Colors and Haze: Liminal Space in The Gangster We Are All Looking For

There is something inherently disorienting to travel, regardless of the reason. Even within driving the eight hours from my hometown to school, everything seems to exist in a hazy, liminal space, time marked only by occasional stops at a gas station for snacks. For the narrator of lê thi diem thúy’s novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For, this disorientation is only compounded by the reason for her movement: her status as a refugee from the Vietnam War.

liminal space: a silhouette of a figure swinging on a trapeze in the clouds

The Gangster We Are All Looking For opens with the description of physical locations. lê writes “Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore. Before Linda Vista, we lived in the Green Apartment on Thirtieth and Adams, in Normal Heights. Before the Green Apartment, we lived in the Red Apartment on Forty-ninth and Orange” (lê 3). lê charts the movement between homes, each represented by a color. a variety of houses, brightly coloredBy passing rapidly through colors, lê creates a flickering, unstable effect, charting themovement between yellow to green to red and orange. The selection of specifically yellow, green, and red evokes the image of a stoplight, a marker relating to a physical travel on the road. By passing quickly between colors relating to transit, lê connects the imagery of the houses to the idea of movement. The inconstancy of color establishes an inconstancy of location, and the quick shifts between these descriptions creates an immediate effect of disorientation in displacement.

The novel’s initial feel of displacement is exacerbated by the narrator’s description of flying on an airplane, leaving a refugee camp and traveling to America. She describes the flight, stating “Holding onto one another, we moved through clouds, ghost vapors, time zones” (lê 4). lê once again charts movement and transit. This time, she notes the passage not between colors, but through hazier constructs: “clouds, ghost vapors, time zones.” The movement through clouds signals a physical haze and a spatial movement, while moving through ghost vapors suggests a more metaphysical movement.view out an airplane windowThe word “ghost” has a context of an echo or remainder of the past; Merriam-Webster defines it to mean “a disembodied soul” (“ghost”). In moving through “ghost vapors,” the narrator moves through a disembodied past. In addition to moving through physical and metaphysical markers, the narrator also passes through “time zones,” creating a sense of disorientation by dismantling the linear construct of time. lê’s imagery of the airplane associates the narrator’s movement with the passage through space, memory, and time, a disorienting and hazy experience.

lê’s imagery of movement situates the narrator in both a physical and metaphorical liminal space. She exists in a state of physical threshold, shifting between houses and countries. However, she also exists in a state of metaphorical threshold, her senses affected by the feeling of disorientation that comes from these movements. lê’s depiction of movement as disorienting and liminal suggests that the narrator’s experience as a Vietnamese refugee, as a person with transit forced upon her, reflects both this physical inconstancy and the feeling of unreality.


“ghost.” Merriam-Webster, 2018, Accessed 10 Oct 2018.
lê thi diem thúy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Anchor Books, 2004.

“Are We There Yet?”: Exploring Dislocation and Movement in The Gangster We Are All Looking For

The color of the walls in my hometown bedroom are light purple. That’s clear to anyone who enters. But did you notice, or remember, the ticket stub from 2008 sitting on my dresser? I bet not, and that’s okay. You were in my room for two hours, I have been living there my whole life. In The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy, the narrator, a nameless girl, struggles with dislocation. lê’s novel follows this girl, her father, and four “uncles” as they become refugees in San Diego after fleeing Vietnam following the war. Their journey is not easy, with no particular final destination. In the opening paragraphs, lê depicts the constant movement this family faces, as seen through “eventually” and “after” (lê 3-4). These particular words and images work together to show the extensive and constant journey this family endures. They struggle to make lasting memories along the way, as seen through the girl’s inability to characterize locations beyond generalizations.


lê begins her novel, “Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore” (lê 3). The word “eventually” emphasizes the ongoingness of the narrator’s journey (lê 3). “[E]ventually” suggests that the family has been traveling for an extended period of time before disembarking from their ship. It was only a matter of time before she “eventually washed to shore” (lê 3). The end of this sentence, “washed to shore,” continues the effects of “eventually” (lê 3). Here, lê  suggests that there was no intended destination, Linda Vista just happened to be where their boat arrived. This diction conveys uncertainty; thus, creating a sense of dislocation. The family has been moving for an extended period of time; however, they have no clear idea of where they are going or will “eventually” end up (lê 3). An uncertain fate is a common feeling among Vietnamese refugees. These Vietnamese were forced to suddenly flee their homeland without knowing where they might end up, or how long it will take to get to their new location.

Additionally, the narrator describes leaving the refugee camp in Singapore and going to the airport. Here, she states, “We entered the revolving doors of airports and boarded plane after plane” (lê 4). Once again, lê creates a sense of displacement and movement, considering planes are vehicles which carry someone from place to place. The phrase, “boarded plane after plane” reveals that this was not the family’s first time moving (lê 4). “[A]fter” particularly emphasizes the reoccurrence of movement. This alludes to the fact that there must be more than one plane which the family is getting onto. The narrator must have just been in one place and is now flying on another. As well, the mention of a “revolving door” creates an image of going in circles (lê 4). This family is constantly moving from one place to the next, repeating the same simple actions but in different places. “Revolving” denotes rotating around an axis (lê 4). In this case, the family is physically traveling around the world from Asia to North America.

Revolving Door

Together, these two images display the long, uncertain fate of a Vietnamese refugee. “Eventually” and “after” reveal that the family’s voyage took a long time (lê 3-4). The family “eventually” landed in California, but it was only after several modes of transportation and numerous stops along the way. Directly after the first line, the narrator describes several of these stops. She states, “Before the Green Apartment, we lived in the Red Apartment… and Orange, in East San Diego” (lê 3). This follows her description of Linda Vista’s “yellow houses” mentioned above (lê 3). The narrator characterizes these places simply by color, mentioning “Green.. Red.. and Orange” (lê 3). This is a very basic, general description. Due to her long and constant journeys as a Vietnamese refugee, she has no time to settle down or make memories. Therefore, she describes each place in a way that is easily identifiable but lacks specificity.

What good is a story if it has no substance? While this family has traveled to a lot of places, each place might as well be interchangeable as no lasting memories were formed during their stays. Dislocation creates long-term effects on the narrator. She is forced to relocate somewhere new before fully living in the last place. This sense of constant uncertainty becomes the fate of the Vietnamese refugee. It takes a long time to get to one destination, but soon enough, they will be on to the next. B3.

Works Cited

lê, thi diem thúy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. First Anchor Books, 2004.

House after House, Plane after Plane: Displacement & Movement

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.


Works Cited

Lê, Thi Diem Thúy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Anchor Books, 2004.