Study Guide

The Things They Carried Foreignness and "the Other"

By Tim O'Brien

Foreignness and "the Other"


 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. 

How to Tell a True War Story

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.

Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong
Mary Anne Bell

"You just don't know," she said. "You hide in this little fortress, behind wire and sandbags, and you don't know… Sometimes I want to eat this place. […] That's how I feel. It's like this appetite. I get scared sometimes—lots of times—but it's not bad. You know? I feel close to myself. When I'm out at night, I feel close to my own body, I can feel my blood moving, my skin and fingernails, everything, it's like I'm full of electricity and I'm glowing in the dark—I'm on fire almost—I'm burning away into nothing—but it doesn't matter because I know exactly who I am. You can't feel like that anywhere else." (Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.150)

Mary Anne is inexorably, or unavoidably, drawn to the Other—the Other in this case not being the Vietnamese, but the Vietnam War itself. She's not totally a part of it yet (that comes later) but she's sure fascinated by it. She shows the danger of throwing away all separation between herself and the Other. She's at the point where she wants to become the Other.

"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.

[Mary Anne] had crossed to the other side. She was part of the land. She was wearing her culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues. She was dangerous. She was ready for the kill. (Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.184)

So, at this point, Mary Anne seems to have completely crossed over—a necklace of human tongues, hello??—yet she's still wearing her culottes and her pink sweater, those pieces of clothing that made her seem so American at the beginning of the story. Again, the Other, for her, is not the Vietnamese, even though it seemed so at the beginning. It's not even Vietnam. It's the war itself—half-Vietnamese, half-American, and horrifyingly violent.

"Mary Anne made you think about those girls back home, how clean and innocent they all are, how they'll never understand any of this, not in a billion years." (Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.173)

Even as completely creepy as Mary Anne has become, the men still love her because she understands a part of them that girls at home never will. They're stuck in between America and Vietnam; in each place, they feel foreign. They're foreign in Vietnam because they can never completely embrace the war in the way that Mary Anne has, and they're foreign in America because no one there will ever truly get what they went through.

The Man I Killed

Beyond anything else, he was afraid of disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village. (The Man I Killed.19)

By taking the young man that he killed and making up a back-story for him on the spot—a family, a wife, a love of mathematics—O'Brien is making the young man not Other by sheer force of will. He's making himself relate to the young man. And he goes further by saying that the young man's greatest fear, and the reason he went to war, was the same reason that O'Brien himself went to war: fear of disgrace. O'Brien has more in common with this soldier (or so he imagines) than he does with people back home.


A while later, when we moved out of the hamlet, she was still dancing. "Probably some weird ritual," Azar said, but Henry Dobbins looked back and said no, the girl just liked to dance. (Style.1)

By calling her dance a "weird ritual," Azar transforms the girl into an Other. She's Vietnamese, so she couldn't possibly just be dancing because she's traumatized and she needs to dance, right? But Henry Dobbins brings us gently down to Earth when he looks at the girl and recognizes her as human, not Other, and says that hey, maybe the girl just likes to dance.

Speaking of Courage

The town could not talk, and would not listen. "How'd you like to hear about the war?" he might have asked, but the place could only blink and shrug. (Speaking of Courage.32)

It's pretty obvious that the physical town is standing in for America here. The town can only blink and shrug at Norman Bowker. He can't make himself understood. The town doesn't want to hear about his stories or the complexities of his experience. He's become Other, or maybe it has.

Field Trip

"Like coming over here. Some dumb thing happens a long time ago and you can't ever forget it." (Field Trip.183)

O'Brien's daughter Kathleen shows us a different way to be Other: generationally! Kathleen was born ten years or so after O'Brien returned from Vietnam, and the war and its importance are completely foreign to her. To her, it's just "some dumb thing" that happened "a long time ago."