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Reviewed by:
  • Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family
  • Sophie Quinn-Judge
Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family. By Nguyen Qúi Dú'c. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. 280 pages, $17.95.

Nguyen Qúi Dú'c presents a classic story of human endurance with the saga of his family's tribulations during the Vietnam War and their postwar transformation into American overseas Vietnamese. Dú'c is a sensitive young man from an elite family with a father who returned from studies in the United States in 1966 to take up the post of civilian deputy to the military chief of the Danang region. His father's high rank in the Saigon administration makes him a valuable catch when the communists briefly occupy the old capital of Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive. He will be held prisoner in North Vietnam until 1980, doing meaningless physical labor in communist re-education camps. This long separation of father from wife and children is the root of the tragedy that strikes Dú'c's family as much as the dislocation and loss of status that result from being on the losing side in a long, bitter war.

Dú'c weaves his father's memories of captivity into his narrative, in counterpoint to the lives of the rest of the family: his mother losing her job as a school principal after the war ends in 1975, reduced to selling soup on the streets of Saigon as she waits for her husband's return; his mentally disturbed sister gradually succumbing to a mysterious kidney disease that was not diagnosed until her death; and Dú'c himself leaving Saigon as a refugee in 1975, only to find himself alone in a cold and alien United States as he finishes high school. After the years of separation, Dú'c conveys the sense of strangeness he experienced when his parents arrived in San Francisco in 1984, his father at sixty "astonishingly healthy and sane ... looking forward to starting over" (211).

Perhaps because of his early separation from his father, Dú'c never gets over his desire to rediscover or recapture his culture and his ties to [End Page 328] Vietnam. His feelings about the United States remain mixed. His family disapproves when in 1989 he decides to return to Vietnam as a radio journalist for NPR. This is the early reform period, so he finds poverty and subdued envy among family and friends. Seven of his cousins are living in one room, unemployed. One of the more touching scenes is his reunion with old school friends in Danang. These were the privileged children of the Saigon regime, now scrambling to "put food on the table every night" (242). One of them has lost a leg fighting in Cambodia. To them Dú'c is "fat man." The gulf between those who stayed behind and those who left was at that point insurmountable. Dú'c returns to the United States, carrying his sister's ashes to San Francisco, thus completing his family's reunion in their new homeland.

An epilogue to this paperback version of Dú'c's memoirs could have told the reader that Vietnam is no longer so poor, that the urban economy is booming and that many families in the diaspora continue to help relatives leave to pursue their education in the United States. The vast distance between the two countries has been lessened by cheap phone calls, daily flights from Los Angeles, and more equal economic opportunities. Yet one imagines that Dú'c's yearning for his old life in Vietnam has not disappeared—for "a simpler way of life," for "a place where there is always time for friends and friendship, for human contacts that deepen effortlessly and remain nurtured" (262).

Sophie Quinn-Judge
Temple University


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pp. 328-329
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