“Saigon was still deep in denial of the devastation taking place elsewhere in the country. As long as there were still parties and social banquets, there was hope. Each day we said good-bye to some of my mother’s friends as they left.”
Survival in a harsh environment is difficult enough when you’re prepared, but it’s more of a challenge when misfortune and unwarranted hardship is thrown your way again and again. That’s the story Kien Nguyen tells in his memoir, The Unwanted: A memoir of Childhood, about growing up following the end of the Vietnam War.
His story begins with his privileged life in a gated mansion in Nha Trang — the son of a Vietnamese businesswoman and an American father who did not stay. Kien did not understand early on that being half-Vietnamese could lead to problems down the road.
As the North Vietnamese army moved south in 1972, Kien and his family, along with their friends Mr. and Mrs. Dang, fled to Saigon in an effort to escape the last days of the war — they had passports to be evacuated in case of emergency. Even as they were given information unavailable to the public via Mr. Dang’s military connections, they waited too long to evacuate and became stranded in Saigon as the North Vietnamese took control. They attempted escape multiple times, but failed each time, with one costing Mr. Dang his life.
With his pregnant mother, pregnant au pair Loan, younger brother Jimmy, and grandparents, Kien was forced to survive under the new Vietnamese government that considered the family traitors and half-breeds. The family was forced back to their vandalized home in Nha Trang, but were not offered any jobs or assistance — they were even forced from the home to live next to Kien’s aunt and her family, who treated them as undesirable neighbors. They had lost everything: their fortune, home, friends, and ability to work. And with that, Kien had lost part of his memory. “Through the broken wall and the fallen vines, the house stood empty and ruined under the bright sun. In my mind the snapshots of memory paraded as in a dream.”
Kien and his family face one hardship after another over the years. Every time a glimpse of hope arises, another tragedy befalls them. Through it all, however, they manage to survive. His mother finds meager methods to keep her children from starving; although it is not explicitly mentioned, there is a hint that she is selling herself to survive.
The narrative portrays Kien’s innocence at the time he began the journey through Vietnam’s new government realities. Over time, he becomes more realistic and even angry toward those in power. The subtle changes in the narrative voice parallel Kien’s age, education, and experience during the years following the fall of Saigon.
Despite a lack of educational opportunities, he studies enough to show promise, but also to become a possible problem. He educated himself to the point that he was able to send letters to US embassy in Bangkok to apply for refugee status as a half-American. It wasn’t until 1985 that Kien and his family were able to leave Vietnam.
The Unwanted is a story of Vietnam that most people have never heard — the hardships of those who had to stay despite American promises. Though they don’t play any significant role, Nguyen writes about other mixed-race children in Nha Trang and the lives they are forced to lead. Some of what Nguyen writes in his memoir is similar to points Viet Thanh Nguyen alludes to in The Sympathizer — the narrator’s friend informs him that things aren’t as great as promised under the communist government and that the narrator is no longer welcome in his home.
Nguyen’s memoir is a worthwhile companion for those interested in understanding different perspectives on the Vietnam War and its aftermath. I’d suggest reading it along with The Sympathizer and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.