The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien
The Things They Carried Foreignness and "the Other" Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Story Title.Paragraph)
Each morning we'd form up in a long column, the old poppa-san out front, and for the whole day we'd troop along after him, tracing his footsteps, playing an exact and ruthless game of follow the leader. Rat Kiley made up a rhyme that caught on, and we'd all be chanting it together: Step out of line, hit a mine; follow the dink, you're in the pink. All around us, the place was littered with Bouncing Betties and Toe Poppers and booby-trapped artillery rounds, but in those five days on the Batangan Peninsula nobody got hurt. We all learned to love the old man. (Spin.8)
On the one hand, the men are doing the classic thing that soldiers do to turn their enemy into an Other: using a racial slur, "dink," to describe the old Vietnamese man. On the other hand, the old man stubbornly persists in not becoming Other. By the end, they all love him.
Now and then, when I tell this story, someone will come up to me afterward and say she liked it. It's always a woman. Usually it's an older woman of kindly temperament and humane politics. She'll explain that as a rule she hates war stories; she can't understand why people want to wallow in all the blood and gore. But she liked this one. The poor baby buffalo, it made her sad. Sometimes, even, there are little tears. What I should do, she'll say, is put it all behind me. Find new stories to tell.
I won't say it but I'll think it.
I'll picture Rat Kiley's face, his grief, and I'll think, You dumb cooze.
Because she wasn't listening. (How to Tell a True War Story.100-103)
On a certain level, American civilians are way more foreign to O'Brien than the Vietnamese are to him. The women who come up to him at the end of his talks are simply unable to understand what he's saying. They don't listen the way he needs them to listen.
"I swear to God, man, she's got on culottes. White culottes and this sexy pink sweater. There she is." (Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.6)
When Mary Anne first gets to Vietnam, she's the embodiment of every thing the soldiers think of as home, as familiar. Rat is totally incredulous at the Americanness of her dress, there in Vietnam— culottes, a pink sweater. She seems completely out of place. She comes off as weirdly foreign to them, and at the same time, Vietnam looks extra foreign when compared to her.