Monday, December 9, 2013

Vietnam: "The Unwanted" by Kien Nguyen

This memoir begins in 1972, with the fifth birthday party for a boy whose mother is a wealthy Vietnamese and whose American father has left. We know from the back cover that Nguyen came to the U.S. He tells us in the afterward that when he completed university and dental school, he began to wrestle with experiences and memories from the dreadful years from 1975 through 1984 when he emigrated. That wrestling resulted in this book, The Unwanted.

In 1975 Nguyen's mother tried to get her family out of the country at the last minute, but a series of circumstances that must be read to appreciate led to disaster on the roof of the U.S. Embassy, just as the North Vietnamese army marched into Saigon.  From there, every step became one of survival.

Nguyen's mother, siblings, and grandparents are "unwanted" because of his mother's entrepreneurial success (including banking) before the take-over by the Communists, and his grandfather's service in the South Vietnamese army. He and his younger brother are additionally "unwanted" by the culture at large and his aunt's family, in particular, because they are "half-breeds."

Several of the scenes in this memoir recall novelized versions of Communism's impact on family life as told in Wild Ginger, down to working at a fish market in bitter weather, often for very small pieces of change. His mother turns to exchanging her personal favors for help for her family, sells her blood to raise funds, and tries to start a little business in textiles, with very difficult consequences for the children when she is caught, and they are alone for many days. The nail-biting scenes at the end, as the family is granted permission to leave but must have several documents signed by petty officials, kept me up way past my bedtime in order to find out how they managed to meet the flight.

This work has led to reflections on several "big lessons" from the reading so far, about which I'll write separately. The short summary, though, is that people can do terrible things when they have unrestrained power over others, especially over others perceived as "different."  Building some kinds of natural restraints into governmental processes, social relations, religious mores, and elsewhere seems to be a major contribution of "civilization."

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