By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
By Bich Minh Nguyen
Ever since she received the box set from her grandfather when she turned 8, Lee Lien has always loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books.
She uses the books – as well as others – as an escape from the rigid expectations of her Vietnamese family. And having had to escape from a mother who always found something to criticize her entire life, it was no surprise that Lee ended up with a doctorate in literature. With the lifelong goal of getting out of “here” (wherever their family was living at the time), Lee is appalled to find herself back home in the Chicago suburbs with her mother and grandfather, jobless with a degree that may not be good for much.
Then her brother Sam disappears, leaving behind an old family heirloom – a gold pin left behind by an American reporter in her grandfather’s café in Saigon – that takes Lee back to the days when her love for the “Little House” books was in full bloom.
As Lee looks into the pin’s history, she uncovers clues that may connect her family to the author of her favorite childhood books.
As an avid reader, I completely understood Lee’s use of books to escape the real world. I also understood her excitement over her family’s possible connection to Wilder and her hesitance to delve deeper as she may wind up disappointed.
In addition, Lee’s journey to learn more about her favorite author leads to a few discoveries about her family – some of which she’s not so sure she wanted to know. She begins to understand more about her mother, who rarely had a kind word for her but thought her brother could do no wrong. With difficult family dynamics running throughout the entire book, I was pleasantly surprised with how Nguyen wraps up “Pioneer Girl” in a realistic way. Readers could relate to what the characters are feeling and are left hopeful about their futures.
Mambo in Chinatown
By Jean Kwok
Riverhead Books, 2014
With a mother who was a soloist in the Beijing Ballet, a father whose noodle-making skills are known throughout Manhattan’s Chinatown, and a younger sister who excels academically, 22-year-old Charlie Wong is resigned to her life as a dishwasher.
But then Lisa, her 11-year-old sister, encourages her to interview for a receptionist position at a ballroom dance studio uptown. Miraculously, she lands the job and all of a sudden, she is thrust into a world completely different from the sheltered one she’s grown accustomed to.
One day, the studio is short an instructor and Charlie suddenly finds herself at the front of a ballroom, teaching a group of beginners how to waltz. And just like that, Charlie discovers a natural talent she never knew she had and dreams and ambitions of her own.
But as things start looking up for Charlie, Lisa’s health begins to fail. Their father distrusts all things Western – including medicine – and insists on treating Lisa with only Eastern practices. Nothing works and Charlie finds herself split between two worlds as she tries to figure out how to help her sister.
“Mambo” is the story of a young woman who has grown up believing she is just mediocre in every way and discovers that there are things she is good at – it just took a little while to find them. For anyone who has ever felt they weren’t good enough, Charlie’s story will give them hope that it’s okay to feel that way and that believing in yourself is the first step in getting out of that place.
“Mambo” is also the story of a young woman’s love for her family. Charlie constantly puts others before herself and always thinks how she can help the ones she loves. While this self-sacrificing may get a bit tedious at times, Charlie’s devotion to her family is nothing short of admirable and will get readers thinking what they would do if they were in her shoes.
America is in the Heart, A Personal History
By Carlos Bulosan
University of Washington Press, 2014
Growing up in the Philippines in the early 20th Century was not an easy life for Carlos Bulosan. His family faced poverty, disagreements with lenders that led to them losing their land, illness and more. From a young age, Bulosan grew used to seeing his older brothers leave home to go to school and then work to earn money for the family.
He eventually did the same and his journey took him across the Pacific Ocean to the United States in 1930. He was 17. Once he arrived, he faced prejudice and racism as well as more poverty and even homelessness as it was not easy to find a safe place for a young Filipino man to stay. Bulosan does not sugarcoat his experiences during these times, describing in detail, some of the criminal and violent acts he had to commit to get by.
Eventually, Bulosan realizes he cannot go on this way and turns to writing as a way to improve his life and the life of others as he becomes a labor activist.
Reading about some of the things Bulosan had to live through – both when he first arrives in the United States and later as a laborer – was not easy. It was tough seeing how he and his companions were treated, just because they had dark skin. And while it may have been difficult, it was also a reminder of how marginalized some people can get just because they are different – something that is still an issue today.
I was also struck by how disjointed Bulosan’s family was throughout his life. There was always a sibling or two, or a parent, who was away because they had to go work. This couldn’t have been easy and it just serves as a reminder of how lucky one can be just to be able to stay close to their family. (end)
Samantha Pak can be reached at email@example.com.