Review: A refugee’s big-hearted tale of building an American identity
In June, a math professor at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., was put on leave after he asked a student named Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen to “anglicize” her name because, he said, it sounded “like an insult” in English. Phuc Tran, the author of the hilarious and heart-breaking new memoir Sigh, Gone, similarly grappled with American mispronunciations and jokes about his name ever since his family came to the United States from Vietnam as refugees in 1975, when he was a toddler.
In Tran’s earliest memory, when he was 4, he asks his dad what his name is “in English.” In Vietnamese, he writes, “my name is phonetically pronounced fuhp. It sounds like a baseball clapping into the lithe, oiled leather of a catcher’s glove.” His father tells him his name is “Fook” in English. During the “Star Wars”-besotted years in which Tran grows up, he tells people his name “rhymes with Luke.” He briefly substitutes the name Peter for his own before middle school. His devout Catholic parents agree because of the biblical resonance of the name, but the decision to switch leads to more teasing than before, so he quickly reverts to his given name.
When the Tran family immigrates to the United States, they are assigned to Carlisle, Pa., where local Lutheran families sponsor them, providing “an array of household items, scattershot all over Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.” The town, Tran writes, epitomizes “small-town PA. Poorly read. Very white. Collar blue.” The Trans are “the token refugee family,” who “blended right into the mix like proverbial flies in the ointment. That is to say: we didn’t.”
“You know one way to show that you fit in?” Phuc Tran writes in Sigh, Gone, “By not fitting in.”
In Vietnam, Tran’s father had been a lawyer, but in Carlisle, he takes a job at a tire factory, where his fellow workers make fun of his pronunciation of the word “teeth.” The family of four lives in a 660-square-foot apartment for a decade, while Tran’s parents struggle to learn the English language and American customs, like writing one’s given name first instead of one’s surname, as is done in Vietnam. “Do things backward to fit in,” Tran writes, “a fitting metaphor.” When Tran is in elementary school, seeing his parents struggle makes him doubt their infallibility, doubts that usually don’t surface in children until much later. “If I couldn’t believe in my parents, in whom (or what) could I believe?”
Tran’s parents immerse him in Catholic rituals and demonstrate their profound faith when in 1979 Tran’s mother is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They travel to Philadelphia to visit the shrine of St. John Neumann, where they pray and purchase a relic, a bone fragment of the saint, and Tran is given a prayer card, “the trading cards of Catholicism.” When his mother undergoes surgery a few days later, the doctors find no cancer. His father calls it a miracle. “He believed it,” Tran writes. “I didn’t know what to believe. I didn’t know what a miracle was. I only knew what I could see: that my mother was alive.”
As Tran navigates a rocky childhood, marred by racism and physical abuse, he yearns for spiritual and intellectual sustenance beyond the “muscular, if simple, Catholicism” of his parents. He finds salvation in two sources that might seem contradictory: punk music and the classics of literature. Tran shows how the two disparate art forms are related, both created by people who wanted to transmit an artifact of their inner lives to others.
Tran constructs Sigh, Gone as a series of meditations on the lessons from great books that moved and instructed him. “As an immigrant, as a Vietnamese kid, as a poor kid, I had collected so many scarlet letters of alienation that I connected profoundly to the great works,” he writes. “As I read, I began to understand that all the great works wrangled with big questions, important questions: our place in the world, the value of our experience, the fairness and meaning of our suffering, our quest for love and belonging.” In a town where Tran’s coworker at the gas station glances at his copy of the Iliad and thinks it’s called “I Laid,” classics are a life raft for Tran.
Tran learns from his parents a knack for survival. The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” is the “accidental theme song for the Tran family.” His survival instincts induce him to abandon his “Star Wars”-and-comic-book sci-fi nerdery, and instead throw in with a group of skateboarding punk rockers, who accept him for who he is, a transformation he likens to that of Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion.” As he learns tricks on his skateboard, he explores punk music, beginning by photocopying the pages on punk from The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll at the library. He bleaches his hair and sources his wardrobe from secondhand stores—a gesture that his thrifty parents grudgingly approve of. “You know one way to show that you fit in?” Tran writes, “By not fitting in.”
Sigh, Gone is a winning, funny, big-hearted book about what it means to choose an American identity despite this country’s flaws.
While some people receive their identity as a sort of hand-me-down from their family’s resources, religion and culture, for a refugee who begins life in the wake of the obliteration of his family’s native country, this is not an option. Because nearly everyone considers him an outsider, Tran recognizes with rare acuity how he is viewed, and sets about deliberately choosing what influences he will cultivate and project. The names of the bands he loved, the movies he watched and the literature he devoured will conjure many memories for Gen-X readers.
While Tran’s pop cultural enthusiasms leaven the story, the most searing parts of the book address Tran’s relationship with his father. When Tran’s father beats him so badly he cannot sit in class, his second-grade teacher visits and instructs Tran’s father that “in America, parents can’t hit their kids as much as they do in Vietnam.” Tran writes, “As an adult, I can explain and even understand where his anger came from (PTSD as a refugee, his own abuse as a child, the cycle of abuse that can perpetuate itself in a culture that equated obedient children with great parenting). As a second grader, I knew this violence as my only reality.”
Tran’s father’s anger flares periodically throughout his childhood, and combusts so spectacularly when Tran is in high school that he leaves home and couch-surfs for several months. There are beautiful moments of near-connection between Tran and his father—such as their mutual respect for books, and one holiday’s perfect gift of a stereo system. Their moments of frightening disconnection shadow his childhood, but he writes about his father with sensitivity and forgiveness.
Sigh, Gone, like Tran himself, contains multitudes. It might seem like a jumble of contradictory themes and ideas, but as the book reveals its design, one can see Tran has selected what to include as carefully as he assembled his thrift-store punk wardrobe. This is a winning, funny, big-hearted book about what it means to choose an American identity despite this country’s flaws.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Coming to America,” in the September 2020, issue.