The Refugees

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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“The Americans” Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on January 6, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1140

James Carver is a former fighter pilot who greatly enjoyed the sense of purpose he gained from his military efforts. Carver is a Black man who married Michiko, a woman he met in Japan. Together, they have built a life in the United States, raising their daughter, Claire, whom they have traveled to Vietnam to visit. Carver has not been looking forward to the trip and has compromised by convincing his wife to visit Angkor Wat and the beaches of Thailand with him before and after their Vietnam interlude.

In Vietnam, Claire introduces her parents to her boyfriend, Khoi Legaspi. Carver is immediately put off by Legaspi, believing that the young man is patronizing. Legaspi describes his current work to the Carvers: removing landmines with the assistance of robots and with little human risk. Michiko immediately asks to see the robots, but Carver is not as intrigued. He points out to Legaspi that the Department of Defense is funding the project and that perhaps they have their own, malevolent plans for the robots. Legaspi shrugs off the comment, noting that their group must take money where they can find it.

The next morning, Claire takes her parents on a two-hour ride to Quang Tri, where she lives and where Legaspi’s demining operation is based. Michiko looks around her daughter’s meager apartment, which lacks air conditioning, and asks whether Claire could find better housing. Claire insists that her apartment is better than what most people have, but Carver points out that she isn’t native—she’s American. Claire replies that she is trying to correct this “problem.”

The group walks to a cafe, and Carver notices that people are staring at them. He questions their sense of shock, and Claire points out that their family is a “mixed bag,” which isn’t common in Vietnam. Claire notes that she has become used to the attention she garners as a biracial woman, and Carver points out that he once felt the same sense of unwanted attention as a Black man in Japan and Thailand. Claire responds that he could always go “home,” but that she has never felt like there was a space for her in America. Carver recalls the pain of Claire’s adolescence, when being asked some version of “What are you?” would destroy Claire’s sense of confidence.

Carver realizes that he has lost his own sense of purpose and envies his daughter’s mission to teach English to the poor in Vietnam. Visiting her classroom, he is greeted by her young students in pitch-perfect English. Carver asks Claire how much longer she plans to remain in Vietnam; after all, she has already been there for two years. Claire replies that she has no plans to leave, as she truly enjoys her work and the country. She adds that she feels at home in Vietnam and that she has a “Vietnamese soul.” Carver retorts that this is the stupidest thing he has ever heard, which sparks an angry exchange between him and his daughter.

The group then travels to Legaspi’s demining site, and Carver again takes in the extreme poverty of the area. He reflects that the world is almost always more beautiful from high above, where human creations fade and only the beauty of the geography remains. Legaspi demonstrates how he uses the talents of a mongoose, which can sniff out a mine from three meters away, to locate mines; he then steers the robots to diffuse the mines. By proceeding in slow and methodical ways, he is able to help conserve the topsoil and preserve the area for farming.

Carver again points out that the funding from the Department of Defense could eventually lead to different uses of this technology—and in ways that would destroy life, not preserve it. Claire retorts that this is the kind of work her father himself does and that not everyone is like him. The two again fall into an angry exchange of words.

Carver walks away from his daughter moments before a monsoon hits. He falls face down in the mud but is quickly located by his family. They help him into their Land Cruiser and take him to the hospital. He develops a fever and pneumonia and remains unconscious for three days. When he regains consciousness, it is Claire who is by his side. She has been sleeping on a mat on the floor beside him. Carver tells his daughter that he needs to use the restroom, and she assists him. He is reminded of Claire’s childhood, when it was he who guided Claire to the bathroom in the middle of dark nights, and is moved to tears by his memories.


James Carver presents a complex perspective in this collection of short stories. Fiercely patriotic, he has served his country in various war efforts and is proud of the work he has accomplished. He recalls the sense of purpose he once felt while flying, remembering that he never felt more free than when squeezed into the cockpit of a B-52.

Yet during his military service, he also destroyed land and lives. He believes that Claire will never be able to understand the complexities of war, that his efforts were needed to save fellow Americans on the ground. Instead, he sees his daughter as his “complete opposite,” determined to undo what she perceives as her father’s unjust actions. Carver witnesses the empathy Claire provides to the people of Vietnam, whom he believes will “kill her without hesitation given the chance,” and is frustrated that his daughter cannot find any such empathy for her own father.

Carver has also felt the sting of discrimination, even in lands far from the US. He recalls that during his service, he garnered unwanted attention as a Black man in various countries, and Michiko points out that being a Japanese wife on a Michigan air base in 1973 presented challenges as well. These experiences lay a foundation for questions of home and belonging. The challenges Claire has faced as a biracial woman are not unique to a particular location or experience. Instead, this is a universal struggle that transcends cultures.

In the end, there is hope that Claire and Carver will be able to forge a new path in their relationship. Carver is reminded of the young girl Claire once was, a girl who needed the strength and guidance of her father through the dark nights of her life. Claire faithfully cares for her father in his hour of need, demonstrating that she still values his presence despite their points of personal conflict. Although their relationship is made more complex by their political and cultural points of difference, they share a history of love and support that will hopefully provide the framework on which to build a restorative relationship.

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