We arrive in the blizzard of 1993, coming from rice paddies, mango trees, and the sun to February in the Empire State.
Ly Tran has written an incredibly moving memoir about her family’s move from war-torn Vietnam to a neighborhood in Queens, New York. The sickness from turbulence and three weeks of travel they endured was a precursor to the culture shock of their new lives in America. At three years old, Ly Tran was “vaguely conscious of the world around me”. As the youngest of four children, her memories of the journey and her homeland are fragmented, gaps filled in by her parents and older siblings alongside flashes of feelings. For her, adjusting to their new reality is easier, the past soon fading. In time, she is torn between two cultures, two worlds. Her family lived along the Mekong river, one can imagine the alien feeling, the rupture of leaving nature and all it’s glorious colors, rhythms for the hustle and bustle of a gritty, gray, American city. Before they are even settled, the family is in debt to their sponsor. With a language barrier alone, despite being a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army (and a POW for a decade), jobs that can support their family of six aren’t easy to attain. To ‘make ends meet’, Ly and her siblings help their parents with sewing, forming their own little production line on the living room floor of their two-bedroom railroad apartment. Unlike other American children, there isn’t time for play, delicious candy and tv binging. In the Buddhist tradition, one honors parents and family above all else, but as the years pass and Ly struggles at school, honoring thy father isn’t such an easy faith to follow.
Grateful for their place in this new world, though awake to harsh realities, Ly’s parents cling to their faith and work ethics. They know they will be okay, despite the mountains of obstacles before them. Life tests them, people deceive, take advantage, threaten. Carrying fear in his heart from the horrors he left behind, Ly’s father doesn’t want to make waves, stand out. The children come up with American names for each other, proudly, but is that enough to make roots in this new land? Their father’s fears manifest in strange behaviors and irrational decisions exacerbating Ly’s school struggles. Worse, her parents demands that, like her brothers before her, she leave behind a legacy of academic excellence make her feel anxious. It is not so easy when socially awkward, and struggling with vision issues! When she speaks her truth, that she cannot see well enough in school to learn math, her father’s reaction isn’t the fatherly wisdom she was hoping for. Maybe she really is just stupid, maybe glasses are a government conspiracy, but his truth clashes with her own reality. Despite his rants, she cannot see, it’s a stubborn fact one cannot ignore and here she is meant to swallow her truth. This is just one of many impenetrable walls she will face within her family.
Nothing beats elevating one’s place in life, no matter the hours of toil it takes. Why else did her parents bring their children to this country, if not to earn a full education, the only ladder to that high place in life? But in this land of dreams, for girls, sometimes there are violations. When one learns to endure, sometimes they learn to submit when they should fight. Watching her mother humiliated when working as a manicurist at a Brooklyn salon puts a bitter seed in Ly’s soul. Ly often works beside her, and yet this becomes just another place her mother refuses to stand up for herself, just like in the family home when facing Ly’s irrational father. Love and resentment, her father’s overbearing will makes home hell. Things get worse when a helpful teacher gets involved, threatening their House of Sticks.
Ly’s coming of age is an intimate look at trying to fit in while trapped between two cultures. Her guilt for feeling ashamed and perplexed by her odd father. Feeling abandoned by her larger than life brothers, her mother’s acceptance of the ugly world both infuriating and confusing. Confusing because she longs to protect her. Wanting to just be a normal American girl, not feeling like a failure who can’t live up to her father’s expectations. It is an intimate window into loyalty, faith, family and the inheritance the brutality of war leaves for the next generation. It takes years for Ly to come to terms with her father’s fragility, to understand why her mother more often than not sides with her husband, despite the cost. Becoming American doesn’t erase her father’s years of suffering, imprisonment, labor, indoctrination while forced into a “re-education camp”. From a place of freedom, how can Ly fully comprehend everything her mother and father had been through, had given up to provide their children with a better future? In turn, how can they understand the weight their daughter carries in her heart searching for a place for herself, trying to feel like an American with the traditions of the culture they left behind shadowing her every move? A place where she is a dutiful daughter but also a free person, able to use her voice, speak her truth and create a future that feels right for her?
There are funny moments and harsh ones. It is a heavy duty, one’s heritage. Can she honor the past, and yet build her own future, free of the hooks of familial expectations? An emotional journey and a beautiful memoir. Add it to your summer reading list!
Publication Date: June 1, 2021