Anne Morris, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Austin.
CST on Sunday, December 19, 2010
When a church sponsors an Asian refugee family and sets them up with a trailer in a small town west of Dallas, difficulties arise. The family has survived the Khmer Rouge, but now the children must endure nasty treatment from their new classmates, who at first think they are Native Americans.
It is the strong bond between the two Chinese-Cambodian sisters that makes Dragon Chica a tender story. Sometimes funny, always very much alive, this novel introduces yet another variation on the modern-day immigrant experience as the Chhim family continues to move on – to East Dallas, where Ma gets a job in a Chinese restaurant, then on to Nebraska.May-lee Chai creates a lively narrator in Nea Chhim, who goes from age 11 to 19 in the course of the novel, and never loses her willingness to defend her family – especially her much prettier sister, Sourdi, four years older. Nea is the scrappy Dragon Chica of the title. She remembers how Sourdi once carried her through a Cambodian minefield, finding safety by stepping on corpses. She would do anything for Sourdi. In the pattern of little sisters everywhere, sometimes Nea tries to do too much. In part, the book is about both girls' coming of age, and the different paths they take to happiness.
Their mother – or Ma – charts the course of the family using miracles, luck and dreams she backs with hard work and intelligence. When Ma loses her job in Texas, she almost simultaneously receives a letter from her older sister's family. Missing until now, they are miraculously alive in Nebraska and have started a restaurant called The Palace. They want Ma and her family to join in their undertaking.
"We left quickly," Nea says, "not because we were naïve or simple or foolhardy, any of these things people might want to accuse us of being, but rather because we understood about miracles all right, how their shelf life was as long as a butterfly's summer." That lyrical phrase may surprise the reader, coming as it does in the middle of practical prose, but it's one of the stylistic hallmarks of Chai's best writing.
When Nea's family reaches Nebraska, the restaurant has as yet no customers. Moreover, Auntie and her husband are in debt to a loan shark. At one time they had been prominent in Cambodian society. Now they have very little – only bitter memories and the scars of war. But at least Ma and her sister are reunited.
In the course of the novel, this second sister bond is shown to have deadly weaknesses.
Asians stand out even more in small town Nebraska than in Texas. Nea's description of feeling different at school echoes that of anyone who ever failed to fit in. Eventually, she and her siblings learn to survive.
One thing that separates this immigrant narrative from many others is the skill with which the author describes how the kids are tortured by their peers. Naive brother Sam's wrestling teammates invite him to a party but then try to get him to cook the family dog "gook-style" and serve it to the others on the team. Such an act, they say, would show team spirit. The drama of the kids' problems in Dragon Chica suggests that this novel might also appeal to young-adult readers.