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31 Days of Stories 2021, Day 24: “The Americans” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

From The Refugees

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Very few theoretical concepts have been as misunderstood as the notion of the global village. First coined by Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan in the early 1960s, and popularized in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962) and Understanding Media (1964), the term originally referred to a move away from books and toward electronic, sound, and visual technologies that represented a break with Renaissance learning and the dominance of print as the medium of global culture. The rise of the global village, McLuhan posited, at once made current events and cultural expressions more simultaneous (by way of nascent technologies such as television) and also resulted in a “re-tribalization” of society – a turning away from individual consciousness and back toward the tribal relations found in the pre-Enlightenment village.

McLuhan was an evangelist for new 20th century technologies, but he was by no means a technological utopian. While he referred to the kind of civilization that arose out of the European Renaissance as “the mother of war,” he did not for a moment presume that the global village he expected to replace it would be a locus of unfettered harmony. In the short video Marshall McLuhan Speaks Collection: Global Village, the late media guru is direct about the potential for violence and discord arising out of the brave new world he foresaw: “When people get close together they get more and more savagely impatient with each other,” McLuhan says. “The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.”

More than half a century removed from McLuhan’s heyday, and having undergone the worldwide cultural disruption of the internet, it is now possible to isolate some of the things McLuhan got right and wrong about his prognosis. Print has not become a vestigial medium to the extent that McLuhan predicted it would; to the contrary, the internet has spurred a proliferation of print-based content unlike any the world has ever experienced. (Consider, as an example, what you’re currently doing.) However, the notion of re-tribalization and its concurrent potential for “abrasive situations” seems very much a feature of our 21st century situation, as various nodes of cultural retrenchment lead to conflicts of ideology and a general reevaluation of previously dominant narratives and historical accounts.

One of the most incisive literary commentators on the current points of contention in our ever-more-connected world is Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen. Over two novels and a collection of stories, as well as in books of nonfiction and essays, the Vietnamese American author has interrogated postcolonial notions of history as viewed through the lens of the displaced and the colonized. His characters and subject matter critique dominant narratives of winners and losers and present a corrective to the erasure of Southeast Asian societies under conditions of colonial hegemony and Western monoculture. Nguyen’s fiction locates itself at the complicated nexus of globalization and reclamation – the attempts by historically underrepresented or subjugated cultures to reassert their various histories and legitimacy.

This is particularly true in “The Americans,” one of his most nuanced and complex short stories. The narrative focuses on a multigenerational, mixed-race family: James Carver, a Black Vietnam War veteran; his Japanese wife Michiko; their daughter, Claire; and Claire’s Vietnamese boyfriend, Khoi Legaspi (the surname is that of his adoptive parents). William, Claire’s brother, has followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a military pilot; he currently flies patrols and refuelling runs over Iraq and Afghanistan. (“It’s boring,” he tells his father over the phone. “I’m a truck driver.”)

“The Americans” takes place in Vietnam, where Carver and Michiko are visiting their daughter. It is the first time Carver, who grew up in “a rural Alabama hamlet siphoned clean of hope long before his birth,” has returned to the Southeast Asian country since the war. He admits knowing “next to nothing” about Vietnam “except what it looked like at forty thousand feet.” Carver’s experience of the country involves wartime bombing runs in his B-52, “an ungainly blue whale of a plane that he loved with an intensity still felt as a lingering hunger.” This patriotic nostalgia for his experience in conflict explains at least in part the resentment he feels toward his daughter and her boyfriend, who try to educate him in the history of suffering the nation has endured by taking him to Angkor Wat and a Saigon war museum. “I don’t really feel like seeing any more horrors,” says the former military bomber who had no problem perpetrating those horrors from on high.

From his perch above the world, Carver was not privy to the extent of the destruction his lethal cargo unleashed. “The tonnage fell far behind his B-52 after its release,” we are told, “and so he had never seen his own payload explode or even drop.” His experience on the ground is much different. Decrying the “pastoral fantasies” of his wife, he instead finds in close up only ugliness and filth:

There was a reason he loved flying. Almost everything looked more beautiful from a distance, the earth becoming ever more perfect as one ascended and came closer to seeing the world from God’s eyes, man’s hovels and palaces disappearing, the peaks and valleys of geography fading to become strokes of a paintbrush on a divine sphere. But seen up close … the countryside was so poor that the poverty was neither picturesque nor pastoral: tin-roofed shacks with dirt floors, a man pulling up the leg of his shorts to urinate on a wall, labourers wearing slippers as they pushed wheelbarrows full of bricks.

At sixty-eight years of age, Carver is still possessed of a patriotic American zeal and finds himself unable to relate to the quotidian realities of the country he attacked as part of a putative liberation force that acted more like would-be occupiers and colonizers. The Vietnamese, for him, are the enemy, as are the faceless people his daughter supported through her high school activist work with Amnesty International and marching against Desert Storm. “[S]he empathized with vast masses of people she had never met, total strangers who regarded her as a stranger and who would kill her without hesitation given the chance,” Carver thinks, elucidating the dark side of the global village: the tribal instinct to side with one’s own against the apparent other.

This, of course, is not his daughter’s attitude. Claire claims to have a Vietnamese soul and positions herself explicitly in opposition to her father’s patriotic jingoism. “I think I’ve found someplace where I can do some good and make up for some of the things you’ve done,” she tells him. Nguyen subtly underscores this when Claire takes her parents to visit the schoolhouse where she teaches English “to people as poor as the dirt farmers and sharecroppers of [Carver’s] childhood.” On the board when they visit is a lesson in the passive voice; one of Claire’s examples is, “mistakes were made.”

As the Black husband of a Japanese woman – the two met when he was on furlough during the war – Carver’s attitude is at least ironic, though his conservative distrust of his daughter’s more liberal leanings is typical of a generational divide between Boomer parents and their Millennial children. The centre point between the two poles is Legaspi, who helps build robots to help clear the land of mines left over from the war. It is Legaspi who goes out of his way to accommodate Carver, playing Coltrane’s Giant Steps on the stereo because he knows about Carver’s “love for bebop.” He is also clear-eyed in the face of Claire’s idealism and Carver’s cynicism, telling the father that his research and development team accepts funding from the U.S. department of defense because they must take money where they can find it. “The world isn’t a pure place,” he says reasonably.

The interplay among the characters in Nguyen’s story dramatizes the prickly concerns that crop up in the face of cultural conflicts and commingled histories – the “very arduous interfaces” McLuhan warned about with regard to the global village. Where we come from, and to whom we profess allegiance, is a fraught subject in an increasingly interconnected world. “You’re an American,” Carver tells his daughter. “That’s a problem I’m trying to correct,” she claps back. Nguyen’s pointed story provides a window on the complexities and conflicts that result from living in a version of McLuhan’s complicated legacy.

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