The Refugees

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Refugees: War Years Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator of this chapter is an unnamed thirteen-year-old boy who begins by describing the boy’s mother’s normal routine. She is already dressed by the time she taps on his door starting at 6 a.m. and continues tapping every fifteen minutes until he is awake. On Sundays, the family sets out for church. The boy reads comic books in the back of the car while his mother finishes her makeup.
The primary conflict of the boy’s story is the tension between one’s cultural identity and one’s family. While the boy is very close with his parents, Nguyen hints at ways that he is starting to separate himself from them culturally. The comic books serve as a first example of this concept.
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The boy then elaborates on his own routine. At this time, he is in summer school. He writes that he likes school because he only speaks English there. When he returns home to the grocery store his parents own, the New Saigon Market, he rarely speaks English and the Vietnamese is always loud. The market is one of the few places in San Jose, California, where the Vietnamese can buy the staples of their cuisine.
The boy then makes his cultural rebellion more explicit, telling readers that he prefers school because of its Americanness. The New Saigon Market, however, represents an old culture that he is steeped in purely because of his family’s identity.
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Customers crowd the market as they haggle over different goods with the boy’s mother. The boy asks his mother why they can’t sell TV dinners, or bologna. She tells him that if she can’t pronounce it, the customers won’t buy it. The boy continues with his job, pricing the cans and packages.
Again, the boy’s question here is another example of how he is pulling away from his Vietnamese identity, asking why the store can’t sell two quintessentially American products. His mother’s response shows how, in turn, she feels no need to assimilate into the new culture, creating a divide between them.
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As the boy works, a woman named Mrs. Hoa walks in and introduces herself. She is in her late forties and dressed in monochrome. She tells the boy’s mother that she is collecting funds for a guerilla army that’s gearing up to fight against the Communists in Vietnam. The boy explains to readers that he has no memories of the war, but Mrs. Hoa says that others have not forgotten.
The boy’s backstory distinguishes him from the main characters of the previous two short stories: he is a refugee, but he does not remember the refugee experience. Instead, he merely experiences the consequences of being displaced—perhaps another reason that he is at odds with his parents, who do clearly remember their old home and the lives that they were forced to give up.
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The boy’s mother says she’d like to help, but that times are hard and she has no money to spare, particularly with her daughter in college. Mrs. Hoa warns that people might talk: another neighbor of theirs, Mrs. Binh, refused to give money, and people are accusing her of being a Communist sympathizer and threatening to boycott her store. Mrs. Hoa tells her to reconsider her answer, and then leaves.
Even though the boy’s mother clearly remembers the old country, she is not haunted by her experiences. Instead, she is pragmatic and works to move on—a fact that puts her at odds with Mrs. Hoa, whom they later realize is very much haunted by the Vietnam War.
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On their way home that night, the boy asks the boy’s mother why she doesn’t want to help soldiers fight the Communists—who, to him, are also the Chinese and North Koreans, as well as Cubans and Sandinistas, as President Reagan explained on World News Tonight. The boy’s mother says that there’s no use fighting a war that’s over.
Again, the differences in experience between the boy and his parents emerge here. The boy wants to fight the Communists, but his only knowledge of what they mean or represent stems from President Reagan, while his parents actually endured the fallout of that regime.
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That night, the boy’s father tells the boy’s mother that it might be prudent to pay a little hush money. The boy tries to shut out their argument, closing his door just as he hears his mother saying, “I’ve dealt with worse than her.” He thinks about the things his mother has dealt with: the famine at the end of the Second World War that she endured at nine years old. She had told this story as he plucked gray hairs from her head—she would pay him a nickel for each one he found. She described how a dozen children starved to death in her village, and she found a girl she used to play with dead on her doorstep. The boy had not asked questions, focusing only on the strands that would buy him the next issue of Captain America.
The story that the boy’s mother tells is yet another ghost story, and one that is especially haunting for a nine-year-old girl to experience. Yet it seems that the boy’s mother, while she certainly cannot forget what she has seen, has only been made stronger by this experience, rather than being paralyzed. The boy, however, does not seem to appreciate this, caring more about his possessions than about the experiences that shaped his mother’s identity.
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Over the days following Mrs. Hoa’s visit, the boy’s mother is clearly unsettled. As the boy and his mother calculate the market’s earnings for the day, his mother (who is usually quiet at this time) reports on the rumors of the soldiers organizing in Thailand to try to return to Vietnam. She also speaks about how unknown assailants had firebombed a Vietnamese newspaper editor’s office in Garden Grove, California, while another editor had been shot to death. Both had been writing that making peace with the Communists might not be such a bad thing.
The fire bombings elaborate on two aspects of the refugee experience: first, that conflict can follow people around the globe, and one’s hardships do not end simply because one has left one’s country. Second, a community that has been displaced can be so protective of its own identity that it tries to maintain its attitudes and opinions at all cost. In this example, the community is so anti-Communist that editors that even hint at making peace with them are killed by their own people.
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When the boy says that his mother and father always say that the Communists are bad people, the boy’s mother agrees. She says, “They don’t believe in God and they don’t believe in money.” The boy’s father adds that they believe in taking other people’s money—which he had experienced when his old auto parts store was taken under Communist ownership.
In the description of how the father’s store had been taken from him, readers can start to see more and more commonalities between the experiences of various refugees. This bears comparison with the letter that Liem receives in “The Other Man,” in which several family members had “donated” their possessions to the government.
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The boy wonders about his home in Vietnam, and whether there might be a Communist child sleeping in his bed. He wonders what books and movies that child might enjoy, and thinks that if the child had not seen Star Wars, then the country surely needed a revolution.
The parallel that the boy draws between himself and a Communist child serves as another ghost—a child who lives the life the boy might have lived if he had stayed in Vietnam. This dynamic is examined more explicitly in the final story, “Fatherland.” 
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The boy’s mother says that she hates the Communists as much as Mrs. Hoa, but that she refuses to throw away money on a lost cause. The family finishes their accounting and the boy’s father sweeps the money into his satchel. Some of their profits go to the bank, some go to the church, some go to relatives in Vietnam, and some are kept at home in case of calamity. The boy’s mother hides some money and jewelry all over the house, but also plants decoys in case of robberies.
Again, Nguyen draws some parallels between these refugees and Liem in the previous story, demonstrating a loyalty to those who have had to remain in Vietnam. Additionally, even though the boy’s mother is not exactly “haunted” by the past in the same way that Mrs. Hoa is shown to be, the decoys that the boy’s mother plants serve as reminders that she has already experienced quite a bit of calamity in her life, and has therefore learned from it.
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The boy’s mother’s fears of robbery are confirmed one night when someone knocks on the door. The boy answers the door, and when he hears a white man’s voice saying that they have mail, he opens it. He would not have opened the door if the man had spoken Vietnamese or Spanish. The man enters with a gun, telling them to get down on their knees.
This incident demonstrates some of the cultural stereotypes that the boy has inherited as a result of growing up in America. Even though he is Vietnamese, he trusts the voice of a white man more than he would trust the voice of a Vietnamese person, exhibiting an internalized bias against his own culture and for the predominant culture in America.
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The boy’s parents shake with fear, and the boy’s father gets down on his knees, as does the boy. But the boy’s mother does not get down. The man asks the boy what her problem is, assuming that his parents do not speak English. The boy’s mother screams, and the man freezes. She knocks the gun aside and runs for the door; the man stumbles into the bookcase, knocking over a glass vase of coins. The man turns towards the door and the boy’s father pushes him outside before slamming the door. They hear the gun go off, lodging itself into the wall of the house.
The robbery incident demonstrates that even when moving into a new country, many refugees still face extensions of the persecution that they experienced in their home country. It is implied that this man came to their neighborhood because he thought it might be easier to target them.
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That Sunday, the boy’s mother combs the boy’s hair before church. He doesn’t protest, thinking about what had happened after the robbery attempt. The police had brought his mother home from a neighbor’s house. She yelled at the boy’s father, saying she saved their lives, and pulled at the boy’s ear, telling him never to open the door for strangers. When the police asked the boy to translate, he simply said that she was just scared.
The fact that the boy has one foot in each culture becomes clear here—as does the fact that he is pulling away from his mother. He serves as a translator, but he does not accurately translate his mother’s concerns, showing his resistance to her and portraying her as weaker than she is.
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The police don’t catch the man, and the boy only thinks about him on Sundays, when he is on his knees. One such Sunday, Mrs. Hoa finds their family and says that she still hasn’t received a donation from them and will come by the store next week. Mrs. Hoa gives them a copy of a newspaper in Vietnamese, with a picture of the guerilla army that is training.
The difference between Mrs. Hoa and the boy’s parents continues to prove the individuality of various refugees. Nguyen works to defy stereotypes that refugees have one singular experience through Mrs. Hoa’s and the boy’s mother’s differing attitudes on how to view this guerilla army.
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Mrs. Hoa remarks on the boy, calling him handsome,  and inquiring about their daughter’s college and what her major was. The boy’s mother cannot pronounce Bryn Mawr, and looks down in shame when she says that her daughter is studying philosophy. The boy’s father and mother think that she is wasting her education, but Mrs. Hoa says “Excellent!” and leaves.
Just as the young boy has been slowly drifting away from his parents’ culture, their daughter has already done so. Instead of adhering to their priorities regarding what they think their daughter should study, she decides to pursue her own passion.
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The boy’s mother decides to follow Mrs. Hoa home and takes the boy with her. In the car, the boy’s mother explains she makes five cents’ profit on a can of soup, ten cents for a pound of pork, and twenty-five cents for ten pounds of rice. But Mrs. Hoa wants five hundred dollars to support an army in a war that has already been lost.
The boy’s mother here reveals a paradox of being a refugee that many of the other characters also experience. Often they want to help those who remain in their home country, but they are still struggling to make a new life and are also vulnerable in this new country.
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The boy explains that he sometimes tries to imagine what the boy’s mother looked like as a girl, but he cannot. Without a photo, he thinks, his mother as a little girl did not really exist. More than the people starved by famine, it is the thought of his mother not remembering what she looked like as a little girl that saddens him. Mrs. Hoa arrives home, and the boy’s mother takes note of where she lives.
The mother as a little girl is another ghost that troubles the characters in The Refugees. It is a memory of a former self that has been lost to the war, as the young boy points out here.
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The following Wednesday, Mrs. Hoa returns to the New Saigon Market. The boy is in a wooden loft at the back of the store, surrounded by stacks of rice and reading about Reconstruction. When Mrs. Hoa reiterates her request, the boy’s mother says she refuses to donate money, calling Mrs. Hoa a thief and an extortionist. Mrs. Hoa says that if she won’t support the cause, she’s just as bad as a Communist. She then turns to the customers in the store and says that shopping at the store means that they are supporting Communists, before storming out.
Nguyen adds in yet another detail demonstrating the cultural contradiction of the little boy. Surrounded by the food of his home country, he is focused instead on his studies of American history. It is also ironic that this period of history represented a period after a civil war between North and South, in which the United States had to come to terms with the fallout of the war, much like Vietnam is grappling with its new government after the war.
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The boy’s mother is nervous about the customers, who would likely tell their friends about the incident until the story spread through the whole community. The boy’s mother decides to drive to Mrs. Hoa’s house with the boy to give her a piece of her mind. When they arrive, Mrs. Hoa hesitatingly invites them in. The boy’s mother says she’d like to speak in private, and Mrs. Hoa brings them to her bedroom just down the hall, past her family eating dinner.
In a way, the Vietnamese community acts in San Jose as an extension of family, bound by a common culture. When the boy’s mother refuses to donate money, they see it as an act of rebellion against their culture and themselves, and so she must work to rectify the situation in order to maintain a good standing in the community.
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When Mrs. Hoa asks what she wants, the boy’s mother notices army uniforms in her closet, prompting the boy’s mother to ask if Mrs. Hoa’s husband is a soldier. Mrs. Hoa responds that the CIA parachuted him into the north in 1963, and she hasn’t heard from him since. Her younger son was sent to Laos in 1972 and also never returned. Her eldest son was killed in the war by the Communists, and the eyes were scratched out of the picture on his grave. When the boy’s mother tries to say she’s sorry about her husband and sons, Mrs. Hoa insists that her husband and younger son are still alive.
Mrs. Hoa’s stories illuminate her motivation and fervor for collecting the money for the guerilla army. Although she certainly wants to fight the Communists, there is a deeper implication here that Mrs. Hoa is haunted by her husband and sons. This is true not simply because they are likely dead, but because she must deal with the uncertainty of wondering whether they might still be alive after all of these years.
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The boy’s mother takes out an envelope and hands Mrs. Hoa two hundred dollars. The boy is shocked, calculating the cans of soup, pounds of rice, and hours of work that she had just handed over. He thinks back to an incident years ago when she had bribed a general’s wife with gold to free the boy’s father from the draft. They hadn’t talked about it since, and would likely not talk about this.
Like the story of the ghostwriter, there is an element of silence and unspoken tragedy, as many of Nguyen’s refugees deal with their trauma and its aftermath with silence. But whereas the unspoken past haunts the ghostwriter, the boy’s mother uses silence to allow her to move on from those events. 
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As the boy and the boy’s mother turn to leave, Mrs. Hoa explains that the Communists don’t respect anyone, not even the dead. The boy simply says, “I’m sorry.” The boy and his mother then leave, while Mrs. Hoa stays in the bedroom, staring at the money. The boy notices that her hair is white at the edges, and thinks to himself that “while some people are haunted by the dead, others are haunted by the living.”
The difference between being haunted by the dead and haunted by the living—a distinction the boy makes here—is that to be haunted by the living can also mean being haunted by a possible future together. Mrs. Hoa holds out hope that her husband and sons might one day return to her life, and thus she seems unable to move on from them.
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As the boy and the boy’s mother drive home, she tells him that he deserves a treat. He doesn’t know how to respond—his parents had never given him an allowance before. When he had asked for one in fourth grade, the boy’s father had instead handed him a list of expenses he had incurred—including his birth, feeding, education, and clothing—totaling $24,376, and that had been the end of that conversation. The boy’s mother stops at 7-Eleven and hands him five dollars. She tells him, “Go buy,” in English. He walks in, looking at the covers of the comic books, the video games, the snacks. He wants to take everything home, but he is unable to choose.
The mother’s gesture of giving the boy an allowance, as well as the symbolic language change of saying “Go buy” in English, shows that she acknowledges the cultural differences that her son is gaining growing up in America versus how she grew up. Coming out of the incident with Mrs. Hoa, one could argue that the boy’s mother views this gesture as a way of moving out of the past and out of her culture, and into a future that is more bent on assimilation into the United States.
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