In the last post, I discussed the ways that Cristina García explores identity in her novel Monkey Hunting, specifically through the characters of Chen Pan, Chen Fang, and Domingo. Today, I want to expand that conversation by looking at a few scenes in Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith’s The Land South of the Clouds, a novel that, like Monkey Hunting, examines the ways that we construct our own identities. Smith’s novel focuses on Long Vanh, the son of a Vietnamese woman, Vu An, and an African American soldier, Wil. Throughout the novel, Long Vanh deals with the ways that others view him and works to comes to terms with his own identity, even amidst negative comments from his family.
Other kids in Little Saigon refer to Long Vanh and his cousin as cón lai, colloquial for half-breed. To Long Vanh and his cousin, “the word had always sounded like what it is: a lie, a con.” The word positions Long Vanh as nonexistent, as an anomaly that does not fit into any preconceived ideas of what others think. He continues, “Like our existence isn’t really true because we are half of one thing and half of another, but never whole. And because we are never whole, it is a con, a way of tricking people into thinking we are something complete. Mother once told me that in Vietnam, half-breeds are considered nothing.”
The idea of wholeness, and whether or not one is whole, occurs throughout The Land South of the Clouds. Long Vanh struggles with feeling incomplete, stuck between cultures, looked down upon, and worthless. When Long Vanh goes to Vietnam with his uncle to see his mother in the 1997, he begins by stating that the officials at the airport “see a Vietnamese man [his uncle] with an African-American man” and this causes them to double take. They can believe his uncle’s story about wanting to visit his sister, but they view Long Vanh as a Vietnam vet, even though he is only twenty eight, returning “to heal emotional wounds.”
When the airport officials look at Long Vanh’s passport, they see that his name is Vietnamese and that he was born in America, but they also see his skin. Long Vanh states, “Everything checked out except the dark skin and the short, neatly cropped style African-Americans wear their hair nowadays. They didn’t match with everything else.” For the officials, Long Vanh did not fit into their idea of someone with Vietnamese ancestry. His skin color and hair caused them to think that he was not Vietnamese and in fact lying about everything.
The officials search Long Vanh’s luggage and pull out photographs of his parents and his Vietnamese grandfather, Lý Loc. They look through the photographs of Long Vanh’s parents, “most likely dissecting Mother and Dad to see their features in” their son. When they get to a picture of Lý Loc, Long Vanh tells them that it is his grandfather. Long Vanh describes this moment:
The man looks up at me and he says something to the woman. She nods her head and frowns, and it’s as if the darkness of my skin has turned pale for them, and my hair has become straight and gray. And I want them to say it, admit how much I look like my grandfather despite my dark skin and hair, admit I am one of them. But the man simply replaces the photo in the envelope and closes the flap.
The officials examine the photographs to look for similarities between Long Vanh and his relatives. They appear perplexed simply because Long Vanh does not fit their idea of a Vietnamese man due to his dark skin and hair. This lack of openness does not allow them to admit that Long Vanh is, in fact, Vietnamese, something that Long Vanh wants them to acknowledge.
Long Vanh experiences prejudice due to his hyphenated identity, and identity that does not position him within any easily identifiable category. As such, he longs for others to see him as he sees himself. Long Vanh sees himself as Vietnamese. He does this through his connection with his mother, his connection with uncle, his connection with his cousin, and through the community he resides within. As such, he wants the officials in the airport to recognize him as one of them, as connected to Vietnam through these things; however, they cannot get past the ways that his physical appearance do not conform to their idea of how a Vietnamese man should look.
As a kid, Wil would make Long Vanh read books whenever he wasn’t in school, and one book that long Vanh remembers reading is H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. When his aunt asks him what part he is on in the book, Long Vanh responds, “Right now the invisible man is angry because it’s getting old: the whole trick of appearing and disappearing.” In relation to Long Vanh, his “true” identity is invisible to everyone except for himself. They view him as a cón lai and disparage him, even his family.
At a picnic, when his cousin asks her dad what he would think about her and Long Vanh getting married, he told her, “No, no. We’ve got enough mixed nuts. Don’t need to breed pistachios with cashews.” Uncle Handsome Harlemite, even though he is married to a Vietnamese woman, jokes about Long Vanh and his cousin marrying, calling it “mixed nuts.” He is not the only adult who has these thoughts about their children. Even Vu An sees Long Vanh as a burden at times. Long Vanh says that to her “what I am is something small and black, one of several burdens in Mother’s life.”
Vu An tells her son that he is “at a disadvantage.” What does this mean? Is he at a disadvantage because of his phenotype? His Vietnamese culture? His mixed-race identity? What places Long Vanh at a disadvantage? All of these, it would appear; however, in this moment, Vu An seems to be referring to his phenotype because she is acutely aware of that his skin color has an effect on the way others perceive him. These perceptions come down on her as well. She tells her son, “It gives them another reason to hate you. They point and say, ‘typical.’ And then they’ll point at me with pity.”
Long Vanh struggles with his identity, specifically navigating the ways that others view him and how he sees himself. This navigation takes center stage when he describes his relationships with white women over the years in the chapter “Beautiful.” In the next post, I will look at this chapter and discuss these themes some more. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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