe bouts of isolation, as they cut themselves off from the people around them, before rekindling or beginning relationships with friends, family, or life partners. Nguyen demonstrates how essential physical and emotional intimacy with others is to feeling alive. Yet as crucial as these human connections are, Nguyen demonstrates that they only truly combat loneliness when that emotional connection is reciprocated.
The main character of “The Other Man,” Liem, becomes intimate with one of the men who is hosting him, named Marcus, after he flees Vietnam. This intimacy allows Liem to feel loved for the first time, but when Marcus later rejects him, Liem feels even more isolated than before. Liem arrives in San Diego as a refugee and is taken in by a gay couple—Marcus, who is a younger man, and an older man named Parrish. Liem is shocked to learn that they are a couple, as he is ashamed of his own sexual history with men and has tried to isolate himself from romantic relationships as a result. However, living in Parrish and Marcus’s house allows Liem to reawaken this desire for intimacy. Liem starts to think about Marcus’s body, and when Parrish goes away for a weekend, he and Marcus spend time around the city together, going to restaurants and a movie. The next day, Marcus hints that he knows Liem is gay, which leads the two to have sex. This intimacy makes Liem feel like Marcus understands him in a way that no one else has, and Liem tells Marcus that he loves him. At a time when Liem is separated from his family, his culture, and the only life he has ever known, this physical intimacy gives him a sense of belonging. Yet Marcus doesn’t return Liem’s expression of love. After this devastation, Liem takes a shower, and afterwards he stares out the window of his bedroom. He sees two men walking down the street, and the men notice him—dressed only in a towel—as well. They wave to each other, and Nguyen describes how “for a moment there were only the three of them, sharing a fleeting connection.” Even when the men have walked on, Liem wonders if there might be another man, watching him from his own window. This scene at the window echoes Liem’s situation with Marcus and Parrish, and while it demonstrates the power of connection, it also shows that intimacy can lead to further isolation in the absence of a shared love.
“The Transplant,” focuses on the intimacy that the main character, Arthur, feels with his wife, Norma, and also with a new friend named Louis Vu. In this story, Nguyen draws a literal connection between this intimacy and Arthur’s ability to survive. Arthur’s story begins when his liver fails. Prior to this diagnosis, Arthur had a serious gambling addiction, which isolated him from most of his friends and family. Arthur had recently lost his home in a gamble, and his wife had moved out. When Arthur receives his diagnosis, Norma returns to him, understanding that he needs her help both physically and emotionally to get through his illness, and is willing to provide him with this intimacy. However, once Arthur is able to recover, Norma separates herself from him once again. Arthur receives a liver from an organ donor named Men Vu, and kindles a friendship with Louis Vu, whom Arthur believes is Men’s son. They meet each other weekly at a restaurant, and Arthur helps Louis with his business ventures by letting him use his garage for storage. When Arthur discovers that Louis is not actually Men’s son, he feels betrayed. He drinks his first drink since his liver transplant, causing searing pain in his side to the point where he thinks he may have died. It is implied that he passes out. Thus, Nguyen draws a connection between Arthur’s friendship with Louis and Arthur’s physical health. Having this friend, after feeling isolated from so many other people in his life, allowed him to live.
In “Someone Else Besides You,” the main character, Thomas, only feels that his life has meaning and wholeness when he rekindles intimacy with his ex-wife, Sam. Thomas and Sam split up because Thomas had been unable to commit to having a child with her. Thomas moves in with his father, Mr. P., but his father points out that Thomas has lost courage and looks unhealthy as a result of having left Sam. Mr. P. convinces him to go visit Sam several months after they have split up. When Thomas sees that she is pregnant, he feels even more alone, thinking that someone might have achieved the intimacy with Sam that he was unable to experience. Thomas feels some relief when Sam tells him that she is raising the child on her own, but Thomas realizes that even though he is still fearful of being a father, he wants to support her. He tells her, “I can be the father.” The story ends with uncertainty between them, but Thomas’s definitive desire for intimacy becomes his final act.
The Refugees shows how humans naturally strive for relationships with others, and that an aversion to isolation and loneliness is relatively universal. Yet it is worth noting the added weight of what it means to be isolated as a refugee: often alone in a new country, navigating an unfamiliar culture, and left without family or friends. Striving for intimacy becomes particularly important, then, for people who may feel completely cut off from the lives they have known. By making this desire for closeness central to many of his refugee stories, Nguyen furthers his goal of demonstrating how refugees are simply human and are worthy of meaningful connections.
Intimacy and Isolation ThemeTracker
Intimacy and Isolation Quotes in The Refugees
In the darkness, he heard the rustle of mosquito netting as the others masturbated also. The next morning, everyone looked at each other blankly, and nobody spoke of what had occurred the previous evening, as if it were an atrocity in the jungle better left buried.
Suddenly the man raised his hand, as if to say hello. When his partner looked toward the window as well, Liem waved in return, and for a moment there were only the three of them, sharing a fleeting connection.
Arthur, hovering in the corner, sensed that he was merely a specter, already dead, acknowledged by Norma only as she brushed by him on her way out the door, saying over her shoulder, “Don’t forget your pills.”
“You’re my friend,” Louis replied.
Arthur interpreted the statement to mean that he was Louis’s only friend, for Louis never mentioned anyone else. “You’re my friend, too,” Arthur said, putting as much feeling as he could into his words. For a moment, the two of them maintained eye contact and smiled at each other.
That was true love, she thought, not giving roses but going to work every day and never once complaining about teaching Vietnamese to so-called heritage learners, immigrant and refugee students who already knew the language but merely wanted an easy grade.
“Who says I want her back?”
“Don’t be an idiot. You were only half a man before you met her, and you’re back to being half a man now.”
When I spoke, it was so softly that only the stranger curled up behind the belly ring could hear. Then I said it once more, louder: “I can be the father.” Feeling Sam’s hand grip my shoulder, I said it a third time, just to make sure they both heard me right.