All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Dragon Chica – May-Lee Chai

on October 22, 2010

Nea is an 11yo girl living in Texas with her older sister, her twin younger sisters, her younger brother and her mother. Having fled the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, they have come to America where they live in a trailer park and her mother works as a hotel maid. They are given clothing by the local church, Nea and her siblings attend the local school. Their existence is a simple one but they’re safe.

Nea’s mother receives a letter which is from her brother-in-law. He too has fled Cambodia and come to America and he and his wife, Nea’s aunt, are opening a Chinese restaurant in Nebraska. They extend an invitation to Nea’s mother to come and join them, to work for them and live with them, and to bring the children. So they pack their whole lives into the car and head north, driving from Texas up to Nebraska. When they arrive, the town is small – just the bare essentials and the restaurant right on the other side of town.

Nea, having been told the tales of how her uncle was rich in Cambodia, is expecting a dashing, handsome man with a black limo and a big house. What she sees is quite a different story and upon meeting her uncle, she refuses to even believe  that is who he is. She’s a headstrong, stubborn child who causes her mother the most grief. As they settle into Nebraska, Nea’s mother notices that the American’s don’t like their traditional food, so she makes subtle changes to the menu, the seasoning, the decor and soon, the customers start to come. Nea and her siblings start attending the local school, where they are taunted as being either Japs or Indians (as in American Native Indians, not Indians of the sub-continent).

It is here, in my opinion, that the book excels. Although Nea is selfish and at times, quite unlikable as she moves through her new life, she is well skilled in making you feel her life, her emotions, her experiences. Her isolation by her fellow students, both in Texas previously and also in Nebraska shows not only the loneliness immigrants like herself and her family must have faced, but the ignorance in their American fellow school students, who didn’t care what ethnicity they were and taunted them with whatever seemed good at the time. It gives a real showing of the scorn and derision reserved for Asians and for Native Indians in that part of America during this time ( early 80s). Their restaurant is vandalised also and they are taunted with claims of serving dogs and cats.

Nea is a hard character to get a handle on at times, as her actions are often completely unreliable and lacking in any real sense. When her uncle and her mother arrange for her older sister Soudi to marry upon graduation, Nea is dead against it and tries hard as she can to stop it, and to make Soudi run away with her. Soudi refuses and never once gives an indication that she doesn’t want to get married but Nea can’t accept this, and even years later, after Soudi has had children, attempts to again get Soudi to run away, convincing a third party that Soudi is unhappy and abused by her husband. It takes Nea an awfully long time to grow up and see that her sister is not unhappy and that all the unhappiness Nea has spun for her has been in her head and nothing more. Soudi is secure and has a man who dotes on her, and she has her children and she is very happy with her lot in life.

Not knowing much about the Khmer Rouge, I would have been interested in more of Nea’s mother’s story and the stories of her uncle and aunt. We do get bits and pieces, such as the tragedy that happens to her aunt, which causes her already fragile mental state to disintegrate even further, and a few stories from Nea’s mother but given their whole lives revolve around fleeing this regime, I would’ve been more interested to hear a little more of what they went through. How they eventually got free of the country and ended up in America. But the novel is Nea’s coming of age story, and not her mother’s story so it focuses mostly on their time and life in America and how they make it work for them. As she grows up she realises what she wants in life and makes her own path to college. She still clashes with her mother, who is now running the restaurant alone, but Nea will learn a secret that has been kept from her all her life that changes everything and might at last set them on the same path.


Book #80 of my 100 Book Challenge

***I received this novel free as an eGalley from the publisher in exchange for a review.

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