We Should Never Meet: Stories by Aimee Phan is a Vietnamese-American collection of eight interconnected tales that explore and examine the various perspectives and experiences of people who were impacted by Operation Babylift, which was an evacuation event of thousands of orphans from Vietnam to America in the weeks before Saigon’s fall (during Vietnam War).
Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American literature is not something that I come across often. In fact, I hear extremely little about it within even the most diverse of literature circles, which is astounding and absurd considering how impactful the Vietnam War was for Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans (a major influence in establishing the Vietnamese-Am identity as we know it today). Because I have read and studied so little about Vietnamese history and diasporic lives, reading this collection was extraordinarily eye- and mind-opening for me.
Each tale in this collection is a shrewd examination of the various experiences that people had during the Vietnam War, and how those experiences would shape their feelings and perceptions on America’s involvement during said war. The thematic elements from one story to the next vary on their focuses from moral integrity, gratitude towards Americans, loathing and feelings of desertion towards Americans and families that became separated from their loved ones (particularly kids), and both the solace and tragic ostracism of local Vietnamese communities within America and Vietnam. Out all of these, however, the one thing that never left my mind was the subject of abandonment.
The thing about being abandoned, whether intentional, circumstantial, or unexpected and unintentional, is that it leaves behind an indelible emotional residue of loss and uncertainty upon the psychological awareness that a person has of themselves. That incredible sense of never belonging to any community that one is a part of can leave this surreal hollowness that overshadows every decision a person makes or doesn’t make. Working hard to get a good education and get a nice job to make the most of an opportunity, versus choosing to stick it to the man because the man is essentially at fault for literal and metaphorical displacement. It’s such a complex and multidimensional affect of trauma and tragedy that underlines everything else that comes afterwards, and each story in Phan’s collection shows us those various layers and forms that abandonment can take/create with lurid yet powerfully precise details and terse tones.
Beyond the evocative and intellectual portrayal of the ramifications of the Vietnam War upon both Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American individuals, I’m not someone to cast judgement on the tales as a work of literature because these stories aren’t for me, which I acknowledge and respect as vehemently necessary. I can, however, say confidently that Phan accomplishes exactly what literature means to me as a reader and a person seeking to abolish my ignorance about the world, especially with respect to the many, many different ethnic and cultural identities that fill said world: it highlights how miniscule and atrociously lacking the information and understanding of the Vietnam war is amongst the Western world, particularly America (which is even sadder considering the part America played), and why we desperately need more stories like the ones shared in herein.
We Should Never Meet is a remarkable collection that is an absolutely fabulous place to begin that journey of understanding, insight, and empathy. In the words of Shun Medoruma, “…I’ve always believed that literature is the best way to understand the heart and soul of a people.” I HIGHLY, HIGHLY RECOMMEND this to readers of literary fiction and folx interested in Asian-American literature and cultural studies with an emphasis on Vietnamese contemporary history and experiences.
Publication Date: November 2005
Publisher: Picador (978-0312322370)
Genre: Vietnamese-American Literature
Page Count: 256
Content Warnings: War-time violence, loss, illnesses, and displacement. Child abandonment. Examination of infidelity, sexual violence (including against children), racism, xenophobia, and sexism. Larceny and burglarising. Some strong language. Mention of deaths including death of women and children.
Availability: In-print; paperback and eBook formats available.