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Author Phuc Tran On Fitting In As A Refugee Boy In America


I feel the need to begin this interview by asking you this question. How would you like me to say your name?

PHUC TRAN: We can go with Phuc. It's totally fine (laughter).

SIMON: Phuc Tran joins us. Obviously, he was a little boy in 1975 when his family fled Saigon before the advance of the Viet Cong. His new memoir tells how a youngster from a refugee family growing up in an industrial Pennsylvania town, where he very often felt dismissed, mocked and bullied, found consolation in Hawthorne, Sartre and punk. His memoir "Sigh, Gone: A Misfit's Memoir Of Great Books, Punk Rock And The Fight To Fit In - Phuc Tran, who is a teacher, writer, storyteller and a serious tattoo artist, joins us from Portland, Maine. Thanks so much for being with us.

TRAN: Oh, my gosh. Thanks for having me, Scott. It's a delight.

SIMON: I'd like to go back briefly to that moment your family was leaving Saigon. And I'll call this moment the bus not taken.

TRAN: So my grandparents worked for the U.S. embassy. And when the South Vietnamese government was collapsing, our family of 12 was waiting in line to get on a bus to take us to the airfield. And apparently, I - I was 1 1/2 - I was crying so much that my grandmother decided to get off the bus because she didn't want us to annoy the other passengers. And the bus that we were supposed to be on was struck by mortar fire. And everybody on board died.

SIMON: All these years later, do you feel that you were spared for some purpose?

TRAN: I don't know if I was - I am spared for a higher purpose. You know, I just feel incredibly grateful.

SIMON: One question about your name.

TRAN: Sure.

SIMON: In grade school, you changed your name for a day. But you changed it to a name that the kids could still make fun of.


TRAN: Yeah. I know, right? Oh, yeah. So in - yeah. In fifth grade, I tried to change my name - specifically Spider-Man. And I thought changing my name to Spider-Man probably would not be great. Spider-Man Tran didn't have a good ring to it. So I changed my name to Peter, Peter Parker. And then I got to school. And then found out that Peter was also, you know, playground reference for genitalia, as well. And then I went back to Phuc (laughter).

SIMON: You had some wild times, didn't you?

TRAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: You got grounded for what might be a longer period of time than this pandemic. Let's put it that way.

TRAN: I didn't make honor roll in 10th grade. And my parents decided to ground me for six months.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, my memory is that your father - gosh, I'm sorry to put it this way. But your father beat you because you didn't get on the honor roll.

TRAN: Yeah, he sure did. Yeah. And, you know, we've talked about it since. And I think he's done the best that he can do to, you know, make amends. One of the biggest tensions in my relationship with my parents was, you know, my expectations that they be people that they couldn't be for cultural reasons and generational reasons. And I think the flipside was also true - right? - that there was so much conflict because my parents had expectations for me as their eldest-born son. And I just couldn't or didn't want to meet those expectations either.

SIMON: Recognizing you went through a lot, is it fair to say there were periods in your young life when you were (laughter) somebody I wouldn't want my daughters to meet?


TRAN: Come on (laughter). I - yeah. That's fair, I suppose. You know, I was studious. Does that count for something (laughter)?

SIMON: Well, I - you were studious but jerk-ish in many ways, weren't you?

TRAN: I was. Yeah. I was - yeah. I was really jerk-ish. I think it was a defense, you know, and feeling like I didn't fit in. You know, that's a page right out of the punk-rock playbook.

SIMON: And what did you find in the classics and in punk that spoke to you, that gave you a home?

TRAN: Sure. I mean, a sense of kinship, you know, a community - I mean, I think in great literature and punk rock is just really people trying to find their place in the world, right? And both of those things sort of struck me at exactly the right time - so deeply resonant. You know, I think about Thoreau. I mean, what's more punk rock than going into a cabin, you know, writing this manifesto where, you know, you don't want to be with the world, and you just want to sit and think your thoughts.

SIMON: Yeah.

TRAN: And, you know (laughter), it seems really punk rock. And then, you know, as far as, like, the music, I mean, I think The Clash - you know, a huge influence on me - and then bands, you know, like Social Distortion, you know? - just the name alone - I was like, OK. I'm listening to those guys.

SIMON: You note at the end of this book that your daughters are, I think, 5 and 8. Maybe they're older now. But they'll grow up reading this book.

TRAN: Yeah. Oh, my gosh. Are you sure? Can we keep it from them (laughter)?

SIMON: Well, my short answer is no. You're not going to be able to do that for any length of time. And you know that, too. I just wonder, what in there do you want to reach them especially?

TRAN: I really hope that they can embrace the complexity of the story. You know, I think, too often, we're so worried about everything squaring up - right? - and our stories making sense. And I really wanted to lay out who I was as a kid, you know, hopefully not who I am still as an adult (laughter), God forbid. But I was - and I think I still am - a complicated person. And so I think if they get nothing else, I hope that they can walk away from that and understand that their father was a complicated person and that they're complicated, too, and that everything doesn't have to make sense all the time.

SIMON: Phuc Tran - his memoir "Sigh, Gone" - thanks so much for being with us.

TRAN: Oh, my gosh. Scott, thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.