17 pages 34 minutes read

Ocean Vuong

Kissing in Vietnamese

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide


“Kissing in Vietnamese” is a poem written by Ocean Vuong, which appears in his first book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016). Vuong was born in Vietnam, the grandson of an American serviceman and a rural rice farmer. When Vuong was two years old, his family immigrated to the United States following the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. His work explores the lasting effects of the war on his family, the immigrant experience, and being a queer man of color in the US. “Kissing in Vietnamese” describes the particular way the speaker’s grandmother kisses her grandson on the cheek “as if bombs are bursting in the backyard” (Line 2). The poem explores themes of love, violence and the way trauma lives in the body. It makes use of metaphor, powerful imagery, and repeating phrases to depict the gravity of the speaker’s feeling and the grandmother’s lingering fear.

Poet Biography

Ocean Vuong is the grandson of an American serviceman and a Vietnamese daughter of a rice farmer. Vuong describes his grandfather as a “Michigan farm boy” who joined the armed forces to play the trumpet. In Vietnam he fell in love with Vuong’s grandmother, and together they had four children. When Saigon fell to the South Vietnamese in 1975, the family broke apart and were not reunited until years later. When the Vietnamese police realized that Vuong’s mother was half-American and therefore not legally allowed to work in Vietnam, they fled to a refugee camp in the Philippines, and eventually to Hartford, Connecticut. Vuong’s father was abusive to his mother until she kicked him out of the house, continuing to raise Vuong by working in a nail salon. She remained illiterate, and Vuong struggled to learn to read and write. He enrolled in business school, but soon dropped out and eventually re-enrolled in an English program, choosing to study poetry. In 2011 he submitted his first manuscript to be the “Over the Rainbow” selection for notable books on nonheterosexuality by the American Library Association, not thinking he would win, but hoping to get useful feedback on his work. The book published under the title Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016) was a huge success. Vuong has since written two other books; Time is a Mother (2022) and the novel On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous (2019), for which he was shortlisted for the 2020 Dylan Thomas Prize. He has received numerous awards, including The Pushcart Prize in 2014, a Ruth Lilly/Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship in 2014, the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2017, and a Kundiman Fellowship. In 2019 he became a MacArthur Fellow. Vuong currently is associate professor in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Poem Text

Vuong, Ocean. “Kissing in Vietnamese.” 2014. Academy of American Poets.


In “Kissing in Vietnamese”, the speaker draws a picture of the grandmother as someone who is still living in the Vietnam conflict, who is psychologically stuck in the war even if she now lives in the United States. The poem begins with a comparison, noting their “grandmother kisses / as if bombs are bursting in the backyard.” (Lines 1-2) This is an allusion to the Vietnam war, when the speaker’s grandmother would have had a garden “where mint and jasmine lace their perfumes / through the kitchen window” (Lines 3-4). Next the speaker moves from describing the landscape to the people of Vietnam during the war. He describes the violence of the war, where, “somewhere, a body is falling apart / and flames are making their way back / through the intricacies of a young boy’s thigh” (Lines 5-7). The image of bullets and explosives piercing the child’s thigh shows the reader how desperate the situation was for the grandmother and those she loved. If someone was to “walk out the door, [their] torso / would dance from exit wounds”, (Lines 8-9) meaning they would likely be shot so quickly their body would look like it is dancing.

The next sentence makes a comparison, saying that when the speaker’s grandmother kisses them, “there would be / no flashy smooching, no western music” (Lines 10-11) because the grandmother is busy trying to “breath / you inside her” (Lines 12-13). Here the speaker makes a comparison between carefree American grandmothers who have “pursed lips” (Line 12) and listen to “western music” (Line 11) and the Vietnamese grandmother who is kissing with an underlying awareness that it may be the last time. Since the grandmother lives with the trauma of seeing children killed in war, she is trying to memorize him, treating his sweat like “drops of gold” (Line 15). She believes that “while she holds you / death also, is clutching your wrist” (Lines 16-17). In the last sentence the speaker says, “My grandmother kisses as if history / never ended” (Lines 18-19). When the speaker says “history” (Line 18) specifically they mean the Vietnam War never ended for their grandmother. Though it may have become history for most outside observers, the grandmother continues to suffer from the fear she experienced during the war, and the belief that “somewhere / a body is still / falling apart” (Lines 19-21).