The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood

The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood

by Kien Nguyen


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Monday, April 29

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316284615
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 04/08/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 324,966
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

1972 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 the front 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.

Copyright (c) 2001 by Nguyen—Andrews, LLC

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)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 42 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.
bookalover89 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A haunting memoir of a childhood during the Vietnam war. Very painful read.
TimBazzett on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is a revelation in its unflinching look at the awful life of an Amerasian boy left behind by his American father after the fall of Saigon. Kien Nguyen is one of two "half-breed" sons his mother bore, and feels the stigma and lives the horror of that awful stigma for the first 17-plus years of his life under the repressive Communist regime that takes power after the American's ignominious pullout from that war-torn country. Shamed, beaten, starved and tortured, his life is a literal hell on earth, but he is ultimately saved by the steadfast love of his grandparents and a mother who gradually matures into a more mature and selfless person from her own ordeal. Nguyen continued doggedly to go to school despite his poverty and the terrible predjudice he encountered, and because of this, he finally managed to obtain emigration papers to the U.S. for himself and his family. I couldn't help but think of another Vietnamese refugee memoir, Quang X. Pham's A Sense of Duty. Although the stories are quite distinctly different, they would make interesting companion pieces to be taught in a course on refugee/emigrant literature. In a word, this book is excellent.
tshiroma on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book, The Unwanted by Kien Nguyen, was a memoir of his struggle to get away from the communists in Vietnam during the Fall of Saigon . I talks about from when he was a young boy, and he was part of a rich family and provided with anything and everything he needed, to when the communists came and changed everything, turning his life in to a story in need of some comic relief . Kien, being the eldest son in his family including his single mother once her good for nothing boyfriend leaves them when she has a meltdown, his younger brother who is too young to really be able to help himself, and his two grandparents who would rather die on the land that they knew than go to America where they would have to start over completely . They go through many obstacles, being allowed to register in a community where the leader once worked for Kien's mother who was once vain and unappreciative, doing anything they could for money to survive, a plan to get Kien smuggled to America that backfires badly, Kien ending up in a concentration camp, and even getting papers that allow him, his mother, his brother, and the new addition, his youngest sister, to fly to America . I cannot personally connect to this story, but I know someone who can . My great grandmother was put in to a concentration camp when the Japanese invaded Guam during World War II . I can relate to the feeling they must have felt being stuck there . Everyone at some point feels like they're stuck and need to get to a new foundation to grow on . In Kien's place, it was literal .I personally LOVED this book . There was always something new and exciting that just kept the story line going . There was always something coming up next, always something keeping me at the edge of my seat . And it just made it better knowing that this wasn't made up, it was a real life tragedy for Kien and his family . I would most definitely reccomend this book to someone else . Anyone who likes books based on historical events, fictional or memoirs, would love this book . It really shows the problems that everyone had to go to, not just Kien's, but everyone's family . And what it is like when a one in a million chance pops up and they are able to go through with it .
meitel1551 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing biography and story. It is about the authors struggle to escape Vietnam as a child. As you read this, the author begins as a child and as he grows, so does the reader. The reader at first is just taken into this little boy's story, stuck in Vietnam. But as he begins to understand the situation and the dynamics of his family, the reader understands as well. This is a touching book which really changed me for the better.
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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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...