Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: Dragon Chica by May Lee Chai

Found via: Forever Young Adult

This is definitely a novel with cross over appeal - I'm pretty sure technically it's written as an adult novel, just because of stylistic quirks that aren't part of the YA tradition, but since it covers Nea's young adulthood (we meet her when she's 11 and follow her through the end of high school), it's definitely accessible to teens as well. I could definitely see this being one of those mother/daughter book club picks.

Dragon ChicaIt's the 1980s and Nea, her mother, older sisters, and three younger siblings, are scraping by in Texas. The only Khmer in the community - the only Asians, really - and not knowing if any of their relatives were also able to escape from the Khmer Rouge regime, Nea feels more isolated than the average 11 year old. So when an aunt and uncle write her mother, saying they now live in Nebraska and run a Chinese restaurant there, Nea's mother promptly packs up the family and their few belongings in their beat up car, and drive from Texas to Nebraska.

Nebraska is not the land of dreams as her aunt and uncle promised, however. While Chinese restaurants were prestigious in Cambodia, Nebraskans haven't developed a taste for Asian cuisine yet. The family spends long hours at the restaurant for little pay off, and eventually Nea's sister Sourdi is set up in an arranged marriage with a much older man who her uncle is in debt to. At 16, Sourdi is suddenly put into the role of a grown woman, and Nea loses the one person in the family she feels she can talk to. Nea spends the rest of her teen years feeling increasingly isolated and angry - at the hicks who shout racial slurs at her family, at the family the demands she works when she should be studying, and at the mother who doesn't understand her Americanized daughter.

While this novel covers ages and experiences that are often part of YA novels, it really brought into focus for me some of the stark contrasts between adult and YA. For one thing, YA novels don't usually last very long - I think covering the course of a single school year is the longest period of time I can think of off hand. More often the novel's events will happen in days or maybe weeks. Dragon Chica covers 7 years in under 300 pages. This isn't a criticism, as Chai does an excellent job of picking out the important events over those 7 years, but merely an observation of one of th major differences between YA and adult novels.

Nea's story is painful to read at times, as her family is the victim of some ugly racism. Her family also has some difficulty adjusting to their places in America - her younger siblings are too young to remember their time in Cambodia so they are excused from acting "American," while Sourdi is old enough that she has extensive memories of Cambodia and wishes in many ways to remain true to that heritage. Nea is truly a child of both worlds, with vague memories of Cambodia but an intense desire to fit in as much as possible with her American schoolmates. While parts of Nea's story are surely unique to the Cambodian immigrant experience, large parts of it also seem like they apply to all immigrants, and will be appreciated by anyone with close ties to another country and culture.
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