(Don’t Have to Live) Like a Refugee

Beth Nguyen


When Tom Petty sings don’t have to live like a refugee, drawing out that last syllable, I can’t sing along.

It’s just a song, I’ve been told. But what I know about music begins with my three uncles, who for years lived with my father and grandmother and sisters and me, three generations in one rental house in the Michigan town where we were resettled after the war in Viet Nam. We spoke Vietnamese at the dinner table and listened to American English everywhere else.

We weren’t living like refugees; we were refugees, though I didn’t know that then. My father worked at a feather factory. My uncles, at other factories. My grandmother cooked every meal and took care of my sister and me. I can see myself, a little girl staring at the records that my uncles had saved up to buy, wanting to touch the sacred turntable and stereo equipment. I loved to see the needle landing on a record, to hear that whisper of static. I wondered how those tiny ridges and rivulets could create so much sound.

Those years were soundtracked by bands like the Eagles, The Carpenters, Simon and Garfunkel, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. When I hear these songs and voices now — in a grocery store, or on Spotify — I pause whatever I’m doing. Sometimes I turn the song away; sometimes I let myself feel it. That melancholy of memory. Maybe it’s in the vicinity of what my father and uncles might have felt, having arrived to a new and unwelcoming land, having fought in a war and lost, having lost family and friends to this war, having to start over. They were still in their 20s but their youth was gone.

I was maybe eight years old when I really listened to that Tom Petty song. I had a stepmother by then, and it was an idle summer evening, and she heard me singing along to “Refugee” — probably the last time I ever sang that song. Yep, my stepmother said, that’s what you are, a refugee. I knew that my family had fled Saigon in the middle of the night, with little more than a bag of clothes, on the eve of the end of the war. I knew we had been lucky. But refugee? I didn’t understand what that really meant.

Tell me why you want to lay there  / And revel in your abandon
It don’t make no difference to me baby  / Everybody’s had to fight to be free

I knew I wasn’t supposed to take these lyrics personally. It’s just a song, people say. But I couldn’t get over the dismissal and disdain. The words created a feeling I already knew too well: shame. For years after, every time I heard that song I felt it like a burn. I tucked it away with all the others shames I’d known as a Vietnamese person growing up in a nearly all-white town. The shame of looking strange, looking foreign. The shame of eating weird food. The shame of the history that had brought us here, that no one, including myself, seemed to understand. The shame of the white gaze, of taking it. That was the shame of being a refugee. It was another thing to try to escape.

For my uncles, music was joy and rage and whatever they couldn’t or wouldn’t or weren’t safe to express. Sometimes a song tells you what to feel; sometimes it makes you feel what you hadn’t known you wanted or needed. And often it’s out of nowhere: that thing you weren’t expecting to reckon with. The songs of my childhood have been looping through my mind for decades, at once the same and changing alongside me. I can be feeling just fine in the checkout lane when Tom Petty’s sudden voice will remind me to think again.

By the time I got to middle school my uncles had moved out, started their own families. I missed their company and laughter, the way they always took us kids out for ice cream. They provided my first education in American music. I had watched as their turntables gave way to cassette players and CD players and their music collections grew. On any given day I could hear Springsteen, Donna Summer, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ABBA, the Guess Who, Rita Coolidge, Santana, Bob Dylan. For a while, the songs let us be somewhere else.

My uncles are in their 70s now but they’ve kept many of their old records. They still listen to favorite songs — favorite meaning known, meaning comfortably worn — and I do too. Because that’s what we do, those of us who have learned how to live in someone else’s language, learned so hard that we made it our own. The words stay in our minds. We love the songs that were never meant for us.


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