Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Refugee Memories

‘Refugee Memories and Asian American Critique’ was originally published in positions: asia critique, volume 20, number 20, pages 911-942 (2012).

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Shades of Past, Present, and Future
When I was young, I often saw Vietnamese soldiers patrolling the community gatherings of Vietnamese refugees. This was not in Viet Nam, but
in San Jose, California, where, by the 1980s, tens of thousands of refugees
had settled, having ed from South Viet Nam at the end of America’s war
in 1975. Over thirty years later, the feelings of nostalgia and longing for a
short-lived nation-state have hardly abated for some of these refugees and
their descendants. Although belonging to only one population out of many
Southeast Asian populations in the United States, these soldiers in their
military fatigues vividly illustrate one way that Southeast Asian Americans
have struggled to recuperate troubled histories (see g. 1). These veterans
view the past through what Svetlana Boym calls “restorative nostalgia,” in which the past can be recovered wholly and the lost homeland can be restored authentically. Restorative nostalgia also animates the volatile anticommunist politics that sets the dominant tone for Little Saigon in Orange County, home to the largest population of Vietnamese outside Viet Nam. Little Saigon’s public style of discourse is nationalist and paranoid in a way not uncharacteristic of US politics. But in contrast to exiled nationalism’s restorative nostalgia, there is another, “reflective nostalgia” that regards the past with more ambivalence, tolerating shadowy ambiguity, fearing not so much an other but the absolute truth. Many, if not most, academics and artists who deal with Southeast Asians in the United States tend to see the past reflectively, since they, too, sometimes find themselves in nostalgia’s velvet grip. The consequences for their work are crucial, since “memory, at once impoverished and enriched, presents itself as a device for measurement, the ‘ruler’ of narrative.”

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