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May 8, 2024 32 mins

The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Vietnamese-American author lê thi diem thúy is a poetic look at immigration, memory, trauma, identity and loss. 

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Speaker 1 (00:05):
Hey, this is Adding and Samantha and welcome to stuff.
I'll never told you a protection of iHeartRadio. And I
guess before we get into this quick content warning, we
are going to be talking about death and grief things
like that, but nothing to in depth. Today we are

talking about the two thousand and three book The Gangster
We Are All Looking For by Vietnamese American author Leam Twee.
It is a short, fragmented piece told by an unnamed
narrator who immigrated from Vietnam to America as a child.
The locations and times jump around, largely taking place in

Vietnam and America. The age of the narrator ranges from
six to twenty six, and she grapples with things like identity, war, immigration, loss,
puberty and PTSD, her and her parents, everybody around your
kind of mainly then. The fragmented nature of the book
is meant to resemble what happens to memory during a
traumatic event, including the repression of her brother's death. It

is a very poetic and symbolic book. A lot of
people describe it as almost your more reading poetry. Here's
a note from the author in nineteen seventy eight, my
father and I left Vietnam by boat on board the
US Navy ship that picked us up. My father incorrectly
filled out the paperwork identifying me. He listed my name

as Twee and my date of birth as January fifteenth,
nineteen seventy two. He claims he never chose my formal name,
and shugart the shoulders who could fault him for forgetting
My mother arrived two years later and informed us that
Bab had been wrong on both counts. She corrected my
date of birth it was now January twelfth, nineteen seventy two,

but insisted I keep the name Tweet. My older sister,
the original Tweet had drowned at a refugee camp in Malaysia.
My mother saw my father's mistake as propitious. It allowed
a part of my older sister to come to this
country with us, and so I kept my sister's name
and wore it like a borrowed garment, one in which
my mother crowded two daughters, one dead and one living.

When I decided to publish under my full name in
the Vietnamese fashion and all in lawer case because I
prefer the way it runs, I knew that both Americans
and Vietnamese may find fault with it. It is not
how names go in either country. Nonetheless, it felt right
to me I had finally managed to break the name down,
rebuild it, and reclaim it as my own. So if

you have read the book, then a lot of this
is going to sound familiar. So it's not autobiographical, but
it's got a lot of similarities to this story and
it is a sman that I were discussing it off
Mike right before. It is sort of hard to pin
down because it is kind of like poetry and it
does jump around a lot. So the plot is essentially

you have this narrator, a named narrator, young girl who
immigrates via boat from Vietnam to America, loses her brother,
and then has these memories that stand out. As I said,
it's supposed to represent like a traumatic or some kind

of memory that just stands out when you look back
for whatever reason. And it's exploring that and exploring her
trying to grapple with the PTSD and her father's PTSD,
her mother's PTSD and figure things out and just having

a lot of questions and a lot of a lot
of feelings that she's not sure what to do with
but yeah, I mean, that's essentially essentially the plot. So
if we move into the themes, a big one is
obviously immigration and identity. Here's the quote. We each thought
of those long nights floating on the ocean, rocking back

and forth in the middle of nowhere, with nothing in sight.
We remembered the ships that kept their distance. We remembered
the people leaning over the decks of the ships to
study us through their binoculars, and not liking what they saw,
turning away from our boat.

Speaker 2 (04:23):
And then another one. I was the only Vietnamese student
at my school. On the first day of class, the
teacher introduced me to the other students by holding a
globe in one hand as she gave it a spin
with the other, and then pointing her finger at an
S shaped curve near a body of water. Was that
where I'd come from? As I stood before them in
a dress the color of an Easter egg, with my
feet encased in clear plastic sandals, the other students looked

at the globe and then back at me again. Some
whispered behind their hands, some just stared.

Speaker 1 (04:51):
Yeah, so again, she's not She's kind of plays feels
kind of about of place right in this a whole
situation in the because they first arrived at this guy
named Mel's house and he never really agreed to take

them in, but someone in his family did. His father, Yeah,
so he was like, okay, I'll take them in. And
but it was a very much like it was not
in his the cards that he was expecting, right, and
he his mother was there, right, and she was the

one that put put her in the like easter dress
and the sandals.

Speaker 3 (05:39):
And she was her little doll.

Speaker 1 (05:41):
Yes, it was kind of dress, yes, But the narrator
there was this like glass case of figurines in Mel's
office or like in his his space. But there was
also this like glass paperweight. It sounds like to me.

Speaker 2 (06:04):
Like that's like like we've all seen it if you've
come from the nineties, you know.

Speaker 1 (06:09):
Yeah, but yeah, like a kind of a glass yeah,
with a butterfly in it. And she, the narrator, was
just so concerned about this butterfly and felt like she
could hear it and that it was alive in there
and it was trapped in there, and she wanted to
let it out. And everybody was kind of treating her
like you know, your young girl like, no, it's not.

But eventually it built up and she grabbed it and
threw it and broke the glass case with all of
the glass figurines in it in an attempt to free
the butterfly. And this is when Mel kicked them all out.

Speaker 2 (06:50):
Nope, right, because that was the only rule in the house.
Essential Well, there's a lot of rules, but the biggest
rule is don't touch these things because it had been
given from his father. And so both the mother and
Mel were very very sentimental about these things. I'm assuming
it was worth some money, maybe not already, just really

loved it because the father. It was an interesting beginning
with the father, the portrayal of the father who had
a dream about saving the people of Vietnam because he
was a veteran I think, yeah, who would serve there
and had been cared for there by the people quote unquote,
and so he wanted to rescue these people.

Speaker 3 (07:33):
That was his calling from a dream that he had supposedly.

Speaker 1 (07:40):
Right, right, And this is this is one of those
things that when you get to the end, one of
those books that when you get to the end, you're like, oh, okay.
But once I got to the end, I was she
was thinking, this is her brother like trapped in the glass.
This is like the memory of her rather trapped in

the glass, and that's why she felt like she could hear,
and she felt like it was she could just free
this butterfly, right, it would be alive.

Speaker 2 (08:10):
I think with all of that, I found that interesting
and we don't talk about it at the beginning scene,
and I I do relate to this because I have
a very vivid picture of myself in her memory of
arriving in the airport, not knowing English, being with nobody
that I knew, just kind of showing.

Speaker 3 (08:29):
Up waiting to be picked up.

Speaker 2 (08:31):
And essentially that's what the experience happens for herself and
the four other men in MA and they are waiting
to be picked up, not realizing the person who had
sponsored them essentially had died and he was being they
were picked up by another dude who really obviously did
not want them. And the fact that I think they

the people who were picking them up, the mother especially
was thinking she was gonna get a reception of love
and thankfulness instead, like they were scared and confused more
than anything else, and that level of like what do.

Speaker 3 (09:04):
We do who are you?

Speaker 1 (09:06):

Speaker 3 (09:06):
We trust you? Do you trust us?

Speaker 2 (09:08):
And that level of like being a burden and being
seen as a burden and realizing there a burden without
even knowing the language. Like it was very reminiscent like
at that immigration stage of like, yeah, okay, this is
our status.

Speaker 3 (09:20):
Here, this is our status.

Speaker 2 (09:22):
And I think it was a very telling beginning.

Speaker 1 (09:25):
Yeah, yes, here is another quote, and this one I
was like, I'm not sure where to put it, but
I just thought it was interesting because it's kind of
about like all of these warnings that summer, as I
sat with her while she worked, she would issue her
warnings about the pool. She told me, look at you,

you're as small as a mouse. The water is much
deeper than you think. About cars, she said, they can
hit you and keep going. About the needle on her
sewing machine, she said, watch your fingers. It can move
much faster than you can run. And about boys, she warned,
they will try to press you into it. So this
is when they moved to the next place and it
has pool and water. We're gonna talk about this at

the end, but water is a huge theme right throughout
this whole thing, and this pool was very big thing.

Speaker 3 (10:24):
The Vietnamese word for water.

Speaker 2 (10:26):
It was very similar to the Korean word for water
more that's the Korean word, And I was like, oh,
because that's it's like there's a heaviness about it, taking you,
taking you, taking your life, but taking you places too,
and being lost in it. That's very, very deep into
that that they were talking about from jump, them arriving
from the water and the fact that her parents were

still in the water, and she didn't know what that meant,
but it was giant mm hmm. So here's another quote.
We tumble out the window like people tumbling a continents.
We are time traveling, weighed down by heavy furniture and
bags of precious junk. We find ourselves against Boss yellow truck.

Ma calls his name, her voice reaching like a hand
feeling for a tree trunk and darkness and the car.
Ma starts to cry. What about the sea? She asks,
what about the garden? Boss says we can come back
in the morning and dig up the stalks of lemon
grass and fold the sea into a blue square. My sobbing.
She is beating the dashboard with her fists. I want

to know, she says, I want to know I want
to know who is doing this to us? Hiccupping, She says,
I want to know why why there's always a fence.
Why there's always someone on the outside wanting someone something
on the inside and between them this sharp fence. We
are always leaving like this. And this is where I

got kind of confused, y'all, because she talks about leaving
her parents behind in the attic, and I was like, wait,
was her parents in the attic because there is like
a moment of conversations where they're prepping for the parents
to come, and then then a lot of confusion from me.

Speaker 1 (12:09):
Well, yeah, well they had to, as this quote tells you,
they had to leave kind of quickly because they just
got an eviction notice that was like, hey, we're gonna
break down, We're going to tear down all of this.
And this was after they filled in the pool, right,
and we'll rebuild it and you'll be the first on
our list when it's up and running again. But they

just had to They had to leave and steal essentially
their own stuff, write it out. So it happened very quickly,
and I mean my interpretation was that the parents had
not shown up yet, that they were just preparing for them,
and then they had to leave really quickly, and that's
why part of the devastation was, well, they're going somewhere

else now, or how we're going to tell them? How
will they know?

Speaker 2 (13:00):
One of your theories apparently that I just read, as
Riswega says at the end, the mother calls out of
her for her parents, which you've forgotten. This has a
double meaning. She's calling for her home in Vietnam to
return to Vietnam, as well as a photograph she's forgotten
at her Linda Vista home. So it's literal too, Okay,
So that's where I missed that one. But yeah, it's

because that's the entirety of the book, y'all. There's double meaning,
if not triple or like quadriple meaning, which is kind
of the poetic to it of like oh the deeper,
the depth that this is probably one of those very
short books that if you read it three or four
different times, you're going to find three or four different things,
like different meanings. Yes, which is beautiful and very very

intelligent that I apparently is not in my house.

Speaker 1 (13:50):
Well, we were talking about this too, because you usually
listen audio and I read it with my eyes dress.
But there are and we were talking about this too,
of their own book. There are some books that are
just better. It's it's easier to like keep track of
the thread if you're reading it, and some it's better
to do it the audio. But this one I did

have the thought when I was reading, I was like, oh, bit,
that's jumping around. You might be a little bit confused about.

Speaker 4 (14:18):
The story because it also has a picture, the photograph
in it, which is a big part of it, and
the story of like how.

Speaker 1 (14:32):
The mother and father got together. That's where the title
comes from. At least again, as you said, there's like
multiple meanings, right, that is what because the dad it's
like a the gangster we were looking for. He was
a gangster right from North Korea. And she was like
a Catholic girl, so her parents did not approve at all.

Here's another quote. Mass has wars a bird with a
broken wing flying over the countryside, trailing blood and burying
crops and sorrow. If something grows in spite of this,
it is both a curse and a miracle. When I
was born, she cried to know that it was war
I was breathing in and she could never shake it
out of me. Ma says war makes it dangerous to breathe,

though she knows you die if you don't. She says,
she could have thrown me against the wall until I
broke or coughed up this war that is killing us all.
She could have stomped on it in the dark and
danced on it like a mad woman dancing on gravestones.
She could have grounded down to powder and spat on it,
but didn't. I know. War has no beginning and no end.
It crosses oceans like a splintered boat filled with people

singing a sad song. And that is a big piece
of this too, is the family aspect, and also the
trauma and the PTSD aspect, as we have been saying,
because the the way that it manifests in the different

characters is different, but it is very clear, like the
father figure is like an angry alcoholic essentially. The narrator,
as I've said, is having flashbacks, although she's not really

sure that she's having them. She's just having these like
emotions and memories come back based on certain sensations. One
of them is there's a scene where she goes to
get a bag of ice and she just carries it
in her arms, and she has something akin to a

panic attack because her fingers kind of get wrinkly and
she's cold, and it reminds her in some way of
her brother being dead in the water, and that that's
probably his fingers looked like. Also, a lot of the

relationships are just really tense, a lot of unresolved issues
for sure. But again going back to the title, there
is a pretty strong father daughter relationship happening in here.
He's the one that carried her to the boat. She

wanted to be like him. He is the gangster they
are looking for. It's interesting because she does see a
lot of his faults, but I guess she almost sees
them as like a strength. It's interesting the way she looks,
she looks up to him and looks at him. But yeah,

he was the one that was there and carried her
in the boat.

Speaker 2 (17:57):
Yeah. She even says at one point, I want to
be the gangster we are all looking for, like implying
she wants to be like him. You know, even when
like the abusive situations happened, she still realizes that he
carried the family essentially in so many ways. And the
scenes that we have of just him and his wife

her her father and mother are really sweet, interestingly a
contrast to what she remembers from him and why she
stays away from him, right, But the way he cares
for her, and like the whole scene where he talks
about the news anchor said that we're going to get
this feast and we're going to cook this and she

he was talking about her being a cook, the mother
being the cook, and him being a gardener at that point,
and she was like, oh, really, who's cooking this? And
he goes, I guess the gardener's implying that he would
feed her and help her. So it was interesting. It
was an interesting like flip, yeah, and how she saw
him in the youth and how the the father saw
him to the these scenes of him caring for her.

Speaker 1 (19:10):
Yes, yes, and they did have they were They would
fight like her parents would fight, but they always seemed
to kind of come back together. It was interesting, definitely, Okay,
and that I thought the mom was cheating at one point,

right because there was another guy at the movie theater
and I was like, Oh, I don't know which, I guess.
Speaking of adolescence and love is the theme in here.
Here's a quote. In the early days of my parents' courtship,
my mother told stories. She confessed elaborate dreams about the

end of war. Food she'd eat, a banquet table, mangoes
piled to the ceiling. Songs she'd make up and sing,
clapping her hands her head and throwing her hair like
a horse's mane. Dances. She dance, hopping from one foot
to the other. Unlike the responsible, favorite daughter or sister
she was to her family with my father in the forest,
my mother became reckless, drunk on her youth and the

possibilities of love, ignoring the chores to be done at home.
She rolled her pants up to her knees, stuck her
bare feet in puddles, and learned to smoke a cigarette.

Speaker 3 (20:24):
She rebelled bit a little bit.

Speaker 2 (20:27):
Yeah, because the scene that we get is she see
someone that she hadn't seen in years, like her It
seems like maybe her first love. But it also coincides
with the author talking about her first contact with a
young boy, So it kind of like that melding of
realizing what her mother was doing and what she was

doing as well, and her first experience with love and lust.
And here's another quote, the barbed wire gates open, and
she crosses through to him, arrives warm, the slightest film
of sweat on her bare arms. To his disbelieving eyes,
she says, it's me. It's me, shy and formal and breathless.
My parents always meeting for the first time, savoring the

sound of a name, marveling at the bones of the
face cut by the bones of the hand. I trail
behind him the tip of their dragon's tail. I am
drawn along like a silken banner on the body of
a kite.

Speaker 3 (21:24):
Very beautiful, it's good.

Speaker 1 (21:25):
It's really beautiful. Poetic verse.

Speaker 3 (21:29):
I'm attaching that somewhere.

Speaker 1 (21:31):
It's a long quote, but yeah, I just want to
briefly touch on this. There is some stuff about religion
in here that I thought was interesting. Here's a quote.

My friends told me that if he gave the church
people the chance, they would open their little books and,
pointing to the pictures of fresh fruit, say things like,
this is heaven. Here's the Kingdom of God, where no
one suffers. Their fingers tracing an invisible line connecting all
the healthy people walking through the sunlit fields. My friends
and I took the pamphlets the church people handed out
and studied the drawings of people having picnics on the

banks of the Long Blue River, or harvesting wheat, or
standing arm in arm looking into each other's eyes. To us,
these pictures were more unbelievable than the warriors we saw
flying in the Kung Fu movies. As far as we
could understand it, the church on our street was like
a ladder to the kingdom. I thought that was an
interesting through line, right there is her and her mom

liked to go see Kung Fu movies, so there is
that through line throughout. But also, yes, there is there
are some there's.

Speaker 3 (22:41):
A church on the street and Jehovah's Witness church there.

Speaker 1 (22:44):
Yes, there's some people church people about and her and
most of her friends seemed mostly confused by it.

Speaker 3 (22:53):
I love it.

Speaker 2 (22:54):
It's an interesting conversation about the colonization that was happening
with the Catholicism of Johoah's Witness and different religions that
came through in Vietnam, especially during this era. And I
think it has a bigger conversation because she's more intrigued
by the tails of it. Yes, I think we all
are as children, but she is more intrigued by that
than the actual belief system.

Speaker 1 (23:17):
Right the story of it, which, yeah, leads us to
the next point.

Speaker 3 (23:21):

Speaker 1 (23:22):
Dreams are a big part in this. Here's a quote.
I began to play with the ceiling, a game that
I used to play with the sky when I was
lying in the fishing boat on the sea. At that time,
I thought that everyone and everything I missed was hovering
behind the sky. The game involved looking for a seam
to the sky, a thread I could pull. I told

myself that if I could find the thread and focus
on it hard enough with my eyes, I could tear
the sky open, and my mother, my brother, my grandfather,
my flippops, my favorite shells would all fall down to me.
And she's a very imaginative. She's a very imaginative narrator.
I remember when we were reading, we always like give
each other a couple of books to choose from, And

when I was reading the summary of this book, it's
said in there like she feels things and sees things
very strongly.

Speaker 2 (24:12):
I feel like that's common for only like lonely children,
especially when they're forced to be isolated. So language barrier
and she talked about being the only Vietnamese child not
being able to speak to anyone, and everybody else were adults,
so she had to dream.

Speaker 3 (24:27):
She dreamed as.

Speaker 2 (24:28):
Well as like, yes, trauma, so when you have that
kind of like overlaying each other. And I find it
interesting that they use the ideas of photos with them
through here talking about this is photo number one, this
is what too, this is photo death, because I've talked
about repeatedly like being a child with no true memories,

like meaning like a lot of the times that what
we grow up to remember are things that are fed
to us and shown to us through photographs. So if
you only have a photograph with no contexts, the things
that you imagine, which is kind of what she does.

Speaker 3 (25:02):
M hmm. I thought it was interesting.

Speaker 2 (25:04):

Speaker 1 (25:04):
I also I thought like, because this was you know,
the escaping war, Vietnam war, coming to America for quote
hopefully a better life, you know, and so like that
dream of that as well of like maybe it will
be better here. And then yes, when they arrived, it
was isolating and scary, and but that did make me

think of think of that too, of sort of that
dream of something across the water is maybe better, right right.

Speaker 2 (25:37):
Taking you somewhere else. Here's another quote. I lay in
bed and remembered the things I had seen in the
swimming pool. I remember the body of a boy gliding
along the floor of the pool, sunlight streaming across his
bare back. I remembered the reflections of clouds, family of clouds,
and birds migrating. I remember the leaves that floated to
the edges of the swimming pool and nested there. I

remembered how the layer of the sun made the water
glint like a window pane. I remember the reflections of
a ball bouncing in the courtyard, and the clotheslines strung
from reil to rel, the sheets fluttering like banners in
the wind. But what I remembered most were the boys flying.
I remember their bodies arking through the air and plunging down.
I remembered how their hands parted the water, and how

as they disappeared, the last thing I would see were
the pale soles of their feet, falling asleep. I remember
the brightness of the full moon shimmering into the swimming pool,
so close, so close, like a caught fish.

Speaker 1 (26:34):
Yeah. So, going back to the pool, as we said,
it was a big piece of this story. She would
see these boys jumping into the pool, and she would
kind of observe how they jumped into the pool and
would think about wanting to do it herself. But I

just love this section because it does showcase outgrade of
a writer she is, but also the narrator really taking
this in and the way that those memories sometimes you
don't know why they form, but they do. And I

was thinking about this of the day. I have some
memories that I'm like, I don't know why my brain
decided that was important. I remember it so clearly right,
And I feel like this is a good example of her.
I mean I feel like that in here it was
her thinking I want to go jump in that water.
I want to go jump in the pool, and that

there's just something so close that I haven't captured yet,
or that's just like right out of my reach. But
it's just very vivid imagery, and I think it is
a good, a really good example of memories and how
they can form like that.

Speaker 2 (27:57):
I think it's also like the person of the kids
doing that to the fact that the mother wouldn't let
her because of our own memories of water and how
she feels the water is cursed and then the closing
of the bowl because the landlord has seen this and
it was the beginning and was like, oh, okay, we're
gonna fill this up because you don't get yourself killed,

like essentially doing some of the things. Like all of
that has that same theme of kind of like the
circling about of like the joy and freedom, but then
the loss and then the forbidding, like it just all
happened with that theme again about water.

Speaker 1 (28:35):
Yes, because the the mother was yeah, she was like
I want to be near water, but she didn't want
to go in, right, she didn't want her daughter to
go in. And then when they filled up the pool
because these boys were jumping off recklessly, she was very
hurt by it and very like, oh, well, now we

don't have water near us. And yes, as we said,
water is a big theme throughout. As you said, the
Vietnamese word for water very close to the Korean word.

Speaker 2 (29:07):
It is now so sweet. I can't say it like nop.
I think nope, no, okay, no, that's what it is,
so nope and I'm sorry to all the Vietnamese people,
which is like kind of that same level more like that,
it's very close, but that is yeah, us, I just
looked it up.

Speaker 1 (29:26):
Yes, And according to what I looked up, it is
in Vietnamese the word for water and the word for
a nation, a country, and homeland are one and the
same because Vietnam is surrounded by water. So and it
was very prevalent, as we've we've mentioned several times the pool,
but as the story progresses, you don't really know the

brother has died fully until more towards the end.

Speaker 2 (29:54):
Right, you don't realize there was a brother, yes, until
the end exactly.

Speaker 1 (29:59):
And it was as they were getting onto the boats.
He was jumping between boats and drowned, and they brought
the body back and the family was saying, like the
water was heavy, this is bad water, and so that
like having him in there, it was like, this is

bad water. And so throughout having those things like with
the pool, like wanting it there but not wanting to
go in it, as you were saying, kind of that
cycle of here's all of the good things with it,
but here's all the bad things with it, and the
trauma with it, and then having like the narrator want

to jump in the water because doesn't quite has repressed
this memory pretty fully for most of the story. I
really liked it. It was beautiful, very beautiful. It is
something definitely I would like to read again because it's
very poetic and now that I think, now that I
know how it moves, I think I would be much

better at keeping track of like okay, I know where
things are like people are right. But I do highly
recommend it. It's fairly short and very beautifully written.

Speaker 3 (31:18):
It is yes, go eat it.

Speaker 1 (31:21):
Yes well. Listeners. If you have read it and you
have any thoughts, please let us know if you have
any suggestions for the segment. Also, please let us know.
You can emails a Stephania mom Stuff at iHeartMedia dot com.
We've met us on Twitter at mom Stuff podcast or
on Instagram and TikTok at stuff when I've told you.
We're also on YouTube. We have a tea public store,
and we have a book you can get wherever you

get your books. Thanks is always too, our super producer
Christina or executive producer My and our contributor Joey, Thank
you and thank see you for listening Stuff I'll Never
told you. These production of I Heart Radio. For more
podcasts from my Heart Radio, you can check out the
heart Radio app Apple podcasts wherever you listen to your
favorite shows.

Speaker 4 (32:00):

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Stuff You Should Know

Stuff You Should Know

If you've ever wanted to know about champagne, satanism, the Stonewall Uprising, chaos theory, LSD, El Nino, true crime and Rosa Parks, then look no further. Josh and Chuck have you covered.

The Nikki Glaser Podcast

The Nikki Glaser Podcast

Every week comedian and infamous roaster Nikki Glaser provides a fun, fast-paced, and brutally honest look into current pop-culture and her own personal life.

Music, radio and podcasts, all free. Listen online or download the iHeart App.


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