Pulitzer Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen recalls his immigrant experience

Viet Thanh Nguyen recounts his memory of the Vietnamese grocery store his parents owned in this essay for CBS News.

Author Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016 with his debut novel, “The Sympathizer.” Nguyen was only 4 years old when he and his family escaped the Vietnam War for the United States. With this original essay, he recounts his memories of that time, and what they tell us about America today.

I’m a refugee and the son of refugees.
I grew up in San Jose, California.
From my bedroom window, I saw the entrance ramp to the freeway.
I wondered where all those cars were going
and wanted to go with them.
When I look out my window now, almost forty years later,
I see a garden and the tops of towering trees
And I know this green view wouldn’t be possible
without my parents.
Like many refugees, they were human sacrifices.
They risked their lives to flee a war-torn country
Viet Nam
And then gave of themselves in this new country
So their children would not have to risk their lives
Or sacrifice themselves.
 
This is where they labored
On Santa Clara Street of downtown San Jose,
In a grocery store they called the Sàigòn Mới.
I never questioned why my parents didn’t translate
Sàigòn Mới. They were Vietnamese.
We were Vietnamese. Our language was Vietnamese.
By not translating
They proclaimed who they were
Where they came from
And their hope that their store would indeed
Be a new Saigon.
 
Refugees and immigrants become American
By buying property, putting their language on it,
And making everyone see it.
My parents were insisting that some part of themselves
Would not be changed. Their sign, in public,
Called out to Vietnamese refugees to build
A new community here, where we would change
the United States as much
As it would change us.
 
The Sàigòn Mới was a gesture of pride, self-determination,
And defiance. And for that my parents paid a price.
A robber shot them in their store on Christmas Eve.
Two policemen would be killed in front of their store.
Downtown San Jose was a tough place to do business.
The only people who wanted to open businesses there
were the Vietnamese.
 
And one day, walking down the street,
I saw a sign in another store window:
Another American
Driven Out of Business by the
Vietnamese
 
This person hated my parents and the other Vietnamese
because of who they were.
But this person didn’t understand: the business of America
Is to drive other businesses out of business.
 
The Vietnamese brought business to downtown San Jose,
and to the entire city. They made the city better, and greater.
That’s why we need immigrants and refugees.
And not just Vietnamese immigrants and refugees, some of whom now fret
over new immigrants and new refugees.
Once the objects of fear, these Vietnamese now fear others
and don’t want to give them the same opportunities they had.
It is sad to see.
 
We should embrace new immigrants and refugees.
In thirty or forty years, one of their children will be writing
the exact same thing about their parents
that I am writing now.
What was once foreign and strange
will be part of American culture.
They will be so successful
that what they built might be built over.
 
That’s what happened to the Sàigòn Mới.
The new City Hall was built across the street and
The city forced my parents to sell their property
So a symphony could be built there. Instead a parking lot
stood there for many years, until the city finally gave up
and sold to a condo developer for many millions of dollars.
My parents never saw that money.
America!
 
The Sàigòn Mới was how my parents
survived, suffered, and thrived.
And became Americans. And raised their sons.
And sent money home for many years to many relatives.
It has disappeared from the landscape,
but not from my memory or my stories.

Category: Interviews

 

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