By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
By Thanhhà Lại
Mai Le is a California girl through and through and with school out, she can’t wait to spend the summer on the beach with her best friend, Montana. However, at the last minute, her parents surprise her and she finds herself on a plane to Vietnam. The purpose of the trip is to accompany her grandmother, who is going back to learn what really happened to her husband during The War.
While Mai’s parents think the trip is a chance for their 12-year-old daughter to learn about her culture, Mai is American, born and bred. Aside from not really speaking the language, she doesn’t know the geography, customs, or even her distant relatives.
To survive the trip, Mai has to figure out how to balance her two worlds.
“Listen, Slowly” is a story about a girl learning about who she is and where she comes from. Mai is a strong and opinionated girl and it’s fun to see her navigate a new environment where she is as unfamiliar with most things Vietnam as the locals are with her. The embroidery and language lesson scenes are particularly amusing (who knew sheep could be so expressive?).
And while Mai’s initial obsession with going back home may seem obnoxious (I may also just be showing my age in that I had an overwhelming urge to tell her to think about others), the longer she’s in the country, the less pressing this need becomes. Over the course of a few weeks, we see her grow as she becomes friends with a girl named Ut, who loves science and is particularly obsessed with frogs, and it is great to see how that relationship blossoms.
Although the story focuses on Mai and her experiences, Lai also includes examples of what life was like during the Vietnam War. While she doesn’t go into much detail, it is enough to catch the readers’ interest so that some may look into things themselves.
The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters
By Balli Kaur Jaswal
William Morrow, 2019
Sisters Rajni, Jezmeen, and Shirina Shergill were never close growing up and now that they’re adults, they have grown even further apart. But after their mother dies, the British-born trio — the rule-following school principal Rajni, struggling actress Jezmeen, and Shirina with the seemingly picture-perfect life after marrying into wealth and moved to Australia—travel to India to fulfill their mother’s dying wish of making a pilgrimage to the Golden Temple in Amritsar to carry out her final rites.
For the three sisters, traveling to India comes with a mix of emotions, in addition to their grief over their mother’s death. After traveling to the country with her mother almost 30 years earlier, Rajni vowed never to return. For Jezmeen, the trip is a welcome break after she was publicly fired from her television job. And for Shirina, whose in-laws are pressuring her with a life-changing decision, it’s a chance to reevaluate her marriage and learn how to stand up for herself.
As the name implies, “Shergill Sisters” is a story about sisters and the importance of that relationship. Jaswal does a great job of portraying the complexities of these bonds. Despite their differences—and there are many—Rajni, Jezmeen, and Shirina are there for each other when they need it. And while they may be slow getting there, in the end, they realize that even if they may not always like each other, they are there to support one another. This made me think of my own relationship with my sister and how I could relate to one Shergill sister or another at any given moment throughout the story.
In addition, “Shergill Sisters” is a female take on the Indian travel narrative. The trio is not only navigating a different country, they’re doing so in a male-dominated society in which it’s not always safe to be female. Although this is something girls and women are likely to be aware of just by the nature of our gender, it is something male readers might not even think about or consider as they go about the world.
All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir
By Nicole Chung
When Nicole Chung was born prematurely (by about two months), her Korean parents put her up for adoption and ended up being raised by a white family in a small Oregon town. For as long as she could remember, her adoption story was one of divine fate: her biological parents made the ultimate sacrifice in hopes of giving her a better life.
But as she grew up, dealing with racism and prejudice she never shared with her adoptive family, she began wondering where she came from and about the real story behind her adoption. And as she comes to expect the birth of her first child, she begins her search for the people who gave her up. Her findings reveal a number of unexpected secrets, to say the least.
Through her personal experiences, Chung gives readers insight into the transracial adoption community. She shares how out of place she sometimes felt within her extended family, how she hid much of the racist bullying she received , and how her adoptive parents’ colorblind approach to raising her, often saying it didn’t matter that she was Korean, left her ill equipped to deal with those situations.
Personally, I have known only a few people who are part of the transracial adoption community and so I did not know much about it. Chung shares with readers what it can be like to grow up in a community and family in which you look different from everyone else.
Despite some of the hardships she shares, Chung also shares some of the good things she has experienced, including her loving adoptive parents. Like almost anything else, adoption is a complex and complicated experience for everyone involved and Chung shows readers just one experience in her honest and heartfelt story.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.