Vietnamese family revised

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Peter Zinoman, author of "The Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam, 1862-1940," is an associate professor of history and Southeast Asian studies at UC Berkeley.

A critical weakness of the huge body of English-language literature, history-writing and film about the Vietnam War is its remarkably superficial and derisive portrayal of America’s South Vietnamese allies. While South Vietnamese women have long been typecast either as prostitutes or as passive victims of “collateral damage,” men connected to the non-communist Republic of Vietnam have come off even worse: as corrupt cowards whose defeatism and internal squabbling undermined the American-led war effort.

Since the scapegoating of South Vietnamese men functions simultaneously to shift the blame for defeat in Vietnam away from the United States military and to vindicate the antiwar movement’s corrosive disparagement of the Saigon regime, the durability of this self-serving stereotype within American culture is not hard to explain.

As the political struggles of the Vietnam era fade into history, however, a revisionist image of the South Vietnamese is gradually emerging, spearheaded to a large extent by a new generation of Vietnamese American writers and scholars who fail to recognize their resourceful immigrant parents in the feckless, one-dimensional Southern Vietnamese characters recycled habitually in American accounts.


“The Gangster We Are All Looking For,” le thi diem thuy’s slender and elegant first novel, represents the most accomplished literary manifestation to date of this emergent revisionist trend. In addition to offering a Vietnamese version of a familiar American story of alienation, adaptation and generational conflict within a new immigrant family, thuy’s nameless first-person narrator provides a complex, full-bodied character study of her father, a South Vietnamese soldier, reeducation camp survivor and boat person who “washed to shore” in San Diego, with his 6-year-old daughter in tow, during the late 1970s. (The author herself fled Vietnam by boat with her father in 1978 before settling in Southern California.)

In the story’s foreground is a beautifully rendered description of the personal, psychological and historical threads that link father to daughter. “I grew up studying my father so closely,” the narrator admits, “as to suggest that I was certain I saw my future in him.” The novel explores the mysterious ways that children come to embody -- in an almost ghostly fashion -- something of the lives and qualities of their parents.

Made up of five discrete, episodic chapters, “The Gangster We Are All Looking For” opens with the impressions of the young Vietnamese girl newly arrived with her father in the San Diego suburb of Linda Vista and concludes with her solitary return, as an aspiring Vietnamese American writer, to her parents’ hometown of Phan Thiet along the South Vietnamese coast.

In an arresting opening chapter, the novel conveys the pervasive sense of rupture and randomness that hangs over the father and daughter’s adjustment to their new life in California. The pair is sponsored in the United States by a sympathetic military veteran who mistakenly views the Vietnamese boat people as distant relatives of the Okinawans, Samoans and Hawaiians whom he encountered during World War II. A group of middle-aged Vietnamese men who happen to be resettled in the same house become the “four uncles” who, together with the girl and her father, come to form a makeshift but strangely coherent family. The alienation of the immigrants from their new surroundings is underscored by the girl’s uncomprehending reaction to the exotic rituals of American schools and supermarkets and by the monotonous work that her father and the “four uncles” secure as house painters: “On almost every day of the week, you could find them working: five small-boned Vietnamese men climbing ladders in empty rooms painting the white walls whiter.”

The girl’s adjustment to the unrelenting foreignness of her new surroundings is cushioned by her father, whose depressive mood swings, recurring nightmares and chronic drinking and gambling do not prevent him from mothering her with great tenderness. Regarding her father’s daily efforts to get her ready for school, the narrator recalls: “We’d stand on the sidewalk and Ba would comb my hair with his fingers. Then he’d pull two barrettes out of his shirt pocket, push my hair away from my eyes, and gently snap the barrettes in place.”

The poignancy of his attentiveness is brought into sharper relief in a subsequent chapter that recalls the father, in his former life, as a dashing and mysterious “Buddhist gangster” from an aristocratic northern family. His allure and virility are underlined by the forbidden passion that he arouses in the narrator’s mother, who marries him -- while still a schoolgirl -- despite the opposition of her conservative southern Catholic family.


The belated arrival of the mother in California marks the reunification of this small family and introduces another remarkably complex character into the plot. She swaddles her daughter in a dense fabric of admonitions. “ ‘If you dance with your shadow,’ she’d say, ‘you’ll go crazy.’ ‘If you run around barefoot all summer, your feet will burn and fall off.’ ‘If you swallow fruit seeds, trees will grow inside of you until the branches come out of your ears.’ ”

Her resolute devotion to her family also comes across in a dramatic flashback during which she furiously chastises a reeducation camp official for refusing to release her husband several years after the fall of Saigon. In addition to exhibiting rock-solid qualities of a matriarch, the narrator’s mother reveals a less traditional side: playful, impulsive and sensual.

Before learning how to drive, she recklessly takes the family’s new used Cadillac for a late-night spin and crashes it into the gate of their apartment building. In another episode observed by the narrator, she flirts openly with an old flame whom she encounters at a Chinese movie theater: “My mother kept smiling and tucking her hair behind her ears. She had just gotten a haircut so actually her hair was already behind her ears.”

Of course, in this richly rendered Vietnamese family portrait, the narrator, whose intricate and persuasive self-representation emerges indirectly from her precise descriptions of her parents and of the world around her, is the most memorable character. The evolution of her ambiguous sexuality and her efforts to cope with a mysterious family tragedy drive the narrative.

While the novel brilliantly illuminates its unlikely troika, what the narrative leaves out is just as striking. It seems significant that descriptions of the Vietnam War barely figure in the story and that American characters remain fuzzy, undifferentiated and impressionistic. In this way, the relationship of this engaging and original novel to more conventional American narratives of Vietnam may be thought to be like a photographic negative: What’s white is dark, what’s dark is white, and the image is strange and mesmerizing.