The thinnest line

When does a refugee stop being a refugee?

“The line that separates me now, an assistant professor at a university living an incredibly comfortable life, from a body on the beach is the thinnest line imaginable.”

VINH NGUYEN, professor of English, University of Waterloo

There’s a childhood family photo of Vinh Nguyen on his seventh birthday. The party table is loaded for a celebration with spring rolls, fried noodles, jelly and raisins — but Nguyen is not smiling.

Vinh Nguyen as a child, looking mournful at his birthday celebration

You might assume it’s because the boy in the photo is celebrating his birthday in the Ban Thad refugee camp in Thailand, but that wouldn’t begin to capture the depth of the loss he felt that day. Nguyen, now an English professor at the University of Waterloo, was one of the three million people who fled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos between 1975 and 1995. His father had survived years of war and imprisonment in Communist “re-education” camps, only to die while fleeing in a small boat — something Nguyen learned through bits of overheard conversation as his family gathered to celebrate his seventh birthday in Ban Thad.

“There was never a single moment where I was told about my father’s death,” says Nguyen. “Everything I learned was through fragments of conversations that I overheard.

“I think there’s a connection between that kind of activity and the kind of work I do now. It’s very similar, in that literary scholarship asks you to read between the lines, to look for meaning, to fill in the gaps — to put pieces together.”

Today, Nguyen, also a professor of humanities and East Asian studies at Renison University College, researches the life stories of refugees. In part, it's because his own life experiences are not always reflected in conventional refugee narratives found in novels, poetry or film.

“So much of my work is trying to enlarge the understanding of who refugees are and, really importantly, to look at their power, even when they are in dire need,” says Nguyen. “They are people who make decisions and have very complex lives, backgrounds and desires.”

One of his research projects looks at how former Southeast Asian refugees in Canada are stepping up to support refugees fleeing the war in Syria. Outside his role as professor, Nguyen is also co-founder of Southeast Asian Canadians for Refugees, an advocacy group that focuses on increasing awareness of the current refugee crisis.

While the photo last fall of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian child whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, shocked the world, it had particular resonance for millions of former refugees, who risked their lives and lost loved ones in desperate attempts to gain asylum during war.

“That photo struck a chord in the Vietnamese-Canadian community. So many people saw themselves in that picture. I surely did,” says Nguyen. “The line that separates me now, an assistant professor at a university living an incredibly comfortable life, from a body on the beach is the thinnest line imaginable.

“It could have ended so differently, and it’s a difference nobody can explain. It was a ripple in the ocean that capsized the Kurdi family boat, and a ripple in the ocean that didn’t happen for me.”

VINH NGUYEN

Nguyen was just five years old when he, along with his mother, brother and two sisters, fled Vietnam: “I remember being stopped by pirates, once, for sure,” he recalls. “I remember at one point we had to go through what I can only describe as quicksand. Part of the journey was through the jungle. The swamp was sucking people in and I remember my mother just gave me to a random man to carry me across. Then, we hid in a shed for a long time before actually getting to a camp. I do have fragments of those memories.”

Nguyen is hoping to both challenge and illuminate commonly held notions of what it means to be a refugee and to also examine how refugee narratives shape» our understanding of history, nationhood and citizenship. Ultimately, his work is an attempt to begin to answer the question: When does a refugee stop being a refugee?

The question hit home on a very personal level one day while he was researching the life stories of Southeast Asian refugees in an archive in California. Nguyen opened a random folder with yellowed newspaper clippings and there, unmistakably, was a 1988 news photo of his mother in a Thai refugee camp. She is the only one looking directly into the camera, and she is smiling broadly.

“It was literally the second file that I opened, not even an hour in on my first day in the archive. I was just searching blindly. It felt really surreal; just the shock of identifying yourself or your personal history in a larger history,” says Nguyen.

Nyugen holding photo with his mother

Researching the life stories of Southeast Asian refugees, professor VINH NGUYEN discovered a photo of his mother in a folder of aging news clippings.

“There was something powerful about finding that photo of my mother. It was also very reassuring,” he says.

With more than 50 million people around the world fleeing their homes due to war and other crises, part of Nguyen’s work lies in an emerging field in literary and cultural studies known as “affect theory.” He is examining refugee narratives in novels, films and other media to see how emotions go beyond the personal and the psychological to tell us something about the historical and political.

While the recent arrival of 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada is unprecedented in some aspects, Marlene Epp, a University of Waterloo history professor who also teaches at Conrad Grebel University College on campus, says it’s important to understand the current crisis in the context of other displaced persons that shape Canada and the world.

“Vinh Nguyen’s work on refugees, diaspora and affect is important, not only because his personal life history shapes his scholarship, but because it provides broader themes within which to think about current events,” says Epp, who researches the history of ethnicity and immigration in Canada. Epp is teaching a new course in Conrad Grebel’s Peace and Conflict Studies program called Refugees and Forced Migration.

In another research project, Nguyen asks how the “gratitude” expressed by refugees has been used throughout history as evidence for the justness of war. “Gratitude is the primary thing refugees are supposed to feel. We as a nation want to hear that; it’s very easy for us to hear, but how is the nation itself being constructed through these feelings?”

Refugee gratitude in Canada can embolden our national identity, providing evidence of a compassionate country, says Nguyen. “The immigrant success story is so central to the Canadian nation.”

He says refugee gratitude becomes more problematic when it’s used by governments as human evidence of the appropriateness of going to war. In particular, Nguyen questions how stories of the gratitude of Southeast Asian refugees who sought asylum in the U.S. after the Vietnam War was used by Americans during the height of public debate about the war. “That’s why gratefulness can be dangerous,” says Nguyen. “It can be used by other powers for different narratives.”

Society’s appetite for refugee gratitude, says Nguyen, often leaves no room for other emotions like bitterness, resentment and anger.

“This compulsion to be grateful is really powerful,” says Nguyen. “Anything else is off-script.”

Nguyen’s work also examines how refugee narratives are often restricted to trauma, when in fact, refugees, like most people, lead richly layered lives.

While trauma marks Nguyen’s story, he says other forces, like his adolescence in Calgary, teaching English in Japan, and backpacking through Asia as a young adult were, for him, equally as formative. He points out that former Vietnamese refugees helping Syrians challenge the stereotype of refugees being forever hopeless, helpless figures without rights.

Nguyen stresses while he now shares his own story and researches other refugee narratives, there are others who choose not to share their stories because it’s too painful and still others who are never asked. “I think childhood protected me, in a way, not always having the information that my mother had,” he says. “I look back on those days and there were some very bad things, but my mother always made me feel loved. I’ve always felt like I had a good childhood.”

Which brings Nguyen back to the photo of his seventh birthday, the first birthday he remembers, and the loved ones not seated at the celebration table: His mother, a grieving wife hoping to distract her son from pain with a refugee camp birthday party, and his father.

“I write so that those who didn’t survive aren’t erased from memory. In many ways, my story is a refusal to let them go.”


 Refugee crisis: What can we learn from the past? Share your thoughts with us at uwmagazine@uwaterloo.ca.