Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Immigrants in U.S. on Claiming “Americanness”

Viet Thanh Nguyen is interviewed on the Brian Lehrer Show, produced by WNYC. Listen to the interview through the audio player or read the full transcript below.

New York City has approximately 3 million U.S. citizens who were born in another country. (Constanza Gallardo/WNYC)
New York City has approximately 3 million U.S. citizens who were born in another country. (Constanza Gallardo/WNYC)

From the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II to the current political call to ban all Muslim immigrants from coming to the United States, in times of crisis, immigrants have to declare their “Americanness” in a way most don’t.

“They have to assert how it is that they belong to this country and what they have done to prove that,” said Viet Thanh Nguyen, professor at USC in English and American Studies and Ethnicity and the author of Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War  (Harvard University Press, 2016), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer (Grove, 2015). He talks about some of the ambivalence in how immigrants view America and we take calls from our immigrant listeners.

Here is the transcript of the interview:

Kai Wright: This is the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC. I’m Kai Wright, Features Editor at The Nation magazine, sitting in for Brian today. Good morning, everyone.

Kai Wright: Next month, The Nation and WNYC are going to launch a podcast in which, among other things, we’re going to try to understand where Donald Trump supporters are coming from. Because whatever happens to the candidate, the sentiments he’s tapped into will remain with us. We’re going to be asking his supporters about their real and their perceived grievances, a significant one of which is immigration, as we’ve already heard this morning. In addition to talking to Trump supporters, we’re going to also talk with their immigrant neighbors and coworkers and in some cases, family members. What do they think about the status of the American dream?

Kai Wright: I want to start that conversation today. I know there are immigrants listening now. Let us know what you think about your adopted home, complexity, the ambivalence you have about it, all of that is welcome. Call us at 212-433-WNYC, that’s 212-433-9692. We’re constantly talking about the complicated, often conflicted beliefs that native born Americans hold about immigrants. We want to know, similarly, what are the complicated, conflicting feelings that immigrants hold about the United States. Let us know what you think.

Kai Wright: One of the most insightful representations of those complex feelings that I’ve read is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel, The Sympathizer. It’s fabulous. It’s set at the fall of Saigon, at the end of the Vietnam War, and it’s narrator is a man of many divided loyalties. He’s a spy for the North, embedded in the South Vietnamese army, and a Communist sleeper agent embedded in America, a place he’s both drawn to deeply and repelled by. The book is smart but fun and suspenseful, all the good stuff, which is why it won a Pulitzer Prize.

Kai Wright: I am thrilled to have Viet Thanh Nguyen join me now. When he’s not writing Pulitzer Prize winning novels, he’s a professor at USC in the English and American Studies and Ethnicity departments, where he writes academically about the Asian American immigrant experience. Viet Thanh Nguyen, welcome back to WNYC.

Viet Nguyen: Hi, Kai. Thanks for having me back.

Kai Wright: Thank you so much for writing this fabulous book.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I’m glad you like it.

Kai Wright: I do. I gather one of the things that you aim to do with the book was shift the vantage point through which we view this particular history, or this moment in global history. Americans become sort of the players rather than the subjects. We’re kind of heroes and antiheroes of every story which touches Americans, but in this one you shift that frame. Is that a correct understanding of what you were trying to do?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, absolutely. I grew up as an American, but also as a Vietnamese refugee living in the United States, and constantly exposed to the American version of the Vietnam War. But at home and in the Vietnamese community, I was hearing a different story. I realized that many Americans, probably most Americans, just had no idea how the Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans felt about this experience. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the novel.

Kai Wright: One of the really interesting parts of it to me is in fact when the South Vietnamese refugees arrive in the story, when they arrive in California. They kind of discover that they’ve become extras in their own story. Tell me about that part a little bit.

Viet Nguyen: Well, the Vietnam War was a tragedy for everyone involved. The Americans lost 58,000 plus American soldiers, but Americans tend to forget that three million Vietnamese of all sides died and three million Cambodians and Laotians died. If you look at the math, it was really a tragedy centered on Southeast Asian experience. That was certainly the way that the Vietnamese refugees felt about it, but again, when they looked around, they realized that Americans thought that this was an American war and not a Vietnamese war. That gap really added to the emotional difficulties that the Vietnamese refugees had, in adjusting to their new lives as Americans.

Kai Wright: Yeah. They kind of note that they become, sort of depending on who they’re talking to, they’re symbols. They’re either symbols of the universality of the American project or of its failure.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, and that’s what it means to be an extra, right? Even though in their own minds the Vietnamese were the stars of the show, because they suffered so much and they had lost their country, in the US they realized they were merely bit players who were going to be brought on to any kind of movie or novel or political discussion as extras who would simply buttress one of the American viewpoints on this war.

Kai Wright: Yeah. We’re going to bring in a caller to join us in this conversation with you, Viet. Lenore in Scarsdale, you’re on WNYC. Welcome.

Lenore: Hi. Good morning. As an immigrant trying to blend into the American culture, I find that you have to be two or three generations in before you really feel accepted as an American.

Kai Wright: When did you immigrate to the country, then?

Lenore: When I was 6 years old. I am 69 years old, and to this day I still feel that I don’t fit it.

Kai Wright: Wow.

Lenore: I may feel that way from Italian descent, Irish descent, English descent, you know?

Kai Wright: Where did you or your family immigrate from?

Lenore: Columbia, South America.

Kai Wright: Okay. Viet, what do you think of this idea that it takes multiple generations before you “fit in?”

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that’s probably true. Like Lenore, I migrated or I was a refugee when I was 4 years old, and I still don’t feel like I completely fit in. It was a pretty fairly common experience for first-generation and what we call 1.5 generation immigrants. Now whether or not by the second or third generation you fit in I think has a lot to do with other factors besides how long you’ve been in this country. I think that if you’re an immigrate from England, after two or three generations you can probably feel like an American and you pass as an American. You are an American.

Viet Nguyen: But for many people who are racially marked as not white, from Asia, Latin America, Africa, even after two or three generations, even though they may want to feel American, sometimes other Americans look at them and don’t see that. That does make it hard to fit in, even after that much time.

Kai Wright: We’re talking with Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of the brilliant novel The Sympathizer. We want to hear from immigrant listeners who have some thoughts about showing up in the United States and whether or not you fit in, whether or not the country is still welcoming to you, whether or not that has changed over the course of your time here. Call us at 212-433-WNYC, that’s 212-433-9693.

Kai Wright: Viet, on this question of fitting in and where you belong, one of the characters in your novel, who’s one of the narrator’s love interests, she tells him she has to define herself not just as Japanese but Japanese American, because you have to claim Americanness, Americanness is never given to you. That’s an interesting framing. What can you tell us about that? L

Viet Nguyen: I think that a lot of immigrants do feel that they have to prove their Americanness constantly. With the case of Japanese Americans, for example, the United States interned 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, even though many of them were actually second generation, third generation Americans who were born here in the United States. In times of crisis, when you’re being marked as not American for whatever reason, a lot of immigrants, for example today, Muslims, Arab Americans, feel that they constantly have to assert and to prove their Americanness in a way that other Americans, let’s say many white Americans often times, don’t have to prove their Americanness.

Kai Wright: Do you think in this moment, given the political moment we’re in, we’re having a campaign in which we are deeply debating immigration, is that making folks have to assert more or less? How is this impacting the conversation in immigrant communities, do you think?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think it depends who you’re talking about. Obviously Democrats are more welcoming I think in general to the immigrant experience. At least that’s how many immigrants feel about it. You saw that with the whole debate over the Kahn family and Donald Trump’s reaction to the Kahn family’s proclamation of their son’s heroism, dying for an American war. Depending on which politician is talking, sometimes immigrants do feel that their immigrant identity, or their claim to Americanness, is under assault and they have to assert how it is that they belong to this country and what they have done to prove that.

Kai Wright: Boris from Newark wants to join our conversation. Boris, welcome to WNYC.

Boris: Thanks for having me. Hello?

Kai Wright: Yep, we can hear you.

Boris: I came to this country from Soviet Union in 1979, and you can hear my accent. But I feel this is America for me, it is my home. I think there is a problem with immigration in general. There are people who feel that this is not a country, this is just a place to make money. So they come, they maintain a dual citizenship, and they just want to make money and go back to [inaudible 00:09:54]. In a way, I understand where Trump supporters are coming from, because, yeah, this is not really a country as it used to be.

Kai Wright: You say it’s not really a country as it used to be.

Boris: Right.

Kai Wright: Flesh that out for me. First off, when did you immigrate to the United States?

Boris: I came in ’79, and I, over this period, I see that the country has really shifted toward the third world. There’s more immigration from third world countries. There are different cultures coming. I mean, my background is Jewish. I can tell you that most Russian Jews support trump, because they’ve seen the type of neighbors they are getting right now. They are concerned. They’re concerned that this will shift the policies and they will shift this country towards the places where they came from, and they don’t want that.

Kai Wright: Viet, let me ask you about that. There are more immigrants, Boris says, coming from essentially non white countries. One, do you think that fact is true? Two, how does that fact shape the conversation about immigrants?

Viet Nguyen: Well I think it’s true, only because for a significant part of American history, during the late 19th through the middle of the 20th century, the United States, through a variety of laws, excluded immigrants from non white countries coming to the United States. So yes, we are seeing more immigrants coming from so-called third world countries, basically countries that are dominated by non white populations, but that’s only because of the opening and the democratization of American immigration laws.

Viet Nguyen: I think that, in response to Boris’s point, that newer immigrants may not feel an attachment to this country. I think we have to be historical about it. Previous generations of immigrants have also, certain numbers of them, have also tried to maintain dual allegiances to different countries as well. That hasn’t always been non white people, right? But it’s through the passage of time, it’s through the establishment of second and third generations that we see the lessening of that attachment to a country of origin.

Viet Nguyen: It’s particularly dangerous I think to argue that Jewish people are somehow going to be more assimilated into American society, versus these other populations that try to maintain dual allegiances. That whole idea of Jewish people not feeling loyalty to the country that they belong in has been a stigma against Jewish people for such a long time. We live in a globalized world, basically. Claiming a national identity is important, but we also have to recognize that being fluid, being able to move between countries, this is also potentially a plus as well, that we shouldn’t stigmatize.

Kai Wright: I guess that’s what I was going to ask. Does it matter? This whole question of allegiance and loyalty and having more than one place that you … Let’s say that all immigrants have multiple allegiances. Why do we care? Does that matter?

Viet Nguyen: No, we shouldn’t care. Actually I think it’s a strength, that people can move between countries in a globalized world. It adds to this idea that part of America’s exceptionalism is that it can actually welcome different groups of people who can build allegiances between different countries. But we shouldn’t also simply look at immigrants. I mean, the people who are actually the most nationless, in terms of their identities, are probably wealthy people. They’re the people who are moving their money to offshore tax havens, who would abandon the United States at the first opportunity, and not enough is being made to point out how the greatest pressure against national loyalty is often times being exerted by people who want the greatest access for their capital.

Kai Wright: I want to go to [Minh 00:13:36] in Brooklyn. Minh, are you there for us?

Minh: Yeah, I am.

Kai Wright: Welcome to WNYC.

Minh: Thank you for taking my call. I came to the States. I’m from Vietnam. I came to the States in ’94, when I was 1 1/2, under refugee status because my father was involved with the Vietnam War, with the Americans. Now being here and identifying as Vietnamese American, I have two points. The first one being there’s a kind of schism [inaudible 00:14:10], especially among my peers, when I have conversations with them or in class about whether or not they identify as Americans, or their affinity to that kind of nationalism. For me, at least right now, it’s hard to escape. It’s hard to not consider myself American, because of that difference between let’s say my parents, who do more identify themselves as Vietnamese.

Minh: The second, speaking about my parents, is that I think in the introduction you made, you had spoken something about the American dream. I think they were consciously aware that they were going to come to the States and that they weren’t going to experience it directly themselves, that experience was going to be given to me. However problematic the American dream is, it was mine to experience, not my parents.

Kai Wright: How do you feel about that? Is that true? Has that been the case?

Minh: I mean, I would say I have mixed feelings about it. In a way it’s yes. I’m the first person to go to college, and I’ve had opportunities that have been given to me because I’m here or that it’s available to me. At the same time, I think I look at the politics and history of race in America and how I experience race, and how I experience other people who are disadvantaged. Yeah, I’m not quite sure how equivalent or realistic the American dream is and how I have really benefited from it.

Kai Wright: Which, I wonder how your parents feel about what sounds like real ambivalence about it, given that at least how you describe it, to them the point was to give you access to this idea.

Minh: I’m sorry, could you repeat that?

Kai Wright: I wonder about your parents and how they feel about your ambivalence to the American dream, given you sort of describe that you feel like they came to give you this access to these things, but it sounds like you’re not sure you even have access to them. How do they think about it?

Minh: I mean, I think to a certain extent I do, in terms of my access to opportunities. I think they see it. I don’t know if I’m answering your question directly, but in terms of the American dream as this sort of large ideology that is promised, that if you work hard, which is the term that I think a lot of immigrants say: if you work hard, then you have access to it. I don’t know if that’s wholly true, for many cases.

Kai Wright: For people of any descent. Thank you, Minh, for that. We’re going to go to [Dimitri 00:17:25] in North Bergen, New Jersey. Dimitri, hi. Welcome to WNYC.

Dimitri: Hi. How are you doing?

Kai Wright: How are you doing, Dimitri?

Dimitri: Yeah, I’m good.

Kai Wright: Go ahead and chime in.

Dimitri: Yeah, so I’m an immigrant from Haiti. I moved here in 2007, so I’ve been here for almost 10 years. Being from Haiti, that means I’m black, but the experience has been that, considering that I’m black, I’m just considered as an African American when I’m not speaking to people, because I look black of course. There has always been a difference in where you are. When I’m in school for example, when I was in college, I was treated more like an equal person to other Americans, by the professors, by other students, and by the staff in general. But when I’m on the streets and dealing with people, the perception has been different.

Dimitri: People are always asking you about your country, where you’re from, how do you like it here. Every time somebody sees you and you talk different, they always ask you so many questions. That makes you feel like you don’t belong here, because the first thing they want to know is about where are you from and why are you here, how do you like it here, and things like that. Dealing with the police, the good thing about being an immigrant, being black, is that you’re already treated bad as a black person, so when the police sees you, they treat you as a black person. I could imagine how Hispanics are seen differently than black people by the police, or by other people in general, because as black immigrants once we are not speaking or we don’t have the accent, we are just seen as black Americans. We are just treated as bad as we would be treated if we were immigrants anyway.

Dimitri: In general, the experience as an immigrant for me has been mixed. When I’m at work, I’m seen as an immigrant, as in Haitian, and I’m not treated as good as I would be treated if I was, for example, a white person. But when I’m at the store, it’s the same. When I’m around my friends and around my neighbors, once they get to know me, they see me as one of them. Even though I am Haitian and I have an accent, I still have pretty much the same ideals as people here have, because I went to high school here, went to college here. I know the same things, and I studied the same history and everything. I really do not know as much about Haiti as I know about here, and I feel like it’s unfair to be treated differently as somebody who is from here.

Kai Wright: Thank you for that, Dimitri.

Kai Wright: Viet, one of the interesting things in your novel is that the narrator, who is a North Vietnamese spy, a Communist sleeper agent, part of it is that he’s an expert on America. He understands America better than most Americans. That is a really interesting vantage from which to talk about this. Tell me about that a little bit.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that actually may be true for a lot of immigrants and refugees. I mean, I was drawing from my own experience. We know our own culture as immigrants and refugees, but we also have to know American culture. Like Dimitri says, in order to survive in this country, you have to know American culture. You have to know what other Americans think, especially white Americans.

Viet Nguyen: We, as immigrants or refugees, have to pay attention to dominant culture in American society. That makes us much more expert about the way that the American majority works. We know much more about the American majority than the American majority knows about us. If we’re talking about American culture, there’s that vast discrepancy between the knowledges that some Americans have about American culture and what immigrants and refugees have about American culture, because we just have to be more sophisticated in order to survive.

Kai Wright: In order to claim the American part, you’ve got to know more. I want to go to Maria in Hoboken, New Jersey. Maria, welcome to WNYC. I gather that you feel American but white Americans don’t see you that way.

Maria: Yes. Hello, can you hear me?

Kai Wright: Yes.

Maria: Oh, okay. Yes. I actually immigrated here when I was 22. I’m 50 now. Nowadays, especially with the election and all that stuff, I could actually tell more or less mostly white people, they don’t say anything to me, but you could tell by the expression of their face and by the way they look at you, it’s like there’s a question mark in their expressions saying, “You don’t belong here. Why don’t you go back to the Philippines?” I don’t really feel fully accepted, but it doesn’t really bother me that much because they’re strangers. It’s people that I try and reach out to. I don’t care the color of your skin, because you’re born with it, okay? That’s just it. That’s just how you are. I reach to all kinds of races. I’m a very friendly person, and for me America is my country, even if I was born in the Philippines. I feel American.

Kai Wright: Can I ask you this, Maria? It sounds like you have young children in the background. How do you feel about the future for them? Do you feel that the opportunities, both economically and culturally, that you are here gaining in the United States, assuming you feel like you’re gaining them, are going to be available to them as well?

Maria: I really hope so. I really hope so. That’s why I really hope everybody votes, because I keep hearing a lot of people, and I do agree with them to a certain point, that the choices that we have for president, it’s the lesser of two evils. Nobody likes the two candidates. It’s amazing! To me, the election here, it’s scary, it’s exciting, it’s weird. It’s everything. That’s the reason why you are an American. You exercise your vote. Be a full American.

Kai Wright: Because it’s a chaotic process.

Maria: You know, because I love this country. Despite of the problems that we have right now, despite all that, I’d rather be here than anywhere else in the world, even my home country where I was born.

Kai Wright: Thank you, Maria.

Maria: Thank you very much.

Kai Wright: Viet, let me put that to you about the future. There is some polling that shows that if you talk to immigrants, I think particularly young immigrants, there’s way more optimism about the future, economically, culturally, in the United States, then there are if you talk to native born Americans. Are you familiar with that polling as well? What do you think about generational shifts and the differences between the way immigrants see the future here and the way others do?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I’m not surprised by that. I think it has to do as much with economics as it has to do with culture. Let’s say you’re a white person in the United States. Economically let’s say you might even be doing well, but you may feel that the future of the country is going downhill. That has not so much to do with economics as it has to do with this feeling, the sense of privilege that you’ve taken for granted. The sense that you own this country and that America is a white country, a Christian country, is being eroded by the presence of these new immigrants.

Viet Nguyen: From the perspective of new immigrants and refugees, even if they may be economically struggling, perhaps, as Maria says, there’s a sense of optimism that this country is increasingly one that is open to you because of the shifting tide of demographics. So there’s hope there, that this can really be, truly, the multicultural country that it’s always promised to be. But it’s a mixed picture.

Viet Nguyen: I go back to Minh’s comment, the Vietnamese American student, and her conflicted feelings about the American dream. I know specifically about Vietnamese Americans, that many of them are optimistic about the American dream, but some of them carry it out by going back to Vietnam to find job opportunities that they couldn’t get in the United States because of, basically, racial discrimination. So this is a world that is complex, and for some immigrants, perhaps it’s a world that’s more open. They can assimilate into American society, but they also know they have opportunities to go back to their country of origin or their parents’ countries of origin. Perhaps for some white Americans, they don’t feel that either option now exists for them.

Kai Wright: Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer and a professor at USC, it has been wonderful to have you. Thanks for joining us.

Viet Nguyen: Thanks, Kai.

Kai Wright: After this, we’ll be back with Ari Berman to discuss his new book, or his old book, on the voting rights act, Give Us the Ballot.


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