The plane lands in Guam, where a green ambulance arrives to take the bodies of Duc and Linh. The refugees are taken to Camp Asan and, thanks to the General, the narrator and Bon are given barracks, while the other refugees stay in tents. Bon lays on his bunk in a catatonic state. The narrator watches on a television as helicopters land on Saigon’s roofs, evacuating refugees. The next day, Communist tanks crash through the gates of the presidential palace and Communist troops raise the flag of the National Liberation Front from the palace roof.
The General’s status gives Bon and the narrator privileges that the other refugees can’t enjoy. The narrator watches dueling images on television, which reflect his own recent experiences. He is content with having helped Bon to escape from Vietnam, but he’s also happy to see that his comrades, led by his other blood brother, Man, are taking over in Vietnam.
After dinner, the narrator and the General go outside their barracks. When the General greets the civilians, they meet him with “sullen silence.” An enraged elderly woman mocks him and hits him with her slipper, angry that the General is safe while her husband is not. Other women, young and old, come to hit the General with things in revenge for their brothers, fathers, and husbands being left behind. The General is horrified. The women tear the stars off of his collar, ripping his sleeves and half his buttons. He bleeds from the scratches on his cheek and neck. He stands at the sink and wipes his face clean of everything, except shame. When the narrator starts to speak, the General tells him to shut up, but he never takes his eyes off of his own face in the mirror. He tells the narrator that they will never again speak of the incident.
The women view the General as a traitor to his country. It’s significant that he’s attacked by women, who have had to leave behind the men in their lives to keep the rest of their families safe. They find it unjust that he led their husbands to fight and, possibly, face their deaths, while he reaps the privilege of safety and security on American soil. The women tear off his uniform, as though he’s no longer fit to wear it, due to his betrayal. The General forbids the narrator to speak because nothing that the latter can say will assuage the General’s feeling of personal guilt. Instead, he chooses denial of the incident.
The next day, they bury Linh and Duc. Bon wears a white scarf of mourning around his head, a rag ripped from his bedsheet. After they lower Duc’s small coffin on top of his mother’s, Bon throws himself into their open grave, howling. The narrator climbs in to calm him down. After he helps Bon out, they pour dirt onto the coffins, while the General, Madame, and the priest watch silently.
In Asia, white is the color of mourning and grief. Bon’s insistence on wearing the white scarf at the funeral of his wife and son is not only a show of respect but a sign that he holds onto his cultural traditions as his only connection to his home and his moral purpose.
Over the next few days, the refugees weep and wait. They are then picked up and taken to Camp Pendleton near San Diego, California via an airliner. Awaiting them is another refugee camp but with higher-grade amenities—a sign of “the upward mobility of the American Dream.” At Camp Pendleton, everyone lives in barracks. It’s the summer of 1975, and it is from here that the narrator writes the first of his letters to Man’s aunt in Paris. He composes his letters as though he’s writing to Man directly. He talks about Bon’s inner torment and his recent losses of Linh and Duc. Bon might have starved to death, he says, if the narrator didn’t drag him from his bunk and down to the mess hall.
Though Guam is an American territory, it symbolizes a kind of Purgatory for the refugees, who are caught between Asia and America. Camp Pendleton not only has better services than the camp at Guam, it’s also on the American mainland. The refugees feel that they’ve truly arrived at their new home. Bon, however, doesn’t want to live anymore. With neither his country nor his family to give him context and meaning, he rejects life by refusing to eat.
Along with thousands of others at the camp, the General washes in showers without stalls and lives with strangers. Sheets strung up on clotheslines divide the barracks into family quarters. The General complains to the narrator about people having sex day and night, in front of their children and his own. The General recalls his eldest child asking him what a prostitute is after seeing a woman selling herself by the latrines. Just then, across the lane, a spat breaks out between a married couple. Their name-calling progresses into a brawl. The General sighs in exasperation, calling them animals. He hands the narrator a newspaper clipping, showing a picture of a lieutenant colonel who committed suicide at the memorial by shooting himself in the head. The General calls him a hero.
The refugees merely continue the lives that they led in Vietnam. The prostitutes, having no other means of earning a living, continue to sell sex. Sex, it seems, is a way for the refugees to affirm their lives—to remind themselves that they’re still alive. The General’s inability to see this is part of his class snobbery. He is a leader of his people, but he’s disconnected from them and even looks down on them. He admires the lieutenant colonel for exhibiting the courage to remain in the country, which the General believes he himself didn’t have.
The General and the narrator toast with tea to the lieutenant colonel’s memory. The General then says that he suspects that there are sympathizers, or spies in their ranks. The narrator’s palms suddenly feel damp, as he tells the General that it’s possible; sleeper agents are devious and smart. The General stares into the narrator’s eyes, asking him which of their men could be the spy. To sidetrack the General, he names an unlikely candidate: the crapulent major. The General doesn’t agree with the narrator’s supposed instinct. The narrator returns to his barracks and reports the conversation to the Parisian aunt, leaving out the part about his nervousness.
The narrator chooses to point the finger at an innocent, harmless man instead of admitting to the General that he is the spy. The narrator likely fears some violent retribution for his betrayal, but he also probably fears disappointing and upsetting the General. Worse, he knows that Bon would find out and that the news would result in the dissolution of their relationship. He sacrifices the major instead.
Shortly after arriving in San Diego, the narrator contacts his former professor, Avery Wright Hammer, seeking his help in leaving the camp. Professor Wright agrees to be the narrator’s sponsor and gets him a clerical job at Occidental College, working for the Department of Oriental Studies. He also takes up a collection on the narrator’s behalf, asking former teachers for money to fund the refugee ex-student. The sum helps him get situated in Los Angeles, providing enough money to put a security deposit on an apartment and to buy a ’64 Ford.
The narrator uses his American connection, as well as American guilt over the loss of the war, to help him gain a foothold in the country. He can only find work in the U.S. that reinforces some aspect of his ethnic identity, indicating that the country will not allow him to reinvent himself as simply an American.
Once he’s settled in Los Angeles, the narrator canvasses local churches, looking for a sponsor for Bon. Finally, the leader of Everlasting Church of Prophets, Reverend Ramon, agrees to be Bon’s sponsor, after the narrator gives him a modest cash donation. By September, Bon and the narrator are reunited in an apartment that they are sharing. With the last of the money from Professor Hammer, the narrator buys a radio and a television.
The narrator appeals to local churches, knowing that they will be most likely to provide refugee relief. He buys a radio and a television so that he can maintain a link both to what is happening in his home country and with news and cultural life in his new home.
The General and Madame also end up in Los Angeles, sponsored by the sister-in-law of an American colonel who was once the General’s adviser. They move into a bungalow in a nice but “slightly less tony part of Los Angeles” near Hollywood. The General is in a bad mood and is unemployed. He drinks a lot, and his alcoholism and fury remind the narrator of Richard Nixon. Madame maintains the household and takes care of the children while her husband rages. She endures his behavior for a year until, one day at the beginning of April, the narrator receives an invitation to the opening of their liquor store on Hollywood Boulevard.
The General and Madame downscale their lives but still live in great privilege compared to the other refugees—their only real complaint is that their neighborhood isn’t “tony” (stylish) enough. The General’s bad mood and alcoholism are likely the results of his lingering guilt over leaving his country behind in favor of ensuring the safety of his family. The narrator’s comparison of him to Nixon evokes the General’s similar attitudes of paranoia and his resentment over losing power.
The narrator’s new job is “to serve as the first line of defense against students” who want to talk to the secretary of the department or the Department Chair. He becomes a minor celebrity on campus after a feature runs in the school newspaper about his being the sole Vietnamese student in the history of Occidental College and, now, a refugee. The sophomore who interviews him asks about his army record and if he’s ever killed anyone. The narrator says that he hasn’t. The campus, like many others, got swept up in antiwar fervor but has since returned to “its peaceful and quiet nature.” The narrator is paid minimum wage to answer the phones, type professorial manuscripts, file documents, and fetch books. He also helps the secretary, Ms. Sofia Mori.
The narrator moves from one structural hierarchy—that is, the military—to another, which is academia. In this instance, too, his work is rather menial; he serves to ensure that others’ needs are met and he is a go-between. Though the college, like the rest of the country, has abandoned the unrest of the protests, it remains interested in those who have killed in the context of war. There seems to be something both repulsive and honorable about someone who is willing to kill, not for personal reasons, but on behalf of the state or an ideal.
Initially, Sofia seems to dislike the narrator and is skeptical of him when he reports to the school newspaper that he’s never killed anyone, but they soon begin an intimate relationship. The narrator also spends a great deal of time with the Department Chair, who enjoys talking to the narrator about Vietnamese culture and language, though he mistakenly calls him an “Amerasian” and gives the narrator a homework assignment for which he’s asked to define “Oriental” and “Occidental” qualities. The Department Chair claims that his “students of Oriental ancestry find this beneficial.”
The narrator’s struggle to be understood by both Sofia and the Department Chair, an Asian woman and a white man, coincides with his sense of belonging neither in the East nor in the West. Sofia mistakenly thinks that every officer in Vietnam had a combat role and the Department Chair mistakenly thinks that every biracial Asian is also American, which reflects his own insularity.
Initially, the narrator thinks that the Department Chair is playing a trick; it’s April Fool’s Day. However, the academic is serious. The narrator goes home and makes a chart that he constructs using a series of stereotypes about Eastern and Western people. When the narrator shares the exercise with the professor the next day, the latter is pleased and notes how he and “all Orientals” are good students. The narrator feels “a small surge of pride,” wanting approval, like all good students, even from fools.
The narrator plays into another of the Department Chair’s stereotypes by obediently completing the demeaning assignment. The narrator’s “small surge of pride” comes not only from wanting to be a good student, but also from wanting to fit in at the university through gaining others’ approval.
The Department Chair notes how “Oriental” qualities are “diametrically [opposed]” to “Occidental” ones and that this is caused by “severe problems of identity suffered by Americans of Oriental ancestry.” The professor thinks that the narrator’s embodiment of the Orient and the Occident demonstrates “the possibility that out of two can come one.” He says that, if the narrator can bring together his “divided allegiances,” he can become “the ideal translator between two sides.” The narrator offers the example of “yin and yang” and the professor immediately agrees with the comparison. The narrator asks if it would make any difference to the professor that he’s actually Eurasian. The professor says that it makes no difference at all.
Though the Department Chair is supposedly a learned scholar, he subscribes to stereotypes that are reductive of the cultures and peoples that he studies. The reader is reminded of this through the title of the department—Oriental Studies—which reinforces myths of the East as a mysterious and sensual world that exists apart from the Christian West. The professor also reinforces the notion that the narrator is “divided” because he is biracial, implying that people are more unalike than alike—and also that the narrator is more of a concept than he is a real human being.
The night, the narrator reads a letter from the Parisian aunt. Man tells him that the rebuilding of Vietnam is progressing slowly but surely and that Man’s superiors are pleased with the narrator’s reporting. The narrator writes back, describing how no matter where the Vietnamese go, they find each other. They have their own politicians, police officers, bankers, and salespeople. They continue to make their cuisine, despite being largely dependent on Chinese markets. He writes to his “dear Aunt” about how much they’ve missed their fish sauce, “denigrated by foreigners for its supposedly horrendous reek.” He writes about the varied fates of the exiled, from the widower with nine children “who went out into a Minnesotan winter and lay down in the snow…until he was buried and frozen” to “the clan turned into slave labor by a farmer in Modesto.”
The narrator’s letter describes the resilience of the refugee community, which seeks to hold on to reminders of their homeland, particularly through their traditional cuisine. They succeed in constructing their own communities, but the narrative that the narrator offers to Man also reveals how some fall through the social fabric that they’ve constructed. The widower exemplifies the depression of those who never overcome their homesickness, and the family that becomes a source of slave labor exemplifies the underbelly of the American Dream, in which people are routinely exploited.