Last Updated on January 6, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1126
“On Being a Refugee, an American—and a Human Being”
Viet Thanh Nguyen uses this essay to reflect on American identity and the place of refugees and immigrants within that identity. Nguyen himself became a refugee in 1975 after the fall of Saigon. At only four years old, he was thankfully too young, unlike his older brother, to remember the horror of fleeing Vietnam, including the dead bodies of paratroopers hanging in the trees.
Nguyen believes that Americans do not see their own fates as possibly overlapping with the fates of refugees and immigrants. They believe that Americans cannot become refugees, though refugees can sometimes become Americans. However, Nguyen insists that every human being is only “one catastrophe away” from witnessing the destruction of everything they know.
Nguyen considers himself a “bad refugee” because he insists on seeing his good fortune as a successful refugee as inextricably linked to the historical involvements and racial politics of the United States. He realizes that if he had been from Haiti during the 1970s or 1980s, he would not have been admitted as a refugee, because of both poverty and race. Similarly, if he lived in Central America today, he would be refused refugee status despite the involvement of the United States in shaping the region’s drug economy.
Although the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty beg for the “homeless” and “tempest-tost” to be sent to America, Nguyen asserts that this has not always proven true for those seeking refuge. There is a xenophobia in American society that excludes refugees and undocumented immigrants, although more than half of the nation’s billion-dollar start-ups were founded by immigrants and all of its Nobel Prize winners in 2016 were immigrants.
Americans often view Asian families as embodying the ideal of “model minorities” and model immigrants. Indeed, Nguyen acknowledges that his own family could be a poster family for immigration; he won the Pulitzer Prize, his brother attended Harvard after arriving in America speaking no English, and his parents became small business owners. Still, he asserts that even if immigrants and refugees cannot emulate this same level of “success,” they should still be welcomed. After all, if their ultimate destiny is to drop out of school and become fast-food cashiers, they have proven their humanity as much as the “average American.”
Nguyen hopes that his own son, who is nearly the same age as Nguyen was when he fled Vietnam, will have the strength to overcome his fears. One way to accomplish this is to demand that America become the “best version of itself.”
“In Praise of Doubt and Uselessness”
Nguyen realizes how ignorant he was at the beginning of his writing career. Though he had clear goals as a writer and scholar, he didn’t know how to accomplish them. He thus pretended to know what he was doing and ended up receiving tenure at USC for his academic writing. When he then began writing The Refugees, Nguyen did not yet understand the grief that would be intimately entwined with the writing process for the nine years during which he worked on the book. Writing became a test of endurance and an “act of faith,” requiring him to persevere in spite of not knowing what the results would be.
During the time he worked on these short stories, he also began another book, one focused on memories of the Vietnam War and that sought to include “literature, film, museums, memorials, politics, philosophy and history” associated with the war. Another ambitious undertaking, this work would require countless hours of work over a period of twenty years before the tangible results of his efforts could begin to be realized.
Nguyen points out that readers see a finished product, brimming with...
(The entire section contains 1126 words.)
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