American Culture and Vietnamese Refugee Integration: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen


Howard Adelman

The Legacy Of Ho Chi Minh: Nothing is More Precious than Independence and Freedom (cf. p. 27 of the novel)

The writing is full of biting irony. Well-paced, harrowing and comic, complex and compelling, riveting and reflective, the plot combines a capacious imagination with a great attention to detail, a dialectic of the absurd and the real, critical and satirical and full of tawdry scheming to advance the grand goals of history. Though there are many asides, they are never at the cost of the story line. Lush, decorative and extravagant language is squeezed out for penetrating original similes and metaphors in a minimalist presentation that is all the richer for it, almost too rich in circling round and round its prey.

The reflective self-consciousness characteristic of the twentieth century novel, this exploration of the marrow of memories, is at once taken upwards into the world of ideas as it explores the real meaning of hell-on-earth. Rich in treachery, the novel ignores the subtle body language of the French wink and nod, half-glance and raised eyebrow, for the succinct and direct. To live is to suffer because desire will always put life at risk and value sacrifice much more than happiness. For a very long novel, the number of scenes is quite limited, but each is as crowded and packed as the streets of Saigon were before it fell in April of 1975. The characters do not so much grow as multiply like the cancer that eats them from the inside. And the questions raised are always astute. Instead of terminating in a confrontation with one’s steely-eyed and immovable and implacable conscience, the protagonist crashes into the black depths of nothingness to finally encounter and confront his sin.

The book is simply brilliant, not flawless, but all the more powerful in spite of those flaws. A spy thriller, a refugee story of flight and integration, a tale focused on identity, on loyalty and disloyalty, a ghost story, the definitive story of the American War in Vietnam from a Vietnamese perspective but more a tale of war crimes than of war itself, a portrayal of the end of the American involvement in that war in its vivid and horrific detail, brutal and tender, an essay on filmography and representation of the first war in history where the losers wrote the history instead of the victors and Hollywood still served to launch the intercontinental ballistic missiles of Americanization “to let American ideas and values seep into the vulnerable tissue of his brain and the absorbent soil of his heart” (173), a reflective perception on American culture, an anti-utopian treatise, an exposure of the fraud of both the dialectic and linear progressive myths of history, a buddy tale of hedonism and stoicism, a story of political and social ideas and of torture and terrorism, of conflicting ideologies each of which turns into a suit that anyone can wear draped on its corpse, a narrative of Vietnamese communism suffused with Catholicism and sin where red is the colour of revolution and blood, versus good luck and fortune, a novel in the form of a bildungsroman, but really a tale of a Vietnamese adult’s (rather than formative) years of embodied re-education rather than a spiritual education, a story of truth and deception, of humanity and inhumanity, but mostly a narrative about morals and about reaching through time, through conundrums and paradoxes, into loss and pain, into a black hole.

The novel is so rich in themes that I can focus on only one of them. That allows you, the reader, to endlessly explore one of the myriad of others. I concentrate on the experience of a refugee trying to integrate into America and from the outside developing a very jaundiced but perceptive insight into American culture. Natalie Walter in her essay, “Heimat” in The New York Review of Books(23 November 2017, LXIV:18) wrote this of her refugee grandparent’s efforts to integrate into British society: “Did they ever feel British? I never asked them. I doubt they would have said yes. Jews who arrived in the UK during the war were given a leaflet by the British Board of Jewish Deputies admonishing them to abide by British customs and never to speak loudly in public.” (12)

I had the same experience, but from the other side of the table. In 1979 in Toronto, we were welcoming the first contingent of Sino-Vietnamese Boat People, the latter a name bestowed on these refugees by our media, but in the novelist’s critical reflection, “a name one might think referred to a newly discovered tribe of the Amazon River or a mysterious, extinguished prehistoric population whose only surviving grace was their watercraft.” (151) The reception for these “Boat People” was held in the Chinese Community Centre on Cecil Street, which, in its previous life was a synagogue with the Hebrew writing still embossed into the stonework, a synagogue in which my older brother had his Bar Mitzvah. The perceived VIPs offered speeches of welcome.

Without any collaboration, we all made the same speech. Our ancestors were immigrants to this country. Many were refugees. They were like you. And you are now part of us. You are just like us. Then the representatives of the National Chinese Association addressed the refugees in Chinese. A friend provided me with a simultaneous translation. Like ours, and again without collaboration, all their speeches carried the same message, but the content was the opposite. They insisted that the refugees must remember they are Chinese and they are symbols of what it is to be a Chinese person in Toronto.

Do not let us down. Do not shame us. Most of all, if you are in close quarters with Canadians who are born here, do not cook with fish oil even though fish sauce is the universal solvent with variety, subtlety and complexity. (Nguyen 70) The Sino-Vietnamese refugees were being told to give up one of the most significant elements of their culinary culture. The refugees were being told by the Chinese-Canadians that they were different, that they were representatives of that difference, that as a minority they were not equal but would have to conform to the dominant culture. And that was right after we, in our oblivious condescending way, were denying difference, were failing to recognize the special horror they had been through, were being indifferent to the challenges and hardships they would confront in being aliens in an alien land. Instead, we drowned them once again, but this time in sweetness and sentimentality.

How could we pretend to empathize with them? How could we presume to get inside their skins, inside their pain and suffering? Nguyen’s novel is precisely about that effort, but from the perspective of a mole, of a spy, of an alien agent. A sympathizer is not simply one who sympathizes with another, but one who does so to get inside the other so that he can critically reflect on that otherness. He is engaged in spying, not empathetic re-enactment. He is a sleeper agent, (57) not because he is somnambulant and walks and talks while asleep, but because he is under a compulsion to think and talk to prevent himself from sleeping lest someone discover, including himself, who he represents. “Revolutionaries are insomniacs, too afraid of history’s nightmare to sleep.” (355) For war never dies; it is the one thing that just goes to sleep. (225)

As the novel opens, the first person narrator says: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” But not simply any ordinary spy for, “I am also a man of two minds…I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.” 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.” (374) This singular perspective is what allows an American to feed on the narcotic of optimism. However, seeing two sides is also a limitation. A superb mole can observe himself and he can identify and observe an Other, but he cannot “observe himself as someone else.” (342) He sees two sides but does not possess a way to synthesize them dialectically. Until he can, the symbiotic desire for both recognition and being remembered will not come together. More pointedly, they will tear him apart.

What were the two sides? The US imperial, colonial and militaristic state and society was suffused with delusional exceptionalism and stereotyping of the other. “(N)othing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.” (218) And the other side? Vietnam was “the jackfruit republic that served as a franchise of the United States.” (7) Given their habit of singing as they faced death, the Vietnamese “were the Italians of Asia,” (16) but in life served as “a respectably sized, self-sufficient colony, a pimple on the buttocks of the American body politic?” (69) And in America, “most of our fellow exiles had been shrunken by their experience, or relatively, surrounded by Americans so tall they neither looked through nor looked down on these newcomers.” (94)

“All right, a loser is what I am…I’m a loser for believing in all the promises your America made to people like me. You came and said we were your friends, but what we didn’t know is that you could never trust us, much less respect us. Only losers like us couldn’t have seen what’s so obvious now, how you wouldn’t want anyone as your friend who actually wanted to be your friend. Deep down you suspect only fools and traitors could believe your promises.” (163) It was a version of the Groucho Marx story. Who would want to belong to the same club that you were willing to join?

Americans and Vietnamese were culturally at war. It revealed itself even in how young men and women came together, in romance. “Americans understood dating to be about investments and gains, short or long term, but we saw romance and courtship as being about losses. After all, the only worthwhile courtship involved persuading a woman who could not be persuaded, not a woman already predisposed to examine her calendar for her availability.” (244)
Was the clash really of civilizations or was it one between civilization and barbarism? For the American side had lost too. And who were the real barbarians, those who used the old barbaric tools of torture or those who made torture into a science, those who inflicted pain on the body or those who drilled into the mind with unending questions until they came face to face with nothing?

On reflecting on the million who died in the war and the 200,000 to 400,000 who died in trying to escape from the political regime of the victors, “they would not have believed how they died, just as we could not believe that the Americans – our friends, our benefactors, our protectors – had spurned our request to send money. And what would we have done with that money? Buy the ammunition, gas and spare parts for the weapons, planes, and tanks the same Americans had bestowed on us for free. Having given us the needles, they now perversely no longer supplied the dope.” As the General, to whom the protagonist was an aide-de-camp, said, nothing “is ever so expensive as what is offered free.” (4)

But the two cultures were also one and the same. “ ‘(C)onsistency is the hobglobin of little minds.’ Nothing Emerson wrote was ever truer of America.” (12) However, the same thing could be said of Vietnam. Yet America was very different, as exceptional as it claimed to be, but not in the way it claimed. “America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl. America, a country not content to give itself a name at its bloody birth, but one that insisted for the first time in history on a mysterious acronym, USA [Was Britain not referred to as the UK, though a duet rather than a triplet or a quartet, itself a revelation?], a trifecta of letters outdone later by the quartet of the USSR. Although every country thought itself superior in its own way, was there ever a country that coined so many ‘super’ terms from the federal bank of its narcissism, was not only superconfident but also truly superpowerful that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation of the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?” (29)

This is written as America once again works on honing its muscles and enhancing its strength at the same time as it once again seeks to withdraw from its extensive involvement in the world. America remains the same just as it is ever changing. But the change seems to be one of circling, perhaps in the form of a spiral, but circling nonetheless. However, America has not learned that it “could no longer could win wars.” (246) This contrasted with Vietnam where, “violence began at home and continued in school, parents and teachers beating children and students like Persian rugs to shake the dust of complacency and stupidity out of them.” (246)

When the protagonist returns to America in 1975 as a refugee, it has unalterably changed from the US he experienced as a foreign student. Then, whether he observed the antiwar faction or the pro-war gang among the ex-pat Vietnamese community, “Regardless of their political clique, these students gulped from the same overflowing cup of loneliness, drawing together for comfort…hoping for the body heat of fellow sufferers in an exile so chilly even the California sun could not warm their cold feet.” (93)

“By the time I returned to campus, however, the students were of a new breed, not interested in politics or the world like the previous generation. Their tender eyes were no longer exposed daily to stories and pictures of atrocity and terror for which they might have felt responsible, given that they were citizens of a democracy destroying another country in order to save it. Most important, their lives were no longer at stake because of the draft.” (61) But that was 1975. Three years later, Americans would come face-to-face with stories of suffering and dying in Indochina for which they were not directly responsible, for which the successor communist regimes bore the heavy weight of guilt. But that is when the story ends, not when it begins. But also where it begins as the full story of what it means to be a Vietnamese “sympathizer with the Left, a revolutionary fighting for peace, equality, democracy, freedom, and independence, all the noble things my people had died for and I had hid for.” (61)

But was this not the American rhetorical ideal? Was this not the America the Vietnamese general extolled as he spoke to and rallied his fellow exiles. “I am here to tell you that what you remind me of is America’s great promise! The promise of the immigrant! The promise of the American dream! The promise that the people of this country hold dear and will one day soon hold dear again, that America is a land of freedom and independence, a land of patriots who have always stood up for the little man no matter where he is in the world, a land of heroes who will never relent in the cause of helping our friends and smiting our enemies, a land that welcomes people like you, who have sacrificed so much in our common cause of democracy and liberty. One day, my friends, America will stand tall again, and it will be because of people like you.” (119) “And Vietnamese American, not Vietnamese…must claim America,” (274) for America will not give itself to you.

In that time, and once again, Donald Trump stands the American dream, but this time on its head and turned inside out into a nightmare of American boosterism at the expense of the immigrant and the refugee. Once again Americans have surrendered and are “cowed by power and stunned by celebrity.” (254)

Were the Occident and the Orient never to meet as equals at the same time on a common playing field? Or was it the case that the twain could never meet? Was Kipling’s claim, as the protagonist opines (63), an accurate diagnosis or a myth even more powerful than the one of equality and peace let alone a higher symbiosis of Occident and Orient? Was the protagonist’s trip into the heart of darkness really a trip into the depths of hell and despair, a trip taken through a diahorea of words by one who was a born listener who had mastered “the inscrutable Oriental smile, sitting there nodding and wrinkling your brow sympathetically and letting people go on, thinking you’re perfectly in agreement with everything they say, all without saying a word”? (75)

This is a book of truth and insight, of “the best kind of truth, the one that meant two things,” (121, the one that meant that nothingness, doing nothing while facing nothing, was the one thing that was more important than waging war for freedom and independence.


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