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Binh's Haunting

smalina's picture

Binh's father's voice seems to function much like a haunting, appearing throughtout the novel in almost a ghostly manner as Binh attempts to make a life for himself in France. I'm interested in exploring the ways in which this haunting might function to drive Binh forward--to make some sort of change--as the ghost does to her host in Beloved

The Old Man is not really dead--or at least, not until later on in the narrative, when Binh's brother reaches out, asking him to return home to say goodbye. However, he has essentially told Binh that he is dead to him, not his son at least, and exiles him. This haunting allows Binh to make the Old Man "dead" to him as well, while he is very much alive. In fact, it is the live Old Man who "drives Binh forward" in the first place, bullying him and ultimately forcing him to leave. However, their relationship is far more complicated, as is always the case with haunting--although the ghost of the Old Man pressures Binh to push himself and refuse the ridicule imposed upon him, this hatred has also been internalized, and limits Binh all at once. At the same time as he refuses the words running through his head, Binh believes to a certain extent that his father can see things more clearly than he can himself, and feels deeply shameful:

"Do not bother chiming in, Old Man. I do not have to listen to your god anymore. Sad, though, how I can always anticipate both of your condemnations, that they have become second nature to me [. . .] 'Well, well well. It looks like I was right all along. Whores do become cooks on boats. You pathetic piece of shit. I knew you would amount to nothing, but I would have never guessed that you would amount to even less. For once, you have exceeded my expectation. My oldest son, the sous chef, and now you, the whore.' The Old Man, being dead and thus clairvoyant, confirms my worst suspicions" (Truong 83). 

So it is of course quite jarring for Binh to be forced to remember that this ghost, whose harsh words he has internalized, is still, in fact, alive. As he expresses: "Yes, I am afraid, the Old Man is still very much alive. Forgive me if it has been easier for me to think of him as deceased" (229). 

In presenting Binh's haunting, Truong makes exceedingly clear how much Binh must divide himself between his identities, proudly presenting one and hiding others, in order to find (partial) acceptance. Living in France with Stein and Toklas, he must cling to his identity as a cook (which they value and appreciate about him, amidst taunts about his name and language). Staying with his lover on the weekends, Binh is of course openly queer, and feels affirmed in his sexuality, but his race and culture must be downplayed in order for him to feel (partially) acknowledged and (partially) accepted (and given that he is technically taken on by Sweet Sunday Man as a cook for private parties, the racial dynamics are of course, complicated and problematic from the jump). Perhaps Binh insists upon accepting the Old Man's tale that he is not truly his biological father so that his father's violent rejection of his queerness (and subsequent exile) will not mean a true exile--will not force him to associate his home with violence to his identity. He ponders: 

"Whose version of the story should I believe? That my dear mother had a lover, who was her scholar-prince if only for a short while, who gave her shadow-graced embraces, who left her with me, her last son. Or that the Old Man is my father and that in spite of that fact he stood in front of his house, one that I will never again see, and he lied to me so that he could see me dead inside" (229-30). 

Binh escaped his father, and in doing so, was exiled from his home--however, in choosing to ghost the Old Man, he can instead believe a different story, one which reassures him that his father is not where he comes from. Instead, Binh can come from a place he thinks of fondly, from a mother he loves, and from a home where he might find his scholar-prince (thus reconciling his queer identity with his homeland).