Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although “The Key” is only a few pages in length, it tells one of the epic stories of the late twentieth century. In the years following the fall of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces on April 30, 1975, more than a million people fled from the southern part of unified Vietnam and resettled in other countries, mostly in the United States. The first great flood of refugees, generally referred to as “the first wave,” left just as the forces of the north were achieving their victory. The United States government established a half-dozen camps inside the mainland United States to receive and hold this first wave of refugees until they could be resettled around their new country.

Leaving a homeland and plunging into a radically different culture was traumatic for most Vietnamese refugees, who carried with them a longing for the land and people they had left behind them. Life in the refugee camps was particularly difficult because the refugees were between homes they had abandoned and homes that they had not yet established.

The first part of the story, in which the narrator tells of his own arrival in Guam and of life in the Pennsylvania refugee camp, may be Võ Phiên’s own experience or it may be based on his observations of other refugees. This portion is the kind of anecdote that many Vietnamese people in the United States can tell about their own backgrounds. As editor of a Vietnamese-language literary journal in California, Võ has undoubtedly heard and read repeated accounts of the hard journey from Vietnam to the United States. Still, these accounts remain vivid for most first-generation Vietnamese Americans because the versions of the same story make up the Vietnamese American epic, the tale that summarizes their foundation and their history.