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The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood

The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood

4.7 38
by Kien Nguyen

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A story of hope, a story of survival, and an incredible journey of escape, 'The Unwanted' is the only memoir by an Amerasian who stayed behind in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and who is now living in America.


A story of hope, a story of survival, and an incredible journey of escape, 'The Unwanted' is the only memoir by an Amerasian who stayed behind in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and who is now living in America.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review from Discover Great New Writers
There was no need for discussion or debate about this memoir among the Discover reading group. Each reader weighed in with exactly the same response. "Wow! What a book!" Kien Nguyen's memoir invites comparison, but we couldn't find a memoir worthy of it. His story of life as a "half-breed" (the result of the pairing of his Vietnamese mother and an American G.I.) who falls under the rule of the Vietcong in the mid-1970s is revealed in one truly hellish scene after the next. From the early chapters, where Kien describes his icy mother's perfect red fingernails digging into his arms as she faces their plight, Kien is adrift in a sea of misunderstanding. He watches from the roof of the U.S. Embassy as his hopes for escape are dashed: "The chopper twirled in midair, like a sick sparrow...before it plunged down to the quarterdeck below and exploded into flame." Happily, Kien's story doesn't end in shame, but in victory -- ten years later. For he has written this heartbreaking memoir from his new home in America. It is impossible to read Kien's story and not be moved by the plight of these children -- victims of poor judgment in a crazy day and age, and of horrific acts of ostracism. You will applaud (as we did) the courage and resilience of a survivor like Kien, who has blessed us with this very important work. (Spring 2001 Selection)
Library Journal
...a powerful, compelling memoir of an Amerasian boy's experience in Communist Vietnam...ultimately, his tale is one of extraordinary courage...beautifully written and inspirational...
Washington Post Book World
...provides an often compelling look at the personal effects of Vietnam's political social revolutions...
Ruminator Review
Readers will be surprised by the cinematic beauty of this gripping literary memoir...a bold and eloquent voice...
Nguyen was born in 1967 to a wealthy Vietnamese mother and an American GI. This memoir, set in a Vietnam where all personal history is political, is less inspired by than obsessed with the past. After the fall of Saigon, the noticeably different child and his family struggled with poverty, bitter relatives and Vietnam's vicious, totalitarian bureaucracy. "No matter how hard I tried, I could not escape my unfavorable past," Nguyen writes, referring to his congenital status as a "reactionary." There are fundamental flaws in the author's story, which culminates with his immigration to America: the too-perfect recollections, the weakness for melodrama, the lack of self-consciousness when mixing narrative and truth. There are hundreds of pages of elaborate dialogue that read like an Oliver Stone screenplay. It makes sense that this powerfully imagined, coming-of-age-in-communist-Vietnam story has already been optioned to a film company. The memoir, which has the moral economy and clockwork plot of a Dickens novel, is often gorgeously overwritten. The experience of reading it is more cinematic than literary.
—Jeff Ousborne

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The son of a wealthy Vietnamese woman and an American businessman, Nguyen was nearly eight when Saigon fell to the Vietcong. For the next decade he and his family endured hardships brought on by the privileged lives they had enjoyed under the capitalist regime. Although his writing lacks the lyricism of recent memoirs like The Liar's Club or Angela's Ashes, Nguyen's voice is clear and strong, and he is adept at capturing both the broad sweep of life under the Vietcong and the peculiarities of growing up in a colorful and emotionally dysfunctional family during a jarring and vicious revolution. Perhaps the most engaging aspect of his memoir is its portrayal of the ironies that ensue when the old order collapses and the social hierarchy is turned upside down. At one point, Nguyen's mother, imperious and a virulent snob, is called before the newly installed communist leadership only to encounter her former gardener, a man she barely acknowledged before the revolution but who now has the power to strip her of all she owns. For the most part, though, this memoir reminds us of life's many undeserved injustices. Nguyen and his half-brother, Jimmy, who is also Amerasian, pay a particularly high price for the accident of their genealogy, enduring the scorn of their countrymen, especially the communists. At 18, the author and his family emigrated to the United States, where he now works as a dentist. With the purely personal goal of "healing" himself, Nguyen concludes by hoping that his narrative will also help other Amerasians born during the Vietnam War mourn their "lost childhoods." Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In this compelling memoir, the son of an anonymous American GI and a wealthy Vietnamese woman relives ten years of hell in South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. Born in 1967, Nguyen was the eldest child of Khuon, a single mother who was the co-president of a South Vietnamese bank. Separated from other children by the iron gates (erected by his mother to "shield the inside beauty from the outside world") surrounding their mansion, Nguyen had no idea that he was a "mixed" child until 1975, when North Vietnamese communists prevailed and turned his world upside-down. Servants plundered Khuon's mansion, business owners had to grovel for their lives, and Nguyen's immediate family relocated to the impoverished compound of his mean-spirited aunt (who encouraged her own 14 children to abuse their "half-breed" cousin). Jealous of his former wealth, the author's cousins played "kickball" with his puppy and attempted to murder him for taking three potatoes. Racist attacks continued at school, where Nguyen's curly hair made him an outsider. Khuon, distraught by her own misfortune, contributed to his suffering by threatening to abandon him. Yet, by providing a complex portrait of his mother and explaining how she was publicly castigated for giving birth to him, Nguyen's lyrical narrative grants her sympathy. Rather than cast himself as a martyr, the author divulges his own perversities (such as his sadistic longing to rape a communist's daughter). One botched attempt to flee to Malaysia by boat landed him in"re-education camp," where he was tortured until Khuon bribed a community leader for his release. After writing to the UN, he learned of the Orderly Departure Program and escaped to the US, wherehelives today. Nguyen delivers a suspenseful tale rather than a sob story: anyone looking for a firsthand insight into America's tangled relations with Vietnam will not be disappointed.

Product Details

Little, Brown and Company
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5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Nhatrang, May 12, 1972, 7 P.M.

I remember that night quite well. It is my first memory, and the happiest one from my childhood.

The familiar smell of pig roasting on a spit wafted from the kitchen. My mother made cheery noises as she ran from one hallway to the next, giving orders to the help with a hint of pompous confidence. The moist summer air evaporated into a transparent mist all around me due to the kind of heat found only in Nhatrang and only in May. And what I remember most of all is the sense of festivity all around me as the last rays of sunlight disappeared into the ocean, just a few hundred feet away from my window. It was my fifth birthday.

My childhood home, in order to accommodate my mother's passion for living near beautiful beaches, was situated by the water, with the waves murmuring at the foot of the house. The mansion was comprised of three stories and over twenty-four rooms, including at least eight bedrooms. All were furnished with expensive Western furniture thrown together by my mother's own design. And both to give the house personality and to honor my grand-father's last name, Mother named it Nguyen Mansion. From the numerous stories I was told growing up, mostly by my grandparents, I came to understand that my mother built the house during her pregnancy with me, motivated by the idea of having her first baby in her own home. Mother painted the outside of the house the color of eggshells, and, much to her consternation, I always thought the house was just a simple white color that had aged poorly with time. From the main entrance of the house to thefront gate lay a large reddish marble pathway that encircled the garden, which housed a kidney-shaped pool. Our gardener, Mr. Tran, had been hired through an agency, and his job consisted mainly of planting and maintaining the many exotic species of flowers around the front part of the house. My mother, in an effort to shield the inside beauty from the outside world, constructed two enormous iron gates, as well as a high barbed-wire fence covered with thick vines, to obscure all within their boundaries. In the old days, I used to play with my toys in the garden while the children playing on the other side of the gate watched me with fascination. According to my mother, those children were either too dirty, or I was too clean, for my association with them. In Vietnam, rich children like myself wore sandals to protect their feet from the dirt and the heat, while poor children like the ones from the other side of the wall ran around barefoot.

That afternoon, before the celebration, much of the activity was centered in the kitchen. I was flying through the crowded rooms with my arms out like an airplane and making buzzing sounds, bumping into people's legs to simulate a crash. My brother and I had made up this clever plan to get treats from the help. Unfortunately, everyone seemed too busy to notice me. In the middle of the main kitchen a group of chefs stood around an enormous table, decorating a gigantic white cake with bunches of red roses, brown vines, and green leaves made from heavy whipped cream and food coloring. On the other side of the room, barely visible in the dark smoke, live fowls awaited their turn to be slaughtered; their frightened cackles rose over the impatient sizzling of the pork. A few steps away, a group of my mother's maids hovered over the busy stove preparing the main courses. One of the women turned on the ceiling fan as her friend strained cooked noodles over the drain. The fog from the boiling water swept up from the pot, adding to the heat in the room. Looking for a new victim for my airplane game, I spotted a young caterer's apprentice. He was about ten years old and of diminutive size, with dark circles under his eyes. Running through the kitchen with a big bowl of whipped cream, he crashed into me. I knew how fearful our servants were when it came to my mother's wrath. While the boy was making sure I was not injured, I reached into his bowl for a handful of cream. Before he could recover from his shock, I laughed and ran off, lapping the sweetness from my hand.

Upstairs, I decided to take a peek inside my mother's bedroom. She sat regally at her makeup desk, fully dressed in a pale evening gown that glistened under the orange light like a mermaid's scales. Her attention was focused on brushing her long hair, which rippled down her arching back, jet-black and wavy. My mother was not a typically thin Asian woman. She had heavy breasts and round hips, joined by a thin waist. Her eyes, big and rimmed with dark mascara, concentrated on the image before her. Years spent watching my mother gaze at herself in the mirror had convinced me that she was the rarest, most beautiful creature that ever walked the face of this Earth.

My presence startled her. She took her eyes off her reflection, looked at me, and smiled, showing her white, straight teeth. At times I had sat for hours in my mother's bedroom while she confided her beauty secrets to me. I would listen earnestly, not to what my mother said, but to the mesmerizing sound of her voice, always full of wisdom and intelligence.

Her smile faded into a slight frown as she said, "Look at you. What is that all over your face?"

I touched my cheek and felt the remnants of the whipped cream. Licking my fingers, I answered her, "It's for my cake in the kitchen. Can I come in?"

She nodded. "Sure, come in." And then came the scolding. "What a dirty boy, eating in such a manner. Why don't you wait till dinner?"

I sat on her bed and looked at her curiously. Using a small cotton pad, she was pressing white powder onto the backs of her hands.

"What are you doing, Mommy?" I asked.

"I am putting makeup on my hands, darling."

"How come?"

"You are always asking the same question."

"I never remember what the answer is, Mommy."

She paused and held her hands in front of her face, where they stood at attention like two proud soldiers ready for inspection.

"I do this because I want people to notice my hands. Aren't they beautiful?"

Along with her fortune, my mother's hands were the ultimate pride in her life. Before she met my father, she had worked as a hand model for a jewelry company. In contrast to her voluptuous body, her hands were long and graceful. Each finger was a smooth cylinder with invisible knuckles and no wrinkles; each nail was defined, extended, well polished, and glossy. She spent hours smoothing the sharp edges of her nails, trimming the out-of-place cuticles, and changing the color of the paint. Not until she was completely satisfied with her hands did my mother apply makeup to her face, a process that would also require a few hours. She said that since her face was not extraordinary, her success would depend on her hands. As if to prove her point, my mother made sure that her hands were always displayed. They danced in front of her face during a conversation, rested on her cheeks in photographs, or raised her chin when she exercised her power. Sometimes, they daintily held the stem of a champagne glass. Once my mother considered buying insurance for her hands; however, this idea did not meet with approval from my grandfather. I'm sure my mother wished that she had gotten insurance the day I accidentally bumped into her while running down the hallway. The collision broke two of her nails and scratched her fingers, leaving her boiling mad and me with welts on my cheek.

"Is this party for me, Mommy?" I asked as she continued tending to her hands.

"Yes, darling."

"Does it mean I can stay up late tonight?"

"You can stay up a little while after you blow out your candles."

"Will there be any children coming over tonight from my class?" I asked her hopefully.

"No, darling. No other children, just you and your brother. So you can be the star tonight. After all, it is an adult party; you don't want any children here to spoil it, do you?"

"Right, Mommy," I agreed halfheartedly.

I walked to the bedroom window and looked outside. I could see porters carrying cases of Champagne Guy Larmandier into the house. The garden was lit up by multicolored lights, with every shrub transformed into some sort of animal. Next to the pool, behind a couple of rose bushes, a group of musicians tested their electrical instruments. The noise resolved itself into a lively, cheery tune that carried through the thick air. The cooks, maids, and waiters ran back and forth like ants in an ant farm, all lost in their own assignments. The neighborhood children, clustered next to a few adults, gathered around the front gates, staring curiously inside. Should anyone venture too close to the gates, security men would push them away. Over the sounds of celebration, deep in the darkness, the ocean moaned its constant, breathy rhythm.

"When do I get to blow out the candles?" I asked, turning to look at my mother.

"Right after dinner."

"When do we have dinner?"

"When all the guests arrive," she said.

"When will that be?"

"Around nine-thirty." My mother regarded her nails. A pang of dissatisfaction washed over her face as she reached for her bright orange nail polish.

"Can I stay awake after the cake, Mommy?"

"No, darling. After the cake there will be dancing. You are too young to stay up that late. Maybe next year. Now, be a good boy and go play with your brother."

"But he is sleeping in Grandma's room."

"Then go wake him up. Tell Grandma or Loan to dress both of you." She pushed me out of her room and carefully closed the door without touching her nails.

BY THE TIME Jimmy and I changed into the party clothes that my mother had ordered from the Sears catalog, a luxury that few could afford in Vietnam, the guests had finally arrived. From my grandparents' bedroom, we could hear every noise the people outside made. Gazing at each other nervously, we pressed our ears against the thin wall, listening to the footsteps that ran frantically up and down the hallway. The rich smell of cooked spices mixed with the heavy odor of perfume.

Finally, my mother burst into the room with enough exuberance to burn out a lightbulb. Her off-white evening gown embraced her, gushing down her body like a stream of silver water. Her hair was bound above her neck in a complicated knot, revealing a diamond necklace and two small diamond earrings. She looked foreign, formidable, elegant as an Egyptian queen. She smiled through her makeup, as she reached for us with bare arms that sparkled with diamonds. We entered her cloud of perfume, and together, hand in hand, we walked into the noisy brightness outside.

The rest of the evening is a blur. I vaguely recall the laughter, the kisses, the food, the stark colors, the songs, and the mountain of presents that filled my room. I also remember the foreign guests with sandy hair and blue eyes, as well as the anxious talk on everyone's lips about the revolution. Jimmy and I were sent to bed immediately after I blew out the candles on top of my gigantic cake. And I was to sleep for three years, banished from my mother's warmth and sent away to school, leaving behind the special night that was supposed to be mine.

What People are Saying About This

Douglas Brinkley
A haunting memoir…destined to become a literary classic…mesmerizing prose…
— (Douglas Brinkley, Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies, Professor of History at the University of New Orleans)
Lan Cau
Compellingly told…unfolds dramatically page to page…not only touches the heart but contributes to our understanding of the history of postwar Vietnam.
— (Lan Cau, author of Monkey Bridge and Everything You Need to Know About Asian American History)

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Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 38 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author gives a revealing account of life soon after the Vietnamese communist take-over in 1975. If I hadn't heard simmilar accounts from my own brother, a former lieutenant in the south Vietnamese army at the time, I would not have believed the stories as told by the author. This recount also lets immigrants like us appreciate our adopted country, the great USA, even more. Vitally important privileges like clean water, plentiful food, safe shelter, safe passable roads, a lawful and tolerant society, and a strong national Constitution are often taken for granted. That is the luxury of being an American.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this memoir and am surprised that the author remembers everything in such detail. I guess this is why this is such a powerful memoir. It is hard to imagine what it was like to grow up in Vietnam after the war, especially for people born two decades after the war's end. Although he does not exclusively concetrate on the war, it is still apparent throughout the book that the war and its outcome are what determined significant events in his life and his family's life. And the obstacles his family faced not only from corrupt officials but from their own family members who were unsupportive and jealous of their former position of wealth. He also gave a glimpse into the life of Amero-Asian children who were abandoned by their parents after the war and the stigma they faced from other Vietnamese. I recommend this book to anyone wondering what it was like to grow up in Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War and how it was to grow up ostracized because of an ethnic association with the enemy.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My heart goes out to Dr Nguyen and his family. More than 24 hrs after reading this book, I cannot get it off my mind as it has made an indelible mark. Although I was tired beyond belief when I sat down to start the book, I could not put it down until I had finished it -- about 6 hrs later. 'Unwanted: A Memoir' has got to be one of the best books I have ever read in my entire life. I am in absolute awe of the author and the story of his life. This incredibly descriptive book takes the reader to the point of being able to see/smell in your mind's eye. Few books truly have the ability to accomplish this task. Dr Nguyen's ability to convey his life events and emotions 'matter of factly' without pandering sentimentality are outstanding. The story speaks very loudly enough for itself. I am so very proud of him and his accomplishments and wish him well with all of his endeavors. Amazing, absolutely amazing. I will be recommending this book to everyone I know.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I first decided to read this book, I was doing it only for credit in my accelerated english class, thinking it wouldn't take that long to read. (We are required to read two classic fictions and one nonfiction per semester in my english class.) I started this book on a Monday morning and finished it that same day. This story made me cry, which says something because I'm not a very emotional person. The story of Kien is mesmerizing and it opened my eyes to see that not everyone grows up in an ideal way. People should read this book, if not for a class then for their own personal gain.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
lb2ak More than 1 year ago
Amazing book of survival. One that alot of Americans can not even imagine. Make me realise how truely lucky we are to live in the USA vs a communist/socialist state. Thank you for telling your story. I am glad you and your family survived. Can your next book be about the trial and tribulations transitioning to the USA? I would read it in a heart beat!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Awesome book, hard to put down. Definitely a recommended read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really love reading this book. The way he describe everything just makes you feel like you're standing there watching it unfold right before your eyes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book at least a year ago and it remains at the top of my list. I recommend it to anyone that reads. My teenage kids have all read it and written book reports on it. I would catch myself crying in response to the tragedy's that Kien witnessed and endured. I think I read it in a day and once I was done I wanted to pick it up and read it again. Please read, I promise you won't be disappointed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Traveling_soccermom More than 1 year ago
I travel quite a lot and am always looking for a good book. This book was over the top. It grabbed me from the beginning through the touching story of a child living through the struggle and suffering of the Vietnam war. This was recommended from my high schoool son and I have passed it on to friends and family.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was truely one of the best I have ever read. Compelling story that really touched me and made me appreciate all that I have in life...
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a big fan of biographies of everyday people. This book was great. It shows the strength and courage of the common man in times of immense trails.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am an american chinese. With parents who endured many things such as Kien. I've always heard the story's of what they had gone through. My parents are chinese but were born in Cambodia and raised in Vietnam. The story's they told me were very intriging. But reading this book let me understand from another perspective since it wasn't from someone I knew. I realize what my parents faced to to give themselves and their children a better future. Amazing
Guest More than 1 year ago
Wonderful book. To learn what another had to endure through no fault of his own and how he conquered these feats was so well told. Gives us all some insight. I truly enjoyed reading this story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The story of a mixed Vietnamese, who feels like an outsider among his own people. The reason, that he is treated like a second class citizen, is not so much because of the prejudice against him, an Amerasian child, but more because of the prejudice against his mother. From Kien's own descriptions, she seems like a person who advances in life, not on her own hard work, but by mating and marrying into wealth. Her kind represents the downfall of the old Vietnamese morale, which is heavily influenced by Confucius' teachings. One of the beliefs is that even in life's worst circumstances, keep your integrity at all cost because it is the only thing that matters. Most intellectuals in Vietnam at that time resents the fact that many young Vietnamese women would abandon the old teaching, degrade themselves by selling to the American GI's. The author's view is somewhat bound by his own fustrations of his life's station due to his mother's status. His own behaviors never did rise above the people that he thought of as treating him unfairly. Kim, his romance interest and the only person treated him more than an equal, was taken advantage of and used by him. His situation is sad, but I think his own actions bring about some of the treatments he got. I am glad that he was given a second chance to start his life over in the U.S. and made something of himself. I hope that he will move on beyond his grippling inferiority complex and learn to be kind to the people around him.