The Refugees

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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“The Other Man” Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on January 6, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1349

Liem, an eighteen-year-old refugee from Vietnam, has been placed with a sponsor named Parrish Coyne in San Francisco. Coyne, a middle-aged British man, is distinguished-looking and generous. After meeting him for the first time, Parrish quickly comments that he didn’t expect Liem to be so “pretty” and then introduces him to Marcus Chan, a man from Hong Kong who is in his twenties. Parrish comments that Liem must have had an “awful time” before making it to San Francisco, and Liem flashes back to his recent experiences, which began with leaving his parents in Long Xuyen the previous summer. He had then worked in a tea bar in Saigon before clawing his way onto a refugee boat when trouble found him. This refugee boat had brought him to San Francisco.

Parrish and Marcus take Liem to a car and begin the drive home. Parrish tells Liem that he and Marcus are a couple “in the romantic sense.” Liem doesn’t quite understand and at first believes that this must be another strange American idiomatic expression. He quickly realizes that this statement is not an idiom and replies that he is “liberal” and “open-minded.” In truth, he realizes that he has nowhere else to go and is dependent on Parrish’s hospitality. Liem recalls nights in Saigon where he slept in a large room full of single men and boys; the odor of their bodies filled the space as they engaged in group masturbation in the evenings. Liem wonders if the evidence of those nights still exists in his palms somewhere.

Parrish finally pulls into the driveway of the home he shares with Marcus and now with Liem; it is mauve and has a portrait of the Virgin Mary on the door. For the first few weeks, Liem is uncomfortable with the situation and wants to call the woman who placed him with Parrish to let her know she has made a mistake. However, Parrish is incredibly generous, and Liem feels shame for having such thoughts. He once again flashes back to the moments of his escape. In particular, he remembers those who tried to flee the war and were unsuccessful—those who fell into the river as they tried to climb aboard the barge and who were shot in the back by soldiers who were desperate to escape themselves. He cannot convey any of this experience through the occasional letters he sends home to his parents, knowing that the Communists will read every letter and that knowledge of his escape might make things more dangerous for his family.

When Parrish and Marcus begin having serious arguments in front of Liem, he realizes that he has been accepted as part of their household. Parrish comments that Marcus isn’t as mature as Liem, even though Marcus is the older man. Parrish confesses to Liem that although his ancestors made their money in dishonorable ways, he tries to put that money to good use; Liem realizes that he is one of the “good uses” of Parrish’s money and sense of moral obligation. Parrish refuses to allow Liem to pay rent, but Liem insists on getting a job. He obtains employment at a liquor store, working six days a week for twelve hours a day.

In mid-November, Marcus and Liem drive Parrish to the airport; he will be attending a conference in Washington on nuclear energy’s threat to the environment. After he has departed, Marcus comments to Liem that it is a “bore” to live with someone who is always “trying to save the world.” On the way home, Marcus and Liem enjoy a meal of dim...

(This entire section contains 1349 words.)

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sum, and Liem asks Marcus about his own family. Marcus tells him about his father, an executive who sent Marcus to study overseas so that he could return home and help run the business. While he was gone, an ex-lover sent home “candid” photos of Marcus tucked inside a love letter Marcus had written. Marcus’s father disowned him, and he now relies on Parrish to pay for his expenses. Liem shares with Marcus his final moments with his own father, when he had promised not to “lose” himself in the city. Marcus assures Liem that he couldn’t have predicted the future and advises him to help his family by helping himself. Liem considers that this advice seems particularly “American.”

The next evening when Liem returns home from work, Marcus says that a letter arrived for Liem that day. Liem doesn’t want to open it at first, not wanting to face any changes the letter might bring. Liem places his hand on Marcus’s knee, and the two have sex. Afterward, Liem considers that this experience may not have gone well; after all, their clothes were not removed gracefully, and there was an awkward rhythm at times. When they lie together afterward, Liem tells Marcus that he loves him. Marcus does not return the sentiment and instead tells Liem that love is simply a “reflex action” that some people have. Marcus predicts that Liem will soon hear other men tell Liem that they love him, because he is too pretty to be alone.

Marcus falls asleep, and Liem slides out of bed just as the phone rings. The caller is Parrish, who wants to know how Marcus and Liem are doing. Liem replies that they are “just fine” and keeps the conversation short. His attention then returns to the letter, which he opens to find his father’s handwriting. His father tells Liem that his uncles’ crimes against the Communist Party have been “forgiven,” and his uncles have “donated” their houses to the revolution in thanks. Thus, Liem’s parents’s house is now full with uncles, cousins, wives, and children.

Liem folds the letter and stands in front of a window until two men pass by. He watches a moment of tenderness the two share, one tilting his head back in laughter. The man’s eyes turn to Liem, who is visible in the window. He raises his hand to say hello, a gesture the other man replicates. Liem waves in return as he experiences a “fleeting connection” with these strangers. The men disappear into the shadows as Liem is left standing with his hand pressed to the window.


The title of this story presents a haunting question for the reader: Who is the “other man”? Is it Liem, who exists outside the established relationship between Marcus and Parrish? Is it Parrish, whose wealth affords him the ability to attract young men for romantic involvement? Does the title refer to the men who stand outside the window at the end of the story and with whom Liem experiences a fleeting connection?

Perhaps the answer is best found at that window, in the moment when Liem can no longer recognize himself. As he raises his hand and then touches his face, Liem is somewhat mystified that the reflection in the window mimics his own actions. Liem’s sense of physicality following his sexual encounter with Marcus is obscured as he peers through his reflection and into the street outside.

Liem’s status as a refugee has left him isolated and desperate for human connection. Separated from his family and unable to even convey the truth of his situation to them, Liem exists as a virtual stranger in an unfamiliar country. He throws himself into a job that leaves little time for connecting with others, and his only sense of relationship exists in the men with whom he lives. Longing to connect on a deeper level, he confesses his love to Marcus. Not only does Marcus not convey similar sentiments, he fairly scoffs at such a profession, considering love a “reflex action” and a weakness.

In the final lines, Liem wonders if someone might be watching. He is desperate to be seen and known, yet the raindrops on the glass he touches indicate the despair that separates him from others. He stands on the other side of a glass, visible but separate, unable to engage in the intimacy of life.


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