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Author Aimee Phan will make appearances in Seattle and Portland this month. (Photo/Nancy Crampton)

 

From The Asian Reporter, V14, #39 (September 21, 2004), page 13.

Living casualties

We Should Never Meet

By Aimee Phan

St. Martinís Press, 2004

Hardcover, 243 pages, $22.95

By Josephine Bridges

The war is far away, their father assured them, far up in the north. We are safe here."

He was wrong. The war in Vietnam would soon take its toll on the village south of the Mekong Delta where the first of Aimee Phanís eight linked stories takes place. And though the bombing stopped decades earlier, the war still haunts Southern Californiaís "Little Saigon." We Should Never Meet is the story of the living casualties of that war.

Operation Babylift, the evacuation to the United States of thousands of Vietnamese orphans just before the fall of Saigon, is the center around which these stories revolve. Four of the stories are set in and near orphanages in wartime South Vietnam. "Miss Lien" begins with a birth and concludes with the young mother leaving her baby outside the door of Blessed Haven for the Children of God. In "The Delta," a nun and the duck farmer to whom she was engaged twelve years earlier transport a cargo of babies to an orphanage in Saigon. "The ducks stared at the tiny orphans with interest, tapping their yellow bills against the cages."

In "Gates of Saigon," a social worker who must decide whether to take her own sons to the United States argues with her landlady, who believes that good homes for orphaned children can be found in Vietnam. "I see people leaving babies at the orphanage doorstep every day," Hoa says. "No one wants to take a child now, especially when weíre losing a war." A pediatrician who intended to do volunteer work in Vietnam for two months and stayed for three years is finally on her way home in "Bound," but what kind of home will she find when she returns?

Three of the stories in this collection are set in the part of Los Angeles known as "Little Saigon." In the title story, Kim has been shuffled among "government-issued families" since Operation Babylift brought her to the U.S. "Her real birthday was unknown. She was assigned the day January first along with every other orphan whose birth certificate was missing." Now 20, Kim is wrestling with her uneasy morality and trying to find the money to move out of her ex-boyfriendís apartment.

We learn more about Kimís ex in "Visitors." Vinh is a member of a gang that robs Vietnamese families because "their people wouldnít trust the police to protect them." While the reader is horrified by the violence Vinh commits, itís hard not to feel for him when he speaks about the country he came to as a boat refugee: "Itís like Iím visiting and Iíve overstayed my welcome."

Kimís friend Mai, a younger boat refugee, turns 18 in "Emancipation." She has lived with the same foster parents for years, and she knows that they admire her, but she is all too aware that they never wanted to create a more lasting relationship with her. "Theyíre no longer obligated by the state to support or even shelter me after today," she tells a friend.

"Motherland," the final story in We Should Never Meet, takes place in contemporary Ho Chi Minh City. Huan, a Vietnamese and African-American Babylift orphan, glumly accompanies his ebullient white adoptive mother as she prods him to get in touch with his roots. But he doesnít know a word of Vietnamese and realizes that the "Amerasians who were left behind have good reason to hate Huan."

Stylistically, We Should Never Meet is a marvel, particularly considering that Aimee Phan makes her debut as an author with this collection. While these eight stories are connected, the links are subtle and at times ambiguous. The dexterity with which the author handles the interconnectedness of her charactersí lives is matched by her skill at writing unfettered by sequence. Each of these stories moves freely back and forth between past and present, and the order in which the stories are presented is somewhat chronological, but not entirely. Yet never, not once, does the clarity of the narrative suffer.

War may never be far away, but neither is compassionate attention to the consequences of war. Mai makes this discovery when she returns to her native land: "Itís not our parentsí fault. Or anyone elseís here. How could I be angry with them, expect them to do right when there was no such thing?"

Author Aimee Phan will make appearances in Seattle and Portland this month. On Wednesday, September 22, she will be at the Beacon Hill Branch of the Seattle Public Library (2821 Beacon Avenue South) at 7:00pm. The following day, she will be at Portlandís Annie Bloomís Books (7834 S.W. Capitol Hwy.) at 7:30pm. For information on the Seattle reading, call Elliott Bay Books at (206) 624-6600 or the Washington Center for the Book at (206) 386-4650. For information on the Portland event, call (503) 246-0053 or visit <www.annieblooms.com>.

****

From The Asian Reporter, V14, #41 (October 5, 2004), page 15.

Pho with Aimee Phan

By Josephine Bridges

In town for a reading at Annie Bloomís Books, Aimee Phan, author of the linked story collection We Should Never Meet, was kind enough not only to join me for a bowl of pho, but also to teach me how to pronounce and eat this delicacy.

Aimee Phan is no stranger to Portland. Her aunt and uncle live in the City of Roses, and she and her family made regular summer visits from their home in Orange County, California while she was growing up. Aimee interned at The Oregonian during the summer of 2000, and she spent last summer here with her brother who is studying medicine at Oregon Health & Science University. "Itís a great town for writers," she says. "If I could live here, if I could get a job here, I totally would."

I was hoping that Pho DaLat, the Parkrose restaurant where we met for lunch, would remind the author of Pho Gia-Dinh, where two of the characters in her title story meet for beef noodles. "It is similar," she agreed as she looked around. "Real Vietnamese people come here. You know what fusion is?" she asked. "Itís not that."

Aimee Phan has been writing for a long time. Her earliest efforts were "rip-offs of The Babysittersí Club and Sweet Valley High," but she concentrated on creative writing as an undergraduate English major, and applied to five graduate creative writing programs. "If I didnít get in, I was going to get a real job," she quipped. Fortunately for Aimee and her readers, the University of Iowa was happy to have her, and writing We Should Never Meet was part of her MFA program there.

There are lots of ways to eat pho, Aimee explained. She shared her method of raising the noodles with chopsticks in one hand and lowering them into the spoon held in the other, then dipping the meat into one of numerous available sauces before placing it on top of the noodles. She confided that her character Kim eats pho the same way the author does: "Sipping the leftover broth, partially cooled with tiny bits of beef floating in it, was always her favorite part of the meal."

Aimee Phan currently teaches Asian American Literature and World Literature in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she ensures that her students get "a balance of eastern and western literature," including Indian and Japanese literature and Chinese poetry. "Thereís a world outside the Western Hemisphere," she remarked.

The author has traveled widely in both hemispheres. We Should Never Meet was in the editing phase when Aimee Phan visited Vietnam for the first time. While the stories are mostly the result of "imagination, research, and grilling my parents," her visit to her ancestral home provided her with "little things that could be accentuated" in the stories. Having grown up with the "South Vietnamese perspective," Aimee found it "strange to be able to see the other political ideology and their version of the story."

Aimee Phan wants to be sure that her readers are aware that We Should Never Meet is fictional, that "the characters and situations are mine, what I empathized with." But the real stories that inspired her work are "incredible." The authorís mother accompanied orphans on an Operation Babylift flight from Vietnam to Eugene and spent several months there helping connect the children with new families. Later, in her job as a social worker in southern California, Aimeeís mother continued her work with Operation Babylift orphans as they grew up, many of them in foster homes. "I was always aware of how lucky I was," said the author, who points out that the experiences of the boat refugees, about whom she also writes, are also important, and unfortunately, often overlooked.

A good teacher, Aimee Phan didnít overtly correct my pronunciation of pho ó more like fuh than foe ó she just pronounced it the right way herself. She also told me that Vietnamese people often eat the delicious soup for breakfast, which is exactly what I did with my leftovers.

Aimee Phan is currently at work on a novel set in the United States, France, and Vietnam. Itís the story of a "Vietnamese family that escapes Vietnam during the boat refugee exodus and splits up in a Malaysian refugee camp." The immigrant experience is such a part of her background that as a girl the author wondered, "When I grow up, am I going to have to move to another country and learn to do everything all over again?"

I didnít want to spoil our friendly conversation by asking Aimee Phan if she had any thoughts on the war in Iraq, but it seemed unavoidable. Her answer was sad and articulate. "Both Americans and Vietnamese people are haunted by the war in Vietnam. The same thing is going to happen with this war. Weíre going to be there a long time. Are we going to see Iraqi orphans coming over here?"

 

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