This would seem to be a copybook refugee success story. Yet, it doesn't work out exactly as those promoting open borders might expect it to. We are supposed to believe in all this that ethnicity doesn't matter and that people can be settled anywhere with equal prospects for success. Thao Nguyen herself, though, tells us something different.
Thao has written a column for the Sydney Morning Herald describing her return to Vietnam to work as an intellectual property lawyer. Despite the corruption and poverty she finds in Vietnam, she writes that it is her "dream" to live there because of what it means for her identity. It's clear too from her column that the opportunities given to her in the West haven't fostered a sense of gratitude or belonging. Instead, she presents herself as being an excluded outsider.
Here is Thao writing about her personal response to living in Vietnam:
For me, there is no detachment. I have returned to fill in the pockets of missing history, heritage and identity ...
Although she recognises problems in Vietnamese society, it doesn't affect her close identification with the country:
What I see as flaws through a Western liberal lens are part of the culture and the country, and I can't divorce these disappointments from my personal heritage. Undeniably it is a part of who I am. In many ways, I feel betrayed. Before my arrival I had a romanticised image of the motherland. Growing up with racism, along with social, economic and class exclusion, refugee kids create a haven in their minds. It is where they feel like they belong: the search for an elusive concept of home.
When I visit a floating fishing village in northern Vietnam that is surviving its struggle, I am in tears with pride. This nobility should also run through my veins.
I am finding answers to lifelong questions.
Another comment from Thao brought to mind Professor Putnam's recent claim that "an extraordinary achievement of human civilization is our ability to redraw social lines in ways that transcend ancestry". For Thao ancestry isn't a negative to be transcended, but something to be valued as a source of connectedness. Having spent a night at her family's village she writes:
I wake up renewed by the connection to the ancestry and mysticism that is essential to the Vietnamese spirit.
She finishes by describing her efforts to help a disabled Vietnamese man and his grandson into a taxi:
I pay for the cab but tailgate it until we reach the train station. They were finding their way home. So am I.
We are not interchangeable units. We have a connection to people and place, to a particular history and culture, which enriches our lives and anchors our identity. It is not a freedom but a misfortune to lose this connection.