Here vs There: Do I want to go back?

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Note: I used an Ebook version of The Gangster, so page numbers may be different.

As an adult, looking back onto my childhood home is a very unusual experience. It almost seems like a magical place: I remember is as comfortable, friendly, and accessible, despite not understanding much of it. After my family moved, we’ve never had the chance to go back to that town, which has made it seem all the more illustrious and wonderful in my mind. And in lê thi diem thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For (TG), the narrator’s mother (Ma)  experiences her childhood home in a very similar (albeit far more intense) way.

The mother’s relationship to home is echoed throughout TG, and her struggle to deal with what she has left behind become central parts of the narrative. The book follows a family of Vietnamese refugees who come to America due to the Vietnam war. Ma has a troubled family history, as is stated on page 198 of TG: She was disowned by her parents due to her choice to marry her current husband, the narrator’s father. On page 199, Ma’s struggles with the past come to the forefront, when a single photograph of Ma’s parents arrives on the doorstep of her house: “When the photograph came. Ma and Ba got into a fight. (…)  Ma broke all the dishes. They said they never should’ve been together” (lê 199). Here, Ma struggles to confront her decision to leave that place of comfort. She curses the decision that caused her to leave – her decision to marry Ba (the father) – and also makes an active attempt to make her current place of residence seem less homely by destroying parts of the family’s current place of refuge. This destructive rampage also emphasizes Ma’s discomfort with settling into the consequences of her decisions. She dislikes her current living situation compared to her previous life in her home country, and in that longing to return, makes an attempt to destroy bits of her current place of living that gives off an impression of permanence.

A broken dish

However, many other Vietnamese-American characters do not long towards their home country in the same way that Ma does. Nam, the narrator of Nam Le’s short story The Boat, expresses a distinct level of comfort with being adjacent to yet separate from his childhood home. This is best expressed on page 9 of the story, where Nam imagines himself posing for a senior photo in traditional cultural garb: “I pictured myself standing in a rice paddy, wearing a straw conical hat. Then I pictured my father in the same field, wearing his threadbare fatigues, young and hard-eyed” (Le 9). This scene is structured in such a way as to make evident Nam’s discomfort with his past. His own mental depiction of his wear during this scene, “a straw conical hat” and standing in a rice paddy is ironically stereotypical of Vietnam, a point-for-point depiction of the American image of a Vietnamese rice farmer. And yet his depiction of his father is far more military and distinctly less friendly: “threadbare fatigues” is a clear allusion to army wear, and the combination of a “hard-eyed” gaze with youth implies a difficult life and a hardened exterior. It’s an unfriendly image, and a purposeful comparison between Nam, who spent only his childhood in Vietnam, and his father, who lived there much longer and served in the war. Similar to Ma, Nam experienced degrees of rejection from his parents, but he does not wish to return to his home. He does not hold Vietnam in the same heightened light that Ma does, and seems somewhat uncomfortable in his mental exploration of placing himself in Vietnam next to his father.

This directly contrasts much of TG; In that novel, Ma, the narrator and the family struggle on American soil and experience much of American tradition as unusual and alien, yet Nam appears to associate a return to home with a kind of alien unfriendliness, as shown through the differences between his description and description of his father.

One thought on “Here vs There: Do I want to go back?

  1. Joe points out the discrepancy between the relocation narratives in The Gangster We Are All Looking For and “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” specifically indicating the difference between the narrator’s mother and Nam in how they long for or reject Vietnam. I think that this raises an interesting point in defining an “ethnic” narrative, suggesting that the expectation for ethnic literature includes a natural tie to the homeland. Nam instead recreates the immigrant narrative as struggling with his impassivity to his background.
    However, it is important, while discussing how either character’s tie to Vietnam shapes the immigrant narrative, to contextualize the characters within their relationship to Vietnam. In Gangster, Ma is part of the elder generation, and therefore spent most of her life in Vietnam. In contrast, although Nam was born in Vietnam, he grew up in his formative years in Australia, and therefore associates Vietnam with his heritage much less than Ma. Perhaps a more appropriate comparison would be between Gangster’s Ma and “Love and Honor’s” Ba. Ma remains nostalgic for her history and family in Vietnam, while Ba dwells on his severe trauma in the war. I think that the primary distinction that Nam’s story provides regarding the characters’ connection to Vietnam lies not in the discrepancies felt between generations, but on a smaller scale between characters in similar circumstances.

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