When one is forced to constantly move around, the sense of belonging and meaning of home can become difficult to understand and painful to think about. The little girl, her father, and four “uncles” in lê thi diem thúy’s novel, The Gangster We Are All Looking For are a group of people who carry this weight. The girl, a nameless narrator, shares her experiences as a Vietnamese refugee through intense observations of her surroundings, such as the apartments/houses her family has lived in and the multiple planes she boarded to reach America.
In the opening paragraph of the novel, the girl lists out all of the places she has lived: “Linda Vista, with its row of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore. Before Linda Vista, we lived in the Green Apartment on Thirteenth and Adams, in Normal Heights. Before the Green Apartment, we lived in the Red Apartment on Forty-ninth and Orange, in East San Diego” (lê 3). The amount of details given about these places (color of apartment, street name, city, neighborhood, etc.) not only exemplifies the narrator’s keen observation skills but also shows how much she has moved around since arriving in America. This is thus an example of displacement within the novel because the girl and her family have been forced out of their war torn country (“washed to shore”) and have struggled to find a place to settle down as demonstrated through their jumping around from house to house.
Furthermore, the journey to reach these places in America has not been easy for the girl and her family. The constant movement from one destination to another has been marked by multiple stages in various forms of transportation: “we floated across the sea, first in the hold of a fishing boat, and then in the hold of a U.S. Navy ship…we entered the revolving doors of airports and boarded plane after plane. We were lifted high over the Pacific Ocean. Holding on to one another, we moved through clouds, ghost vapors, time zones” (lê 4). The movement that is showcased in this passage (floating in boats, boarding planes, moving through time zones, etc.) marks not only the physical aspect of the long journey from Vietnam but also hints at how difficult it must have been emotionally: leaving behind a home because of war though less than ideal methods and having to traverse “through clouds, ghost vapors, time zones” is not a simple task for a little girl.
The imagery of the apartment buildings and the modes of transportation (boats and planes) thus highlight the challenges for the Vietnamese refugees of the novel. The list of places the narrator has lived in represents displacement because the amount of addresses listed shows how much the family has had to move around. Meanwhile, the boat and plane journeys represent the movement that the characters have endured. By examining these two images closely, the reader is able to reach a better understanding of the Vietnamese refugee experience and how things that non-refugees take for granted, such as a physical home, can serve as powerful symbols of motivation.
Lê, Thi Diem Thúy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Anchor Books, 2004.