The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Americans

The Refugees

In The Americans, the protagonist is James Carver, a sixty-eight-years-old American veteran pilot who had fought in the Vietnam war. Although James had flown a B-52, “an ungainly blue whale of a plane,” carrying bombs over the region during the war, he had never been to Vietnam before. But now with his daughter, Claire living in Vietnam, he has no excuse for not making the trip. In any case, it also helps him that his wife, Michiko has sweetened the deal with the promise of “Angkor Wat as the prelude and Thailand’s beaches and temples as the postscript to a brief Vietnam sojourn.”

In Vietnam, James and Michiko are shown around by Claire and her boyfriend, Khoi. The Carvers are not pleased with Claire’s hard up living style in Vietnam. Claire’s digs is an un-airconditioned studio apartment close to the school where she teaches English, and although Claire’s circumstances are much better than native Vietnamese, her parents can’t understand why Claire would want to suffer like this. It infuriates James to hear Claire claim Vietnam is her home, and the rift between the father and daughter only grows when Khoi takes the Craves to see the landmine detection apparatus he uses for work.

This apparatus was invented by a Sri Lankan researcher after the civil war in Sri Lanka (Nguyen pays homage to him in the story). It uses a trained mongoose attached to a robot to help de-mine the land. The mongoose acts as a sensory detector, while the robot sets the pace and records its findings. And this machine has helped to significantly reduce the cost of the de-mining process compared to bulldozing areas.

Even though Claire and Khoi are impressed by this machinery and go on and on of its benefits, James suspects in the wrong hands this “tin can robot” will be used to cause destruction. “Some brilliant guy at a university working on a defense contract will figure out a way to put a landmine on this robot. Then the Pentagon will send it into a tunnel where a terrorist is hiding,” argues James, provoking Claire. And that leads to an ugly fight between James and Claire about James’s involvement in the Vietnam war.

To see how the Vietnam war had affected an American family was interesting to me. Claire resents James for she thinks he doesn’t feel guilty about having bombed Vietnam. Her work in Vietnam is partly to pay for her father’s sins, but what she doesn’t realize is that the reason why James never wanted to visit Vietnam is his haunting memories. So this is a sad tale, as the father and daughter attempt to wrestle with their past.

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