Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer uses duality as an overarching theme to explore the narrator’s personal racial ambivalence, as well as the social ambivalence of the Vietnamese refugee community in the United States. The story follows the nameless narrator to California after the fall of Saigon in 1975 (which marked the end of the Vietnam War), where he and other refugees must rebuild their lives. However, the narrator is also a sleeper agent for the Viet Cong, reporting on the activities of the refugees to his Communist superiors. When writing about the Vietnam War, the clearest dualities are the political ones between the Communist Viet Cong and the purported advocates of Western-style democracy in the South Vietnamese Army, as well as the geographical and cultural dualities between the North and the South, the East and the West. The narrator is the personification of these divides. He’s rejected by both the East and the West due to his failure, through no fault of his own, to be ethnically, culturally, and ideologically whole. Meanwhile, the refugee community learns to integrate into American culture without losing their native identity. This, too, requires the adoption of dual sensibilities. Nguyen examines how the narrator and other Vietnamese refugees establish identity, not by choosing sides, but by embracing dualism.
The narrator’s cultural ambivalence arises out of Vietnam’s colonial history. He must write his confession to the Commandant, a high-ranking Communist officer who imprisons the narrator in a detention center after his attempt to invade Vietnam with a handful of guerrillas, including his friend Bon. The narrator starts his confession by defining himself as “a man of two minds...able to see any issue from both sides.” This sense of twoness first comes from his biracial identity—he’s the son of a thirteen-year-old Vietnamese maid and a French priest. This makes him an embodiment of Vietnam’s exploitation in the context of benevolent Western paternalism.
The narrator’s father, the priest, never acknowledges him, while his mother refers to him as “her love child.” He is both wanted and unwanted. Legally, he is an “illegitimate son,” while the Oxford English Dictionary defines him as a “natural child.” Thus, he exists as a biological fact, but not as a legal one, due to being the product of an interracial affair between unmarried people. This, along with the priest’s ability to hide his crime behind his vow of celibacy, makes the narrator seem illegitimate among Westerners.
Meanwhile, Vietnamese people refer to the narrator and other biracial children in the Pacific—the products of colonial rule and American occupation—as “the dust of life.” The narrator is thus regarded as what is left over after an activity has ended—in this instance, colonial occupation and war. In other instances, he’s “a bastard” who “[doesn’t] look like anyone” in his home country. He’s an outsider due to his failure to meet a test of racial purity. In each of these examples, the narrator is constructed as a victim of colonial history. To escape from this construction of his identity, he defines himself as “a man of two faces” and “a man of two minds,” thereby embracing the duality that his people reject.
Self-definition under Western domination requires the colonized subject to compromise. The narrator describes how non-white people have to learn who they are while they also learn how to anticipate and satisfy the needs of white people in order to survive. Nguyen applies W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of “double-consciousness”—that is, the sense of having a divided identity, which makes it difficult, or altogether impossible, to define oneself as a fully-realized individual. Double-consciousness is necessary in helping the Vietnamese refugees both to remain connected to their own community and to assimilate into American culture.
During the Congressman’s lunch at the country club, for example, the General demonstrates how it’s possible to defend one’s own values without offending white people. He manages to disagree with Dr. Richard Hedd about the relative importance of Vietnam on the world stage by using language from the scholar’s own book, in which he validates the importance of fighting the Soviets and “their servants” in Vietnam. This tactic allows the General to assert his point while also validating the scholar’s ideas. The General feigns the attitude of self-effacing meekness that whites sometimes expect from Asians, while also defending the importance of his country.
In regard to their lives in the U.S., the narrator describes how the refugee community tries to blend in with other Americans, while still maintaining connections to their own community, particularly through food. The refugees learn American culture by eating the same food as Americans and watching popular films. They ingest the culture through their senses. They also spend hours chewing on dried squid, which becomes “the cud of remembrance.” Sensory experience helps the Vietnamese to integrate into American culture, while it also keeps them connected to their own culture. As a result, they develop dual sensibilities, both to survive and to remain connected to who they are.
In his depictions of the narrator’s identity as well as his illustrations of the various ways in which the refugee community assimilates without abandoning its connection to Vietnam, Nguyen asserts that the refugees’ cultural identity requires them to embrace the duality that they would have previously condemned in the narrator. The narrator’s biracial identity exemplifies what the Vietnamese have become as a result of both French colonialism and the Vietnam War—products of the East and West and survivors of a contentious history between the hemispheres.
Cultural Duality ThemeTracker
Cultural Duality Quotes in The Sympathizer
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.
The month in question was April, the cruelest month. It was the month in which a war that had run on for a very long time would lose its limbs, as is the way of wars. It was a month that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world and nothing to most people in the rest of the world. It was a month that was both an end of a war and the beginning of…well, “peace” is not the right word is it, my dear Commandant?
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 […]
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.
After the war ended and he was freed, he thought he’d go back to his people, the way that he’d been told to all his life by white people, even though he was born here. So he went and found out that the people in Japan didn’t think he was one of them, either. To them he's one of us, and to us he's one of them. Neither one thing nor another.
Bang bang was the sound of memory's pistol firing into our heads, for we could not forget love, we could not forget war, we could not forget lovers, we could not forget enemies, we could not forget home, and we could not forget Saigon […] men who had died or disappeared; the streets and homes blown away by bombshells; the streams where we swam naked and laughing; the secret grove where we spied on the nymphs who bathed and splashed with the innocence of the birds […] the barking of a hungry dog in an abandoned village; the appetizing reek of the fresh durian one wept to eat; the sight and sound of orphans howling by the dead bodies of their mothers and fathers; the stickiness of one's shirt by afternoon the stickiness of one’s lover by the end of lovemaking, the stickiness of our situations […] the hills afire with sunset […] the most important thing we could never forget was that we could never forget.
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.
Your destiny is being a bastard, while your talent, as you say, is seeing from two sides. You would be better off if you only saw things from one side. The only cure for being a bastard is to take a side.
He was the commissar but he was also Man; he was my interrogator but also my only confidant; he was the fiend who had tortured me but also my friend. Some might say I was seeing things, but the true optical illusion was in seeing others and oneself as undivided and whole, as if being in focus was more real than being out of focus. We thought our reflection in the mirror was who we truly were, when how we saw ourselves and how others saw us was often not the same. Likewise, we often deceived overselves when we thought we saw ourselves most clearly.