The Sympathiser – Viet Thanh Nguyen


    We make this distinction to make clear that this is a space in which we define ourselves for ourselves. And here, in this shared space, we gather together some of our (scattered) voices and endeavors.

    And what does it mean, to be a Vietnamese American or Vietnamese diasporic writer in America in 2015? What does it mean to write from this location – in culture, in time, in identification? Is it different now – and (how) should it be – than it was 30 or 40 years ago?

    The Fall of Saigon—that initiating event of cataclysm and consequent “re-birth”—is now 40 years behind us, the war in question four decades “over.”

    When we first landed, and for many of us coming of age in the late 1970s and 80s, no model of specific being, of how or what we could or would become in our new setting, met us. Many of us were greeted as pity-cases in bad secondhand clothing, or as “gooks” and primitives. Americans believed we ate dogs, and they did not know what to do with children like us in schools. Many of us fought or cried our way through our school years and learned how to navigate, at the least, two faces. The 1980s became a decade during which we selected our clothes with care, some of us, so as not to appear “fresh off the boat,” though some of us literally were. We grew up with Rambo, Platoon, Apocalypse Now to inform us what our place of origin had reaped on and for American men. We accepted that Mr. Miyagi, maybe Jackie Chan, and (unfortunately) that dopey rendition of a Chinese foreign exchange student in John Hughes’ 16 Candles, were some of the only brown-skinned Asian characters with names that we would see in the Hollywood depictions we grew up on. We absorbed those crude stereotypes, even as we toiled to get past them. We learned indebtedness and shame and the expectation of gratitude. We gleaned the easy tropes of model minority-ism that would supposedly pave our way. We understood: the war was over. Look at all of your success stories!

    In more serious and devastating ways, however, we also learned the consequences of invisibility and the hard realization that the true dramas of many of our actual lives would never make it to the surface.

    As one of our own poets iterates: “VIETNAM IS NOT A WAR” [1] — expressing the frustration of identity many of us have encountered in our hyphenated, diasporic, post-1975 citizenships, an identity that has defined us only so deep, that marks us as products of a wound, yet still denies the full calamity of that wound.

    The reality of a cultural identity is complex and contradictory, no doubt. Yes, we are/were of that wound; and yes, too, we are so much more than you have been willing to see, of that wound, from it, beyond it, aside from it.

    So the goal here really is simple: to enter into the stream of American literature, art and culture as we are — no less, no more, and all. To make a space where the full nuance and scope of our experiences, imaginations, and perceptions may have their place.


Vietnamese holidays always make me think about what it means to be Vietnamese, or not Vietnamese. I’m less interested in the question itself, because there’s no good answer to the question, and more interested in what it implies. The question implies that there is such a thing as Vietnameseness, and that we can define it with a list of things.

he question of what it means to be Vietnamese is only interesting to me because of the reason why I, or we, or anyone, might ask that question.

I am always getting asked a variation of that question.

This reminded me of the many times I had been to Viet Nam where people would say (after a few words in Vietnamese from me), “Your Vietnamese is so good!” This means that they thought I was not Vietnamese, since no one would compliment a Vietnamese person on his Vietnamese. I thought, this is what it must be like to be a white person in Viet Nam who breaks out her or his Vietnamese. People treat you so nicely just for being able to say “Please take me to Cho Ben Thanh.”

Whenever this happened, which was at least once a week, it would always remind me of those days in San Jose when I was a kid, in the 1980s, when my parents forced me to attend Vietnamese Catholic Sunday school. I barely spoke any Vietnamese back then, and in that time, in that place, you could not be Vietnamese if you did not speak Vietnamese. It was in the Vietnamese Catholic church, and in Vietnamese language classes, that I first developed my distaste for authenticity. Perhaps it was the pressure of being outsiders, refugees, newcomers to an American life they felt to be strange and one that they had not truly chosen that drove the Vietnamese I knew to define being Vietnamese narrowly. Their Vietnamese identity and culture was like an asteroid from a foreign planet that had come crashing to the American earth, and they would do everything they could to preserve it. So they had their rituals and festivals and masses and schools, where the prescriptions for being Vietnamese were very clear. If you felt included in that world, it was home.

Home was a comforting place, where people always welcomed you, made sure you had enough to eat, knew how to say your name. Home was also the place where people knew you enough to put you in your place, dislike you, hate you, have enough of you, take out their frustrations and rage on you. My parents lived and worked in the Vietnamese world, and the people they were most afraid of were other Vietnamese people. This was the other side of authenticity, the fact that if you knew what it meant to be really Vietnamese, then you also knew where the soft spots and deep hurt were as well. No one knows how to cut you down like another Vietnamese person, who’ll do it with a smile.

My idea of Vietnamese culture was that we were a very smart and resourceful people who knew how to both work for cash under the table while collecting welfare and food stamps. I’d like to see a culture show about that.

Nowadays there are some in the new generation who don’t speak any Vietnamese, who don’t care what white people think, and who may not really care that much about being Vietnamese either.

Mostly I assume there are many, many more diverse Vietnamese I will never meet because I wouldn’t have a reason to–they’re not doing anything “Vietnamese.” More power to them. They are Vietnamese and they’re not Vietnamese all at the same time. What they do is Vietnamese and not Vietnamese all at the same time. That’s what I think diaCRITICS is about too, in one of its faces, the ability to (not) be Vietnamese. The ability not to be forced by someone’s question about your authenticity into making an either/or answer–yes, I am Vietnamese, or no, I am not Vietnamese–which is to give in to the whole weight of someone else’s expectations around being “Vietnamese.” So the next time someone asks me if I’m really Vietnamese, I’m going to say “yes and no,” and then I will wait for them to ask me another question.


“For me, it was never about learning to be an American. What happened actually was that other people didn’t see me as an American. That was the disturbing part,” said Nguyen, who graduated from UC Berkeley and teaches American studies, English and ethnicity at USC. “The immigrant has always been an ambivalent figure in the United States. The immigrant has always served as a source of rejuvenation for the country and a source of fear.”

This led him, as a writer, to untangle the complicated relationship between Vietnam and America, each with contentious versions of a conflict that killed more than 58,000 U.S. service personnel along with an estimated 1.3 million to more than 3 million North and South Vietnamese. Duality informs much of Nguyen’s work, which extrapolates the personal to the universal to explore nationalism, history, atrocity, truth and lies, ethical pliability and how, depending on allegiances, one person’s monster is another’s liberator.

…“Nothing Ever Dies” is an account of humanity at its darkest, a realm of war, memory, identity and pain that ventures from the jungles of Vietnam to the killing fields of Cambodia. Nguyen writes that “all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory…. Memory is haunted, not just by ghostly others but by the horrors we have done, seen, and condoned, or by the unspeakable things from which we have profited.”

That is the case when one views the broken lives, graves, refugees and ruins of Syria and Iraq. It leads to moral questions over outside powers imposing their designs on peoples and cultures that have been turned into “the other” to advance distant national interests. For Nguyen, Vietnam was a personal example of how American policy, which these days includes a massive arms industry, hundreds of overseas military bases, drone strikes and special operations forces, creates a psychology of perpetual war.

“The Sympathizer,” like Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” examines American intentions, often mixed of hubris, benevolence and ineptitude, that leads the country into conflict.

“Americans do believe very strongly in their own innocence. When some leaders say we’re going overseas to establish democracy and freedom, I think they really believe that,” Nguyen said. “They may also be doing it for corporate profits, but they really believe that Americans are there for democracy and freedom. And that’s the dangerous part … that belief in your own goodness.”

Countries, after all, are as complex as characters in a good novel. And a conversation in Nguyen’s living room can skip across the geographies, sins and fallibilities of a vexing world. The rise of populism in the West, notably Britain’s vote to exit the European Union, a resurgence of nationalist parties and the election of Trump suggest a backlash by working classes against capitalism.

 “What we’re seeing is a crisis in capitalism that’s always been defined by race,” said Nguyen, noting that over the centuries, Europe’s wealth was largely built on what was colonized and extracted from Asia, Africa and Latin America. “The contradiction we’re seeing now is those minorities and those colonized peoples have made their way to the countries that colonized them in the first place and have become more visible. And as that capitalism has faltered … those white people have taken out their aggravations on these minorities and formerly colonized peoples.”


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