The Color of Family

The wisdom of market psychology tells us that colors affect how we feel about the world around use— for example, McDonalds’ signature red and yellow make people feel hungry and happy. Whether or not this pop psych explanation is true (do people also feel hungry and happy when they see China’s flag?), it points to the significance we assign to colors as conveyors of emotion. In the graphic memoir Vietnamerica (2010), G.B. Tran also makes use of the emotional significances attached to colors by selecting particular colors in conjunction with specific characters, settings, and types of scenes.

Between pages 5 and 39 of his graphic novel, Tran depicts his family arriving in Vietnam for his grandmother’s funeral, then flashes back into his mother’s memories and depicts the lives of his two grandmothers, Thi Mot and Le Nhi. During Tran’s reunion with his extended family, the sky, the ocean, and sometimes peoples’ clothes are light but vibrant shades of blue. This color evokes a sense of peace and carefree joy, like the sky on a day free of worrisome clouds. The blue is complemented by the delicate yellows of buildings, some clothing, food, and incense smoke. The yellow in these scenes, like the sun in the blue sky, communicates straightforward warmth. In combination, these colors suggest a happy and loving atmosphere among Tran’s family.

When Tran’s father, Tri Huu, visits his own father’s widow, Tran complicates the color palette to reveal the pain and conflict of family. In these scenes the yellow darkens and shifts to the sky, while buildings and clothing become gray. Only the sweater of Tri Huu Tran’s father’s widow remains yellow, and this yellow echoes the only other yellow in the room, the star on the Vietnamese flag. The flag evokes the fact that Tri Huu’s father abandoned him to fight for the Vietminh, and the widow becomes a reminder of this. The continuation of yellow in this scene reminds us that the widow is family, but works to emphasize conflict rather than warmth.

Finally, Tran reveals that the family’s blues and yellows represent the confluence of two women’s lives and choices. When he flashes back to the stories of Thi Mot and Le Nhi, Tran depicts Thi Mot’s experiences in blue and Le Nhi’s in yellow. These colors not highlight the personality differences between the two—bold yellow shows how Le Nhi “wasn’t the type to give up without a fight” (37) and calm blues represent Thi Mot’s peacekeeping nature (33) — and represent the women as the family’s origins.


Works Cited

Tran, G.B. Vietnamerica. Villard, 2010.


One thought on “The Color of Family

  1. Pointing out how the colors differ between the two grandmothers but also combine in some senes is such a significant part of the way the story reads. With the fact that this is a graphic novel, and GB Tran goes back and forth across timelines, it can be hard to understand what is happening at times. After reading through your post and then going back to the Vietnamerica to review some of the scenes, I discovered new ways to view and understand the various depictions of this family’s journey.

    I think what GB Tran does that is so genius is the way he uses color not only to distinguish storylines but to also interweave them to form a present narrative that may be just as complex to the reader as it is to the author himself on his visit to Vietnam. There is a connection formed between us and GB Tran, as we go through the graphic novel examining the layers oh his family history. I can’t stop thinking about how the medium of watercolor that he utilizes is symbolic of this layering.

    I think GB Tran’s use of blues and yellows/oranges definitely establishes contrast. We have a look at Thi Mot’s history through a more blue lens, and Le Nhi’s through a more yellow/orange one. A good example of this contrast is on page 42 where he shows two life-changing moments of each parent: his mother and Thi Mot at his grandfather’s funeral, and his father and Le Nhi packing to leave for Saigon. But In some scenes in both of these histories, and especially in GB Tran’s present-day narrative as a 30-year-old, we see the combination of both of these colors.

    This makes me look at page 26, the full page portrait of GB Tran in the center with his Father on the left and mother on the right. The portrait of GB himself is outlined in black whereas his father’s is outlined in blue and his mother’s in red. The way this overlaps shows one of GB’s eyes where his father’s would be and the other where his mother’s would be. When I was younger, I remember wearing those red and blue colored glasses to watch 3D movies. If I closed my eye that was under the blue lens, I would only see through the other eye under the red colored lens and vice versa. But in having both eyes open, I would see the world in a combination of blue and red. GB Tran does something similar in Vietnamerica in that he allows us to see each of his grandmother’s histories individually, but pairs them side by side in the graphic novel’s storyline. So what we see when GB Tran is 30 in Vietnam during the reunion you point to in your post are components of both histories through the colors blue and yellow.

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