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.San Jose’s 1st Look at Viet Thanh Nguyen’s ‘The Sympathizer’

music in the park san jose

On April 1 at 6:30pm, a large crowd of us gathered at AMC Eastridge 15 to view a secret advance screening of HBO’s adaptation of The Sympathizer.

Based on author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel of the same name, the seven-episode series premieres this weekend, but the Eastridge event was the first time anyone, anywhere, had a chance to watch the first episode.

The Sympathizer is an espionage thriller and transcultural satire about the struggles of a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist spy during the final days of the Vietnam War and his new life as a refugee in the suburban wastelands of Los Angeles and Orange County, where he learns that his spying days aren’t over as he becomes indoctrinated in crass American consumer culture.

Though I have not seen the whole series, I can definitely speak for the novel, which successfully and necessarily muddies the cliched, reductive interpretations of the Vietnam War. Nguyen has implied forever that he wrote the book to offend everyone on all sides. In that sense, the book is a masterpiece and a very deep read. Plus, it’s just plain funny.

For decades now, every oaf in “the West,” whatever that even is, has assumed the Vietnamese people were either communist or anti-communist. Well, it’s a lot more complicated.

Nguyen came to the US with his family as refugees and then grew up in downtown San Jose, where less-than-ideal environs drove him out of town in 1989, straight into a distinguished decades-long academic career. All wars are fought twice, he famously wrote. Once on the battlefield, the second time in memory. This can apply to many things, the Vietnam War or the misery of growing up in the crime zone that was downtown at that time.

Much of Nguyen’s work, fiction and nonfiction, articulates this concept. Memory. More than anyone else alive, he has now spent the last 30 years elevating the Vietnamese diaspora, and the refugee experience, especially in terms of the arts, literature and scholarship.

Yet the San Jose dimension of Nguyen’s roots remained strong enough for him to help set up the only advance screening of The Sympathizer right here in town. He attended the event and spoke on stage following the screening, where he made an excellent point. Thirty years ago, this event could not have happened in San Jose. The local Vietnamese community, many of whom are staunch anti-communists, would have exploded in protest.

He’s right. In 2024, everything is different. The diaspora in San Jose has a bona fide political voice and a cultural voice that they didn’t have 30 years ago. You can even get banh mi pizza these days. And have you tried Vietnamese coffee mixed with horchata? If not, please do.

Everyone who attended the screening seemed grateful beyond words. The HBO adaptation was so emotional, and so visceral, that it drove several of the Vietnamese American attendees to tears.

But one didn’t need Vietnamese blood to, um, sympathize. Or empathize. I nearly choked up watching the violent escape from Saigon because it reminded me of many stories I’ve read about the Partition of India, which my dad and uncles lived through, as kids, yet never got a chance to tell me about. They all passed away before I had a chance to ask them. They were not refugees or displaced people of any sort, but ten million others were. Nostalgia for a destroyed homeland is more universal than you might think, especially if you write newspaper columns about San Jose every week.

And here’s another thing. The overwhelming majority of actors in the series are Vietnamese. This, too, was incomprehensible 30 years ago, or even three years ago, in Hollywood. Three years ago, the casting creeps would have deemed anyone “Asian” to be sufficient. No more. Instead, we have Hoa Xuande, Fred Nguyen Khan, Toan Le, Phanxine, Vy Le, Ky Duyen, Kieu Chinh, Duy Nguyen and Alan Trong, plus Sandra Oh and Robert Downey Jr., who plays multiple roles.

Even if some viewers watch the series just for Robert Downey Jr., the rest of us will know that a good deal of Nguyen’s creativity germinated right here in San Jose. And for that, we can all celebrate.

Gary Singh
Gary Singh
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.


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