Reviewed by Joey Kary
To some, Palawan is an ideal vacation spot; a small remote island in the Phillipines with beautiful beaches and the cleanest water in the nation. To Kim Nguyen, however, Palawan was more than that. It was a place of refuge and imprisonment, the site of a chaotic camp for the boat people who fled Vietnam after its unification under the Communist in 1975.
Palawan Story, Caroline Vu's novel of a Vietnamese refugee, begins with the American pull-out from Vietnam, an event that Kim, like the public in the United States, watches on the television screen. Her story, however, is about the moments and details between the big events of history. The transition from the Americans to the Communist take-over is evidenced by the small details of everyday life: Ivory Soap can no longer be found in the market for love or money, while Cuban cigars and Russian caviar suddenly emerge through the black market. The family friend who was proud of her heavy jade earrings buries them in the backyard and fills the holes in her ears with mud to look more like a good comrade.
Her escape from Vietnam brings Kim to the Palawan refugee camp. Then through a clerical error, Kim ends up going to America. In the US, Kim finds a culture that is both familiar and confusing; she shares with her American family memories of watching The Flying Nun on television, but struggles with dramatically different food and attitudes to child rearing. Her life is also marked by the place in-between, by distinct memories of Palawan and hazy recollections of the boat trip that got her out of Vietnam. She hangs on to the refugee camp experiences that shaped her life and the lie that helped her to create a new one.
Meanwhile, the big events that marked Kim's life and her generation occur off-stage, out of memory; the American pull-out, military battles and massacres, the trauma of drifting on the seas out of Vietnam awaiting rescue, are all buried in the past, forgotten or never experienced directly. In America and then in Montreal, she collects newspaper clippings and the stories of other refugees, trying to understand through the recollections of others the history that shaped her life. At the same time, she tries to understand her family, the father who disappeared with the American pull-out, the mother who sent her away alone in the hope of a better life; all the domestic interactions that children absorb through their skin without the language to comprehend them.
A true voyage involves return to a better understanding of where you come from. Kim travels to the refugee camps, to the United States, to Montreal, only to return as an adult and a doctor to the camps and then to the Vietnam from which she had escaped.
The refugee camp at Palawan has been closed down. The remaining Vietnamese who were not resettled in the West have integrated into local Filipino communities. The egalitarianism imposed by the North Vietnamese has given way to a society in which the poor work in sweatshops for pennies an hour, while the rich flaunt their wealth on local golf courses. Palawan Story shows us those worlds that no longer exist; and it shows us the journey of a young woman's soul, as she tries to understand, reshape and retell the story of her past and the stories that shaped her.