The Frangipani Hotel (Vietnam)

Frangipaniby Violet Kupersmith

I don’t know which season is best for telling ghost stories in Vietnam: Monsoon Season? Here in Spokane, it’s just Autumn. And the short stories in this collection will give you a delicious autumn chill!

I liked some stories better than others, but there were a few that stood out:

1) A granddaughter of a pair of boat people tries to coax a refugee story from her grandmother so she can get an A on her paper in school. Alas, the two do not speak each other’s language. The story the grandmother wishes to tell is not the story the granddaughter wishes to hear.

2) In the title story, a deadly and beautiful Vietnamese spirit takes an obnoxious American businessman for a midnight swim…even knowing how fatal she is, the Vietnamese desk clerk at the hotel can’t help but wonder why he was not chosen…

3) Vietnamese-American sisters are sent to live with their grandmother in the Old Country so that the pudgy sister can lose weight. After three weeks of sneaking out to gobble Banh Mi buns from an English-speaking and curious street vendor, the still-pudgy sister discovers her grandmother’s decomposing body in the back garden. She has been there the whole time…but she has also been questioning Thuy about her life…

Bahn MiWhile many short stories (in general) are nothing more than a clever idea played to its conclusion, these seem to offer a way in to the immigrant / emigrant experience. Like a ghost you can only see from the corner of your eye. What you’re left with is an impression of lingering doubt, confusion, fear, resentment, curiosity, sadness, shame and many other feelings on the part of those who left – and those who stayed.

The Eternal Question

Who has it better – those who left, or those who stayed? Old QuarterObviously America is more wealthy than Vietnam, and less crowded even in its largest cities.

But in the Frangipani Hotel an entire family lives together: Uncle Hung, his two sons and his wife, his dead brother’s wife and son, and his old mother.

Meanwhile in Burbank, the grandmother who was a boat person complains that her grandchildren seldom come to visit, and even her daughter is too busy to make time for her.

Vietnam MapA Korean friend who fled to this country after the war  once confided in me that she thought she had made a mistake. She lives in a large house with her American husband and is wealthy by US standards. But when she visits in Seoul, she is struck by how many family members are constantly in and out of each other’s small apartments – and she feels like a stranger. She misses that closeness with all those people. (Of course, South Korea is not a poor country anymore.)

My own people have been perpetual immigrants to “The New World.” I am the direct descendent (12 times removed) of a pair of Puritans  called John Alden and Priscilla Mullins. More recently, my great-grandfather emigrated to this country from Denmark. He started a sawmill in southern Idaho. My other great-grandfather left England to start a ranch in Arizona. Ancestors on both my mother’s and father’s side came to the US from Ireland before that.

Vietnam IslandI think many Americans share my story; and hold a unique fascination with the drama of immigration. Even the Native Americans are now thought to have come from Asia long ago, via the Arctic Circle.

Violet Kupersmith’s ability to tell a gripping story just adds to the drama. The only story I did not like was the one in which the sorority girl was so mean to the cat. I liked how it informed the story, I just wanted somebody to rescue the poor animal!

Maybe I also didn’t like what it said about female ex-pats who choose to live in a chauvinistic culture and then be offended by it – as I did in Japan.

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