The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer


Viet Thanh Nguyen

Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on The Sympathizer makes teaching easy.

Asian Identity in the United States Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Asian Identity in the United States Theme Icon
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Sympathizer, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Asian Identity in the United States Theme Icon

Aside from exploring the centuries-old divide between the East and the West, Nguyen more specifically addresses the racism that Vietnamese refugees endure in the United States, due to persistent stereotypes about Asian people. The author uses two key Western institutions—universities and movie studios—to explore how racism and misrepresentation are systemic. Nguyen observes how Americans, who lost the Vietnam War, still control the narrative of the war, refashioning themselves as heroes and the Vietnamese as hapless victims waiting to be rescued. These images, perpetuated through film and often validated in academia, misrepresent the Vietnamese community while using some of its members to tell a distorted narrative. Nguyen demonstrates how the community has not only been undermined by colonialism and war, but also by its inability to tell its own stories.

When the narrator returns to California and his alma mater, Occidental College, he gets a re-education in how institutions define American culture. With the help of his former instructor, Professor Avery Wright Hammer, the narrator gets his first job as a clerk for the Department of Asian Studies. He works with the department’s Japanese-American secretary, Ms. Sofia Mori, with whom he embarks on a romantic relationship. The Department Chair is a white American with a fetish for all things Asian. He condescends to both the narrator and Sofia, believing that his scholarship entitles him to explain their identities to them.

The Department Chair enjoys engaging the narrator in long discussions about Vietnamese language and culture, due to no one else on the faculty possessing any knowledge of Vietnam. This absence reveals the limitations of academic departments in teaching about a region as large and diverse as Asia. However, it seems that the Department Chair doesn’t really listen to the narrator or make an effort to learn about him. He assumes that the narrator is Amerasian and gives him a homework assignment for which he is asked to write down “Oriental” and “Occidental” qualities. The Department Chair imagines that the narrator’s biracial identity can offer a bridge between the hemispheres. This attitude positions the narrator not as a person, but as a blending of races, a socially-imposed construct that erases his individuality.

Ms. Mori faces similar problems with the Department Chair, though his condescension toward her is complicated by her gender. The Department Chair knows that Sofia is a second-generation Japanese American and chastises her for not knowing the language of her ancestors and not taking more of an interest in Japan. The Department Chair expects Asians to have a commitment to cultural authenticity that he would not expect from himself or other Americans of European descent. Worse, Sofia’s feminism and assertiveness counteract the stereotype of the Asian woman as “a dainty little china doll with bound feet” or “a geisha who’s ready to please.” Despite her aversion to these stereotypes, she’s still eager for the approval of white people and notes how they merely “like” her, while they “love” the narrator. Ms. Mori’s conflict lies in wanting to be perceived as any other American, though she relies on white people to foster that perception.

Perceptions about Asians have been strongly influenced by cinema. The narrator’s experience working as a script consultant on the Hollywood film, The Hamlet, positions him against another nameless white male authority, who is known only by his grand title: the Auteur. The Hamlet is a film about the Vietnam War with not a single Vietnamese actor in the main cast. The narrator’s clashes with the Auteur, the director of the film, over the script demonstrate what can happen when a member of a misrepresented and underrepresented group challenges the narrative authority that white supremacy requires.

Despite not being Vietnamese, the Auteur thinks that he’s the proper authority to tell the story of the war. He is pleased to have the narrator working with him on the script because there are so few Vietnamese people in Hollywood, and authenticity is important. On the other hand, he asserts that authenticity doesn’t beat the imagination and that the “story still comes first.” This statement indicates that the facts about Vietnam are less important than what white audiences want to think and the stories that they want to be told. The Auteur’s identity as a white man makes American audiences trust him more to tell the story because they know that he will depict what they want to see.

The narrator quickly realizes that, though he was brought in to ensure accuracy in the film, the Auteur thinks himself an expert on Vietnam through his readings about the country. The Auteur becomes aggressive and offended when the narrator mentions how he “didn’t get the details right.” The Auteur mentions having read Joseph Buttinger, “the foremost historian on your little part of the world.” The Auteur’s belittling comment is meant to help the narrator understand his place relative to the Auteur. It’s also self-congratulatory—the Auteur took the time to learn about a place most would deem insignificant and worthy of forgetting, particularly as the site of America’s first loss.

The narrator’s experiences as a clerk at the college and as a script consultant illustrate the Asian-American struggle with always being perceived as foreign. For the narrator, this sense of not belonging is heightened both because he’s a refugee and a person of French and Vietnamese descent. His ability to speak perfect, American-accented English leads to his being misidentified as an American, though one that is less perceptibly “authentic” than a white American. Like Ms. Mori, he is spoken to only when white people want to know more about Asia, but he’s disregarded when he fails to deliver the narratives that people want to hear, just as Ms. Mori is dismissed for not satisfying the stereotypical perception of Asian women. The result leaves both with the sense that they are required to represent “authenticity,” though this expectation has less to do with who they are than with the preconceptions they can justify.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

Asian Identity in the United States ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Asian Identity in the United States appears in each chapter of The Sympathizer. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
chapter length:
Get the entire The Sympathizer LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Sympathizer PDF

Asian Identity in the United States Quotes in The Sympathizer

Below you will find the important quotes in The Sympathizer related to the theme of Asian Identity in the United States.
Chapter 4 Quotes

But out of deference to our hosts we kept our feelings to ourselves, sitting close to one another on prickly sofas and scratchy carpets, our knees touching under crowded kitchen tables on which sat crenellated ashtrays measuring time’s passage with the accumulation of ashes, chewing on dried squid and the cud of remembrance until our jaws ached, trading stories heard second- and thirdhand about our scattered countrymen. This was the way we learned of the clan turned into slave labor by a farmer in Modesto, and the naive girl who flew to Spokane to marry her GI sweetheart and was sold to a brothel, and the widower with nine children who went out into a Minnesotan winter and lay down in the snow on his back with mouth open until he was buried and frozen and the ex-Ranger who bought a gun and dispatched his wife and two children before killing himself in Cleveland […] and the spoiled girl seduced by heroin who disappeared into the Baltimore streets […]

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Man / The Commissar , The Parisian Aunt
Page Number: 70-71
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

It mattered not what story these audiences watched. The point was that it was the American story they watched and loved, up until the day that they themselves might be bombed by the planes they had seen in American movies [….] Perhaps the Movie itself was not terribly important, but what it represented, the genus of the American movie, was. An audience member might love or hate this Movie, or dismiss it as only a story, but those emotions were irrelevant. What mattered was that the audience member, having paid for the ticket, was willing to let American ideas and values seep into the vulnerable tissue of his brain and the absorbent soil of his heart.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Man / The Commissar , The Auteur
Page Number: 172-173
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 15 Quotes

As a nonwhite person, the General, like myself, knew he must be patient with white people, who were easily scared by the nonwhite. Even with liberal white people, one could go only so far, and with average white people one could barely go anywhere. The General was deeply familiar with the nature, nuances, and internal differences of white people, as was every nonwhite person who had lived here a good number of years. We ate their food, we watched their movies, we observed their lives and psyche via television and in everyday contact, we learned their language, we absorbed their subtle cues, we laughed at their jokes, even when made at our expense, we humbly accepted their condescension, we eavesdropped on their conversations in supermarkets and the dentist's office, and we protected them by not speaking our own language in their presence, which unnerved them.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The General, The Congressman, Dr. Richard Hedd
Page Number: 258
Explanation and Analysis: