Tag Archives: orphans

Vietnamese orphans before and after “Operation Babylift”

Aimee Phan was born in 1977 in Orange County, so had no personal experience/memory of “Operation Babylift,” in which 10,300 infants and children were airlifted from Saigon to the United States before the city fell to the People’s Army of Vietnam. The eight stories in We Should Never Meet, published in 2004 (when the author was 27) are about orphans and their caregivers. Four are set in Vietnam (three before Operation Babylift; the last with two orphans revisiting Saigon and a nearby orphanage and the Vietcong’s Cu Chi tunnels). The other four center on orphans resettled in Phan’s native Orange County, where the heaviest concentration of Vietnamese American live.


Though Phan is not an orphan and was not born in Vietnam, the stories are convincing to me (unlike her, I was adopted, as some of them were) both about the chaos of orphanages in the final stages of the Republic of Vietnam and about the abandonment neuroses of those who had been evacuated and grew up in Orange County (whether in foster care or as adopted children). The white Americans who devoted time and resources to helping the children survive, both in South Vietnam and in the US, may sometimes be clueless, but are seen in the texts as well-intentioned. Bridget, a pediatrician who volunteered to go to a Saigon for two months, leaving behind her own two-year-old and husband in “Bound” is not ineffectual. She clearly saved lives, though just as clearly was delusional about being able to go back and continue her old life and now older family along with a Vietnamese baby boy. The last two stories in the book, “Bound” and “Motherland” end optimistically. The plane filled with orphans on which Bridget leaves makes it out (as one plane did not).

The most anti-American character in the book, Vinh, is also the most despicable, preying on other Vietnamese refugees whom he (and his gang) know do not trust police and are unlikely to seek their aid. For me “Visitors” was the most heartbreaking story in the collection. Vinh feels some regret for what he does, which undoes none of the damage to the refugee family(/ies) he victimizes (also in the title story in which another sympathetic Vietnamese character is attacked).

Kim, another recurring character, has wisely broken up with Vinh, but is relatively nihilistic and envious of Mai, the smart and accomplished girl who had been placed in foster care with Kim and Vinh more than once. Kim was adopted, but returned after a month, whereas Mai was kept by a pair of devoted foster parents, who did not adopt her and were taking in a seven-year old Vietnamese orphan when she went off to college (Emancipation).

The whole is more than the sum of the parts, but less than a sustained novel. There is much more I would like to know about various characters. I wouldn’t say that the stories lack endings (like so many New Yorker stories), but they tend to be somewhat open endings, cutting away from the uncertainties the characters feel and from closure. Each set of stories (those leading to and those leading from Operation Babylift) proceeds in chronological order, but the alternation does not work for me, though I could have read the four orphans in Saigon stories first and then the four adolescent Vietnamese orphans in Orange County ones. Having followed Phan’s ordering of chapters, I don’t know if the grouping would have enhanced coherence, but I think I’d recommend reading the 3rd, 5th, and 7th before reading the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th (mindful that the 8th casts light on where the 7th left off, literally in midair).


(jacket photo of author ca. 2004)


Phan’s first novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, was published in 2012. It juxtaposes escape from and return to Vietnam with immigrant lives (of two families of refugees) in France and California with fractured chronology and two sets of letters as well as the main narration.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray


Kawabata stories

Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasuari’s fiction, whether autobiographical or not, delivers very little in the way of plot. I would not say his work is character-driven either. The novellas “Diary of My Sixteenth Year” and “The Dancing Girl of Izu” reveal something of the diffident orphan Kawabata was, three overlapping reflections on the deaths and funerals of his family in “Oil,” “The Master of Funerals,” and “Gathering of Ashes” a bit more.

Somber facts lead off “Oil”: “My father died when I was three, and my mother died the following year, so I do not remember a single thing about my parents.” Moreover, the grandmother who raised him died when he was seven, his only sibling, a sister whom he only saw once after their father’s death, when he was eleven, and his grandfather just before his fifteenth birthday. Becoming “the master of funerals” was pretty much inevitable. What he remembered or was told by relatives about his conduct is obsessively revisited in the three stories, augmented by his memories of nosebleeds he disguised from others at the funerals.


(Kawabata at 16 or 17)

“Jûrokusai no Kikki”/“Diary of My Sixteenth Year” (fourteenth by western reckoning) begins with a text Kawabata claimed he wrote 4-16 May 1914 (his grandfather died 24 May). It shows a young boy very uncomfortable about attending to the grandfather, who cannot remember just being fed and who must be aided in urinating (he has stopped defecating altogether). It is pretty uneventful, with the death occurring after the end of the diary. The 1925 afterword, Kawabata later (1948) labeled the first afterword fiction, while continuing to claim authenticity for the 1914 diary.

All four of these stories obsess about the fallibility — or poverty — of memory. Kawabata wrote that he did not remember the sordid details of his grandfather’s last month that he had recorded a decade earlier, did not remember his parents or the funeral of either of them, depending on being told about them by others who attended. (BTW, the three funerals of “Masters of Funerals” were of persons the narrator/Kawabata had not met or at least did not recall having met.


“Izu no Odoriko”/”The Izu Dancing Girl” published in 1926 was, according to Donald Keene, “the work that not only brought him fame but, even more than his longer novels, remains the one many people remember him for.” (It has been filmed at least five times.) Nothing, unless one counts rain, happens in it. The narrator, a high-school student, recalls a walking trip on the Izu peninsula (the real-life basis was in 1922, when he was 22), in which he fell in with a small group of itinerant entertainers (whose status was very low, equated with beggars in being unwelcome in a sign on the outskirts of Oshima, the largest city and port of the peninsula.

The one male in the troupe, Eikichi, is very friendly. The dancing girl (and drummer) of the title is Kaoru, his fourteen-year old (I’m not sure whether this is Japanese or western reckoning of age, i.e., she may have been thirteen). Though she dresses like an older woman, she is a virgin, and chaperoned most of the time. The narrator does see her naked at a hot springs, and does not attempt to seduce her. (Kawabata continued to be fascinated by girls on the cusp of puberty and to find adult women repulsive.)


(Kawabata in 1937)

Insubstantial as these autobiographical stories were, the “palm-of-the-hand stories”, running 1.5-5 pages, 18 of which were published between 1923 and 1929 that J. Martin Holman translated and included with them (having already published a translation of other “tanagokoro no shôsetsu)”, are even wispier, including some that are condensed versions of Chinese and Japanese legends. Perhaps they seem less surrealistic to Japanese readers, though I suspect that Kawabata’s world and worldview are nearly as alien to contemporary Japanese as they are to me.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

I am indebted to Donald Keene‘s magisterial Dawn to the West for the biographical situating of Kawabata’s early stories.

I have also posted here about

Thousand Cranes

With Beauty and Sadness

The Sound of the Mountain

The House of the Sleeping Beauties and One Arm

The Old Capital