Viet Thanh Nguyen, Kao Kalia Yang, and MPR News Host Kerri Miller reflect on the novel The Displaced and Nguyen’s experience as a refugee.
In the book, “The Displaced,” novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds the reader, “These displaced persons are mostly unwanted where they fled from; unwanted where they are … in refugee camps; and unwanted where they go.” Nguyen edited the new collection of essays.
Nguyen and Kao Kalia Yang, who wrote the memoir “The Song Poet,” joined MPR News host Kerri Miller to talk about what it means to feel unwanted in your new land.
Read the transcript below:
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Kerri Miller: I’m Kerri Miller. This is MPR News. Now, what it means to seek refuge, the root of that Old French word goes back to the 1400s, when it meant to hide, to turn, and flee. Today we seem to focus less on what people are fleeing from than what and where they’re fleeing to. In a new collection of writers’ essays about living a refugee’s life, novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds, “These displaced persons are mostly unwanted where they fled from, unwanted where they are, in refugee camps, and unwanted where they go.”
Kerri Miller: So what does it mean to live untethered from the familiar? And what does it mean to feel unwanted in your new land? As our guests join us, I’d like to hear about the refugee story in your own family. Do you have grandparents or parents or relatives who fled some danger or distress to come here, to come to the United States? How do you think that shapes your family identity, that sense of who you are? So think about your family history. Think about how some of your ancestors and your relatives came here, and maybe this is back deeper in your family history, or maybe it’s much more contemporary. Talk to me about what they came from to here, and then how that shapes your sense of who you are as a family. Here’s the phone number: (651) 227-6000, (800) 242-2828. And you can make it shorter, a little briefer on Twitter. It’s @Kerri, K-E-R-R-I, MPR.
Kerri Miller: Kao Kalia Yang is with us. She’s a writer and author of the memoir, The Latehomecomer, a winner of the PEN Literary Award. She contributed an essay to this new collection called “The Displaced,” and she’s with me in the studio. Kalia, welcome. Really good to have you here.
Kao Kalia Yang: Thank you for having me.
Kerri Miller: Viet Thanh Nguyen is with us. He’s a writer. His novel, The Sympathizer, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. He’s the editor of this new collection, The Displaced, and he’s with us from LA. And Viet, welcome. It’s good to talk to you again. Thanks so much for being with us.
V.-T. Nguyen: Hi Kerri. Thanks for having me.
Kerri Miller: You say in the introduction to this collection that while it has been some time since you felt like a refugee, it’s an experience that you hold close, that you don’t want to lose. And I wonder about that because this feels like such an uncomfortable place to be.
V.-T. Nguyen: It definitely is an uncomfortable place to be. And I think American society encourages people to forget their refugee origins because we tend to think of ourselves as an immigrant society. And there really is no quicker way to kill a cocktail party conversation than to say, “I’m a refugee.” Because I think many Americans can’t relate to that, whereas they can relate to the immigrant story. So it’s easy to forget. And for someone like me, it’s important to remember precisely because of that, and precisely because my own memories begin with being a refugee in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania in 1975. And I feel that there is a mission there to recall that experience and to encourage that memory for myself so that I can feel empathy for the people who are refugees today.
Kerri Miller: I just can’t let you go on the cocktail party idea. I don’t know why that’s a conversation ender, because these are the most emotional stories that we can tell about ourselves and our families. And people are often drawn to the dramatic and the emotional in a story. So why is that where the conversation ends?
V.-T. Nguyen: Well, I think for many refugees, they’re reluctant to talk about these experiences, for one, because they’re really traumatic. My students, for example, have interviewed Southeast Asian refugees who fled the Vietnam War to come to this country, and every single one of them has a horrifying story to tell about what they’ve been through. So I think there’s a good reason for refugees, themselves, not to want to talk about these things at a cocktail party, although they will talk about these things because they know that there is a context where people understand what they’re discussing. But to talk about these experiences with strangers can be very uncomfortable because I think refugees know that strangers who have not been refugees won’t know what to make out of these experiences.
V.-T. Nguyen: As for people who are listening to these stories for the first time, it can be uncomfortable because I think people don’t know what to say. Someone tells you the honest truth, they were on a boat, for example, someone was raped, people were kidnapped, people were killed. How do you respond to that at a cocktail party? So it is actually quite a difficult conversation to have.
Kerri Miller: Kalia, is that feeling of being a refugee something that, I mean that you feel this ambivalence about too? People don’t necessarily want to hear it, but it’s an experience that is really essential, obviously, to who you are.
Kao Kalia Yang: Like Viet, I was born in a refugee camp. I spent the first six years of my life in a refugee camp. I was part of the biggest influx of Hmong into the country. And so when we came, most of us were placed in the project housing. And in other words, in other ways, it was very similar to the refugee camp experience.
Kerri Miller: Really?
Kao Kalia Yang: The transition was not as big as a lot of people I think would have liked to believe. It’s such an important part of my identity. It is a story that my mother and father, so many of my elders don’t have the words to express in English. And so, in many ways I’m super stubborn, and so I want to be to the world what my mother and father have been. I don’t want to be divorced from that experience of pain and war. And I’m not. On my arm, I have the very same smallpox scar that my mom has, that my grandma was given by the French. These things, they live on inside of us. And like Viet, I think it’s incredibly important, especially at this point in our history, to speak to the realities that we come from and the lives that we’re living here.
Kerri Miller: When you say that leaving the refugee camp and coming to the projects initially, there was more familiarity about that than people would think-
Kao Kalia Yang: Definitely.
Kerri Miller: Because of the isolation? Why?
Kao Kalia Yang: On many different levels. In the refugee camps, the first white people I saw were the ones who came with the Bibles, the missionaries. In the housing projects, the buses that came to pick us up on Saturday and Sunday were the same people who came with Bibles in their hands. It was the Mormons who knocked at our doors. These interactions were not so different at all.
Kerri Miller: A call here from Randy in Duluth. Hi Randy. You have family, relatives who have come from somewhere else?
Randy: Of course. Most of us in America do. My ancestors came from Norway and Germany, fleeing both really difficult poverty and violence in Germany, and ended up coming here in the 1850s and ’60s, but then participated in the dispossession of the Dakota by being able to be the first homesteaders in the Dakota homeland after the so-called Dakota uprising or war. And so, I think it’s important to remember, also in America, our founding story created refugees by design, in terms of dispossessing native people. And we still really haven’t figured out how to come to terms with that very well.
Kerri Miller: I think that is really well said, and Kalia, represents the complexity of … And as Randy says, the fact that we have kind of an amnesia about that with the founding.
Kao Kalia Yang: Yes. Yeah. Definitely. Viet has written about it and spoken about it, and as have I. It is entirely too true. We are still a country confronting each other, this idea of who belongs and who doesn’t, the fact that when so many Minnesotans and Americans look at me, they don’t see an American. The question is, “Where do you come from?” If I say Minnesota, they say, “No, where do you come from?”
Kerri Miller: As in, there’s more to this story and-
Kao Kalia Yang: Exactly. And they want me to say Hmong, and then they don’t know what Hmong is. Most Americans don’t know what Hmong is. And then it forces an unleashing of the story that I have contained within for so long.
Kerri Miller: Viet, what is this, “Where do you come from? No, where do you really come from?” We’re a nation of many different faces and many different stories, and I’m puzzled as to why we still need that as of the part of the conversation.
V.-T. Nguyen: Well, technically, if someone were to say, where do I come from, for example, yes, I was born in Vietnam, so I did come from somewhere else. But it’s an insulting kind of question because oftentimes it’s directed indiscriminately at anybody who looks Asian, for example, or non-white. Some of these people have been here for many generations. And so there’s always the insinuation or the assumption behind the question that the person who’s being interrogated is inevitably going to be from somewhere else, born somewhere else, or even if they were born here, the origins of their parents or grandparents are actually more important.
V.-T. Nguyen: And I think that the reason why that question is asked is because many people assume that the United States is a white country, and that if you came from somewhere else, from a European country, for example, from a generation or two ago, that doesn’t really matter. But if it’s Asia or Latin America or Africa, than it really does matter. So there is an important right to, or a need, as Kalia is saying, to assert that you are from here even if possibly you were born somewhere else. Because now I’m a citizen. I speak perfect English. I possibly speak better English than a lot of other Americans who have been born here. So what does it take for me to claim that I am from here when pretty much most of my identity and my stakes as a writer, as a citizen, are here in this country?
Kerri Miller: Yeah. You know what I was wondering when you were talking about needing to hang on to that refugee experience is how your parents might feel about that. Sacrificed, feeling they had no choice but to leave, and wanting you to be, I would think as American as … to validate the sacrifice. How would they feel about this sense that it is really essential for you to hang on to that refugee essence?
V.-T. Nguyen: Well, my parents were actually refugees twice. And it’s actually not unusual for people to be refugees multiple times. So they fled from the North of Vietnam to the South of Vietnam when the country was divided in 1954. Fled again to the United States in 1975. And of course, it’s very human thing to want to belong. It’s also a very human thing to want to remember origins and experiences. So it’s completely possible for people to embody both those things. So when I was growing up, for example, my parents would say to me, “We are 100% Vietnamese.” And then in the early ’90s when they were finally able to go back to Vietnam after about 20 years, they went twice, and then after the second time, they came back, and over Thanksgiving, my father said to me, “We are Americans now.”
V.-T. Nguyen: So this ambivalence is there, right? So of course they’ve invested everything in raising a Vietnamese American family and all of that, but I think that they do take … They recognize that they’re refugees. And if they don’t want to foreground that, the fact is that my work has foregrounded that, and they take pride in that. And many Vietnamese refugees and Vietnamese Americans have taken pride in what I do because they acknowledge it … Even if they might want to forget that refugee origins, when their stories are told, those refugee stories are told, they find that to be enormously resonant, enormously powerful because they know that those refugee stories have been erased deliberately in American society and American history, and of course they want those stories to be known.
Kerri Miller: So Kalia, how does that happen in your family?
Kao Kalia Yang: First, Viet, not just Vietnamese Americans, we Southeast Asians are super proud of you. It’s very exciting.
V.-T. Nguyen: Thank you.
Kao Kalia Yang: It’s very exciting that you’re foregrounding this experience that unites us and ties us all together.
Kao Kalia Yang: For my mom and dad, it’s very similar to what Viet said. We live in Minnesota, a state that’s predominantly white, but we live in a state that has more refugees per capita than any other state in the nation. It’s an incredible part of the identity of the state and our placement in the country. I think, as their daughter, my father once said to me, “[inaudible 00:13:07] your work will go beyond your gender. It will go beyond your people. It is for a bigger humanity. Remember this.” It is that work that I’m after, and it is an incredibly important part of the story of humanity.
Kao Kalia Yang: We live in a country, in a world, that is increasingly … We’re creating more and more refugees all the time. So the story isn’t a story in my past. It isn’t a story in Viet’s past. It is very much a story of what is happening right here, right now, in the foreseeable future, with the direction that our current administration is going. My mom and dad want me to engage with the bigger world, on the terms of that world, with everything that I am. And that includes the fact that I am a refugee child born in a refugee camp, a stateless being for the first six years of my life. And eventually, I was 18 when I became an American citizen. And so, for half of my life, I have been stateless.
Kerri Miller: I was reading something that you wrote for the On Being website, I think it was last summer, about seeing your father age and what he would tell you about what it is to be here. And you wrote, “In the car, on the small streets, on the fast highways, my father cautioned to me, he said, ‘Drive slowly. You go too fast. Why are you always in a hurry? Calm your raging heart.’ He said, ‘Be careful when you speak. Think about your words first, not only what they say, but what they do not say. Your words can wait.’ And then he said, ‘Tread lightly. You’re a guest in this country.'” Does he still believe that, for American citizens since the age of 18-
Kao Kalia Yang: For all our practical purposes, it is incredibly true. I am a guest in this country. How many talks have I attended where somebody inevitably gets up when I speak Hmong, the [foreign language 00:14:56], the language that I was born to, and tell me, “Go home”? It’s hard to feel like this is my world when continually I’m told to find another place, somewhere that doesn’t exist.
Kao Kalia Yang: It’s an important political fight for me, a personal fight for me to belong, particularly in Minnesota. But in all sectors of … not just my life, but the life of my relatives, my elders, I see that we’re guests here. And on a different level, we’re spiritual guests here. When we die, we will return to the land of our ancestors, wherever that is, right? This Hmong mountain in our hearts. There, a home is waiting. There, a dinner is prepared. There, the people who love us, once we swing open that door, they’ll ask, “Why are you so late in coming home?”
Kerri Miller: Viet, do you feel, does your family feel like you are a guest in the country? And what are the implications of that?
V.-T. Nguyen: I don’t think that’s been necessarily my family’s experience, but I think you have to understand that Vietnamese immigrants, Vietnamese refugees, Vietnamese Americans, have had quite a different experience than the Hmong have had in this country, because many of the Vietnamese American population now today come from very privileged classes in Vietnam. And of course, in Southeast Asia, Vietnam is the dominant country, and the Hmong are a minority that are discriminated against.
V.-T. Nguyen: Now, all that being said, I think what Kalia has mentioned is true for a lot of people, that there is still many people in this country who would look at people like her and like me, and think that we don’t belong here in this country, that this is not our home. So, on the one hand, that compels a very immediate response, a very pragmatic response, which is, “Of course this is our home. We live here, we pay taxes, etc.” So we have to claim the United States as home. But there’s another response beyond that. And I think that’s a more utopian response, which is, “Let’s redefine home. Why is home only the nation? Why are we constricted by these borders?” Because if we say, “This is home and only certain kinds of people belong here,” well, we’re going to make other people homeless as a result.
V.-T. Nguyen: So I think part of the work that we do around refugees, is to draw attention to the limitations of this idea of home, and to think of a more utopian future where national borders are less important, where the entire world can be home, where people can have multiple homes, and where one definition of home doesn’t mean excluding everybody else from coming here. And that’s what I find powerful about the experiences of refugees is that, yes, they have a desperate desire to belong somewhere, but their very experience should tell us something about how limited our notions of what a nation is and what a home is.
Kerri Miller: Viet Thanh Nguyen is one of our guests, if you’ve tuned into the conversation. He is the editor of a new collection called The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugees’ Lives. And Kao Kalia Yang is with us. She contributed an essay to this collection. And we’re talking about the experiences, and the ideas, and the ideals that come to bear on this idea of what it means to be from somewhere else, to have this in our family histories, to have this deep in our own hearts, and how that shapes your experience of the American identity and how that shapes your family identity as well.
Kerri Miller: I’m interested, if you’ve been through this, if you have relatives, maybe contemporary family members who have recently arrived to the United States, or this goes deeper back into your family history, someone who fled somewhere else, came here, how does that shape how you think about who you are as an American and as a member of your family? (800) 242-2828, (651) 227-6000. On Twitter, @KerriMPR, where Patrick says: “It goes back to the beginning of New England. The pilgrims were displaced people in the Netherlands before founding Plymouth Colony in 1620. It should always be part of our national consciousness.”
Kerri Miller: To Chuck in Embarrass, hi Chuck.
Kerri Miller: What are you thinking about here?
Chuck: Well, I’m afraid to say that I’m one of those people who say, “Where are you from?” But it’s not from some desire to condemn anyone, or put somebody down, or make them feel like they’re the other. It’s because I’m fascinated with the immigrant stories. I find the immigrant stories to be compelling. And I feel that immigrants could save America. So I guess I’m interested from your guests, so what should I say? Because I really want to know where you’re from. I want to know your story.
Kerri Miller: Kalia?
Kao Kalia Yang: I think part of being at home with each other in a very real and authentic sense is the willingness to ask the things that we want to know. I have never been in a situation where I didn’t know, “Where are you from,” where the intention is behind that question, which is to say that, often when there’s true, sincere curiosity and care and interest, I can hear it, I can see it. That conversation is entirely different from the one that leads to, eventually, “What are you doing here?” So I’ve been answering that question for a long time from many different people.
Kao Kalia Yang: We’re just fresh from the Minnesota Book Awards here in Minnesota, and it’s easy to feel the love in that room when I get up on that stage. And a lot of that love comes from people like you, people who believe that maybe in the heart of me, there is some light into the future we’re heading toward, this idea of a more beautiful possibility. And so, questions like that, when they’re coming with that kind of intention and that kind of heart, is really an opportunity to learn. And Viet and myself, we’re both teachers as well as writers. We engage. We always engage, to our detriment sometimes. But it is the follow-ups that tell us … that usually try to position us in a place, in a space that won’t do us any good.
Kerri Miller: Chuck, are you still there?
Chuck: I am still here [crosstalk 00:21:23]-
Kerri Miller: How does that sound to you?
Chuck: I had a hard time hearing. For some reason, the connection was [crosstalk] for me.
Kerri Miller: Kalia was saying when the question comes from genuine curiosity and heart, and she knows when she’s seeing that, that she welcomes those questions.
Chuck: Okay, great. Great.
Kerri Miller: All right?
Chuck: Well, I’ll keep asking. Because I’m all for immigration. And again, I think that immigrants make this country stronger. And it’s a really upsetting time to live right now, I mean, our current time, and all the anti-immigrant fervor-
Kerri Miller: It’s a good moment for this conversation. Viet, do you want to say something else about this, “Where are you from,” and what it means?
V.-T. Nguyen: Well, I think Kalia is absolutely right. I mean, I’ve actually had many conversations with people who want to know where I’m from, and Vietnamese language and customs, and my name, and all that kind of stuff. And I try try to be generous towards those people because sometimes I’ve felt myself in the same situation. I’ll encounter someone whose name I can’t fully pronounce and I’m curious about where they’re from, etc. So if I’m going to ask people those kinds of questions, I need to be generous towards people when those questions are being asked of me.
V.-T. Nguyen: But Kalia is absolutely right that we can tell when people are being friendly, they’re being curious, versus when there’s a little bit of hostility or microaggression happening. Because if we, in fact, say, “I’m from here,” and then someone else says, “Where are you really from,” then we know there’s some hostility there. And I think that if you are the questioner and someone tells you, “I’m from this country, I’m from the United States,” you should respect it. They’re trying to send you a signal. And you should listen. And then at that point, it requires spending a little more time with that person to make them feel comfortable and let them know that, as Chuck is saying, that you are actually genuinely committed to a more open country where people can come from different origins, and then that will probably make the conversation go better.
Kerri Miller: I want to take a call here, since I want to talk about assimilation here, from Tim in Plymouth. HI Tim. It sounds like my use of the word kind of triggered a reaction from you, and I’m so glad you called. What are you thinking about?
Tim: Yeah. Well, so I’m not an immigrant … or, excuse me, I’m not a refugee. I’m a first-generation American. My parents came over from Mexico. But for me, assimilation meant to forget or to disregard that aspect of me so I could fit in and be accepted among my community. And so that word triggers me in the sense that it’s what caused the loss of my cultural significance. So I spoke Spanish until I was eight years old, but the school system where I’m from really thought that it was causing speech impediments and learning disabilities for me. And I stopped completely. And ever since then, I remember not having a passion for learning, as I did when I was young.
Kerri Miller: It sounds like, Tim, that this idea of assimilation in your own life felt like surrendering something that was pretty essential to who you were.
Tim: Yeah. And it still is essential to who I am, but now it doesn’t carry the weight. Now I still feel like an other in my community. So even when I’m among my family that does still speak Spanish, I still feel like an outsider. And then when I’m in the community that I grew up in, I’m still an outsider because of the color of my skin.
Kerri Miller: I’m really glad you heard the show, Tim, and you had a chance to call, because you’ve kind of spoken to everything that I think is so complicated about the idea of assimilation. Viet, I know that this is a loaded word. And as I said a few minutes ago, it’s not always a very generous concept of what “to be assimilated” means, right, in the eye of the beholder. What do you think of that word?
V.-T. Nguyen: Well, I think the experience that Tim described is an awful one. It’s an either/or game. “You can become 100% American and we’ll accept you. And if you retain any element of wherever you came from or your parents came from, then you’re an outsider.” And if you do that as an immigrant, you pay a price. You pay the price because you’re alienated from your parents’ culture or even from your own culture, and you’re alienated because the people who demand 100% assimilation from you are doing so with harshness and suspicion, and you feel that.
V.-T. Nguyen: And so, I don’t know if assimilation is the right word or integration is the right word. We can have debates over words and everything, but for me, the real issue is, can people become a part of this American society and still retain the mixture of identities and heritages and languages that made their families and their parents who they are? Can they bring them into this country? Can they demand … not demand, but I mean, can they challenge other Americans to recognize that all of these things can be a part of the country as well, and blend them together?
V.-T. Nguyen: And that’s a very difficult thing, because … And I think, honestly, race is a serious barrier, because people, white people generally don’t have a problem with bringing in European differences and integrating them into American society. But if we’re talking about Mexican or Vietnamese or Hmong differences, all of a sudden it becomes much more challenging, and especially if those of us from these other kinds of countries are speaking up and speaking out. We’re expected to be quiet, to assimilate ourselves into American society, and not to challenge American society, even though that’s an American right to do so.
V.-T. Nguyen: So I’ll just give you one anecdote. After The Sympathizer was published, a very well-educated white man from one of these Midwest cities wrote to me and said, “You seem to hate America. Why don’t you take your son and go back to Vietnam?”
Kerri Miller: What?
V.-T. Nguyen: Yeah. So these sentiments exist, and they’re not … And like I’m saying, I’m pointing out, this guy was a dentist. He was a doctor. He’s educated. He was a Vietnam vet. So these sentiments are alive out there.
Kerri Miller: Oh, wow. I mean, so that story really sets me back, Kalia, because, as I said, I think the perception of what it means to be assimilated is not always generous from people. But I also expect that we’re in a more, I thought, a more sophisticated idea of what it means to be American, that you can hang on to your culture and your language, and that we are big enough for that.
Kao Kalia Yang: I think that’s what many people want to believe. When we learn about Martin Luther King Jr., for example, we only learn of his great speeches, the light that he held. We don’t learn about necessarily everything that happened to him, or the process of him getting to the speeches. For me, I’m so held up, caught up, holding on to mere survival still, for the survival not of just myself, but my community, for the many other communities that comprise the people I love, that assimilation is something that, for me, is linked to survival. And so, for me. It’s an either/or situation. I remember the past-
Kerri Miller: Did you say it is an either/or?
Kao Kalia Yang: It isn’t for me.
Kerri Miller: It is not, no.
Kao Kalia Yang: It’s a survival mechanism. I need assimilation in order to survive in this country-
Kerri Miller: I see.
Kao Kalia Yang: … to not carry only myself, but this big ship that I’m a part of, over. I think about the dangers of assimilation when I think about my children. And I know Viet has a young one as well. Will they remember? Will they be able to harness the wisdom and the stories and the traditions that are a part of them, into this world that we’re a part of? Because right now, I have no trouble going back and navigating, I have no trouble navigating here in America in terms of language, in terms of culture. And I’m in an interracial relationship. And so for me, assimilation isn’t dangerous yet. It can be. Does that make sense?
Kerri Miller: Yeah, it does.
Kao Kalia Yang: And that is so much of the reason why I write and why I speak. That’s why I engage so thoroughly and so holistically in this endeavor.
Kerri Miller: Viet, you have young kids too, don’t you?
V.-T. Nguyen: Yes. My son is almost five.
Kerri Miller: So how do you-
V.-T. Nguyen: So I think a lot about these issues.
Kerri Miller: Yeah. So when you think about how you will explain this, or how your son will experience this, what do you want for him on that?
V.-T. Nguyen: Well, I don’t want him to grow up in some fantasy world of assimilation where everything is cool and he can become an American, and he doesn’t know what happened to his parents and his grandparents. So for example, he’s almost five, he loves LEGOs, right? I don’t always give him the LEGOs because you shouldn’t give your kids everything they ask for. And then when I ask him, “Do you know why you’re not getting LEGOs,” he’ll think about it for a moment, and he’ll say, “Because you’re a refugee?” And that’s right. He knows [crosstalk 00:30:20]-
Kerri Miller: Wait a minute, that is the right answer?
V.-T. Nguyen: That is the right answer. Yes.
Kerri Miller: Is it?
V.-T. Nguyen: Yes. And he knows the word “refugees,” he knows what that experience is about. And that’s a good thing. It’s not like I’m going to fully expose him to all the horrors that refugees have been through, but he knows the concept, and he knows that means to be homeless and to be unwanted, and to see these people … We were in Paris when I taught him that, on the streets of Paris.
V.-T. Nguyen: So we need to be able to cultivate this knowledge in our children about all the complexities of who we are as a country, and as individual cultures, and so on. I believe we can do it. It’s a more challenging task, but it’s a task that, if we seriously accept the idea that America is changing and needs to change, that we as parents are the ones who have to have these conversations with our children.
Kao Kalia Yang: Exactly. Our children are the next generations of Americans. And that is incredible. I mean, my daughter is four and a half, and we had that conversation in the bathroom. Because I was listening to a Hmong song, [foreign language 00:31:17], “Because You’re So Far Away,” and she says, “Why are they far away if they love each other?” And I’m like, “Because they’re refugees, like me, I never met my grandma. She was far away. And although I loved her, I could never be with her.” And so it is so much already a part of their lives and a part of our lives. But we cannot trust the natural transmission. Like Viet, I think we have to engage in those conversations wherever we are.
Kerri Miller: Because think about it, your children will grow up that much more distant just by the nature of generations, right-
Kao Kalia Yang: Exactly.
Kerri Miller: … from this experience. Viet, I’m curious about whether you answered that letter, and what you said if you did.
V.-T. Nguyen: I didn’t answer that letter. You know why? Because when The Sympathizer first came out and I wrote an op-ed for The New York Times, and I got another angry … I got my first angry letter from an American veteran of the Vietnam War, and he was filled with rage about his experience and about me as a Vietnamese person speaking up about this. And he basically wrote a letter that I’ve received many times, saying, “You’re ungrateful. We sacrificed for you. You should be grateful.” And so I wrote him back a letter actually, and I said, “You seem to be full of rage and anger. And it’s not hurting me, it’s hurting you, because you haven’t dealt with your past.” And then he wrote me back another letter, even angrier than the first one.
V.-T. Nguyen: So that’s why, when I get these letters, I just can’t respond, because I don’t think we’re going to have a productive conversation. And instead, I try to have these much larger conversations over the radio, or writing op-eds and things like that, with the knowledge that perhaps it’s difficult to change generations. Sometimes we have to focus on, not the older generation, but the generation now and the generation that’s coming up, in the hopes that we can actually change the future.
Kerri Miller: But you used an important word there, when he said that he doesn’t think you’re grateful. This kind of goes back to this idea of Kalia’s father saying, “Never forget you’re a guest in this country.” I think the idea of assimilation for a lot of Americans, includes a big element of gratitude. I don’t know why. I mean, it’s because I don’t think refugees meet a whole lot of generosity, in many cases, in this country. So what is there to really be grateful for? But Kalia, I’m interested in your thoughts on that.
Kao Kalia Yang: One of the most interesting things that I learned at a very young age in America is that Americans like “thank you.” When you go to the church basements-
Kerri Miller: Americans like “thank you”? Yeah.
Kao Kalia Yang: They like “thank you,” yeah. When you go to the church basements and you sift through and you find a pair of pants or a shirt, you have to say “thank you.” Or when they come and pick you up, like I say, for Bible study, although you know nothing about the Christian God and all of that history, they want you to say “thank you.” America forgets it is always harder to receive than it is to give. And I think that is the challenge when we talk about the word gratitude. You forget, you think that you’re doing something so good, you’re helping the world, you forget that it is harder to receive than it is to give. America and Americans like to give. They don’t like to receive.
V.-T. Nguyen: I’ll add one more thing to that, which is I think that people expect gratitude, it’s not just Americans, it’s other host countries too, they expect gratitude, partially because the gratitude of refugees helps people in host countries to forget that perhaps they had a hand in creating the conditions that brought these refugees to this country in the first place.
V.-T. Nguyen: So if we’re talking about Southeast Asia, yes, there was a war fought in Southeast Asia in which the United States was at least partially responsible, that helped to create the conditions for refugees. And so, on the one hand, the United States may have a moral obligation to help people fleeing from these countries. And on the other hand, this idea of gratitude means that Americans do not have to think about the war that brought the refugees here in the first place.
Kerri Miller: But how do you think that applies to the current … And I don’t want to say that all Americans feel this way, but as you know, Viet and Kalia, there’s a lot of anger and ambivalence about how many Syrian refugees we’re going to bring in, how many people, I mean, how many people we’re … I don’t even know if it’s so much, “We played a role in that,” as it’s, “I have mine, and if you get some …” the zero sum game thing.
Kao Kalia Yang: In America, I think as a country, and this is particularly … I’m speaking to the American context, is very scared that if people come in, we will stop being ourselves. There’s a-
Kerri Miller: Right.
Kao Kalia Yang: The thing I know for a fact, if the Hmong experiment, experience has taught the world anything, it is that you do not need to belong to one country to be one people. There are Hmong everywhere now, Germany, Canada, the US, French Guiana, France, all over the world. We do not need to be one country to be one people. There are stronger things that were holding us together. We don’t trust that yet in America.
Kerri Miller: Viet, there’s a writer, Reyna Grande, I don’t know if I’m pronouncing her name right there, an essay in the collection called “The Parent Who Stays,” about her parents leaving Mexico, crossing illegally, and then returning for her and her siblings when she was eight. And she writes, “What all displaced people have most in common, regardless of where we come from, regardless if we are official refugees or illegal immigrants, is our trauma, the trauma that propels us to this land and the traumatic experiences that await us.” We have just a couple minutes left in the conversation, Viet, but would there be more generosity and more acceptance if that was part of our understanding of what this means to leave your country and come here? I was so glad that was part of the collection, by the way.
V.-T. Nguyen: Yeah, of course. And I invited Reyna specifically to raise the issue of, why are some people classified as undocumented immigrants, for example, versus refugees, when a lot of the people who are coming from south of the border north into the United States, are fleeing real wars or drug wars in which the United States has had a hand, right? But we don’t want to call them refugees because that would entail certain kinds of rights for them.
V.-T. Nguyen: But of course, yes, if we knew the human stories of these undocumented immigrants or these refugees, I would hope that we would have more empathy and sympathy for them. But it’s precisely because of the fact that they are refugees, that they don’t have any access to the means of storymaking that the rest of Americans have, that it’s easier to see them as alien, to see them from the outside, and not to take that extra step to empathize with them and to imagine what their trajectories have been like and what their stories have been like.
V.-T. Nguyen: That’s why, again, I hang on to my refugee experience, because I don’t want to forget it. I want to feel empathy. I need to feel empathy as a writer, and I need to feel empathy for refugees in order to be able to try to help them tell their stories.
Kerri Miller: Kalia?
Kao Kalia Yang: I agree completely with Viet. I’ve always felt that there was no difference between the heaviness of my father’s shoulders and all of the shoulders of the Mexican men working in the fancy restaurants in New York City. I’ve seen in their hands the same roughness. I felt the same heart, flesh. And so for me, there is so much similarity, so much familiarity in our traumas. So I think Reyna put it beautifully. And Viet spoke very directly about the issue.
Kerri Miller: Hey, good to have you both on the show. Thanks so much for the time and the insight.
V.-T. Nguyen: Thank you so much, Kerri.
Kao Kalia Yang: Thank you.
Kerri Miller: Viet Thanh Nguyen is the editor of The Displaced. Kao Kalia Yang is the author of The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, and she contributed an essay to the collection. It’s called The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. And you can read more about it on the thread.