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Vietnam's legacy of childhood displacement

We Should Never Meet Stories Aimee Phan St. Martin's Press: 246 pp., $22.95

September 29, 2004|Carmela Ciuraru | Special to The Times

The Vietnam War, along with themes of abandonment and dislocation, are among the links in "We Should Never Meet," a collection of eight stories by Aimee Phan, a 26-year-old Orange County native who now lives and teaches in Las Vegas.

From the first story, "Miss Lien," about a young Vietnamese woman giving up her infant to an orphanage run by Catholic nuns, to the final piece, "Motherland," Phan explores the challenges displaced children face in achieving a secure sense of family, identity and home. The author probes these issues within the context of the war and its horrendous, messy aftermath.

Many of her stories follow the lives of children evacuated from Vietnam during Operation Babylift before the fall of Saigon. During the war, thousands of babies were born and abandoned, many of them the mixed-race sons and daughters of American GIs.

Operation Babylift sent these children to various countries, mostly the United States. The displacement and subsequent bureaucracy of the foster care system did little to help these children cope with feelings of rejection and alienation, and with perpetually being outsiders, no matter where they were.

Despite experiencing moments of tenderness and connection, Phan's characters in these intertwined stories are mostly damaged souls, struggling to reconcile the past with the present, often in self-destructive ways.

For some, the past is best left untouched. In the title story, a troubled Vietnamese-American orphan, Kim, and her gang-member boyfriend Vinh, whom she met in foster care, are now living in Orange County's Little Saigon. The couple want no reminder of the past, and resent others' efforts to get them reacquainted with it.

"People never tire of asking her," Phan writes of Kim, " 'Don't you want to know about your American father? You look so much like him. Maybe he's looking for you. Maybe he wants you. Maybe he's rich.' "

At least outwardly, Kim and Vinh are defiant and tough, refusing to accept any sense of vulnerability or feelings of loss: "Kim wasn't like the other orphans. Neither was Vinh. They never cried at night thinking about their missing/dead/runaway parents. They didn't create elaborate excuses for their absence. Their parents were gone. And there was nothing they could do to change that."

Elsewhere, Phan examines the difficulties of assimilation. In "Visitors," a character named Bac Nguyen is on his way to his granddaughter's birthday. Carrying an unwieldy load of groceries, he thinks of how "[f]ood markets in the States used disposable plastic sacks for groceries, instead of the sturdy cardboard boxes provided in Vietnam. The meat and vegetables strained against the flimsy material."

Bac leads an immigrant's lonely existence -- aware of the ways he does not fit in, yet unwilling to change his old-world customs. Wearing a suit to the supermarket, Bac feels the stares of the employees and customers: "They must have believed him such a foolish old man, an obvious new refugee. They probably knew this was the first time he had ventured out to Little Saigon alone. He avoided the checker's eyes as she rang up the items at the register, his shame was so great."

In "Emancipation," a teenager named Mai compensates for the upheaval she has experienced as a refugee by excelling academically. In a college admissions essay, she describes her harrowing journey to the United States: "When I was five years old, I was smuggled on a boat with forty-eight other refugees to escape Vietnam. We spent three weeks on the open sea, nearly starving .... I arrived in America with no family, no money, and no home." She knows that playing up her "orphan child" identity will be more persuasive to admissions officials, though she feels somewhat guilty for having gained a sense of stability. After being placed into a home when she was 9, "she was allowed a childhood, unlike her former foster brothers and sisters. Ultimately good, but not when you're trying to get into an Ivy League school."

Each of the characters in "We Should Never Meet" must reckon with loss. And in their own way, they all must summon the resilience to shape a better future for themselves. Some are luckier than others, but all are marked by the scars of the past. Phan charts their difficult journeys with acuity and sensitivity, and a wisdom that is remarkable for such a young writer.

Carmela Ciuraru is the editor of four anthologies of poetry as well as "Motherhood: Poems About Mothers" forthcoming from Alfred A. Knopf.

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