May-lee Chai‘s second novel is one of those titles to consider reading from the end, in this case with the “Acknowledgements,” where the Chinese Caucasian hapa Chai recounts her long personal involvement with the Cambodian American community.
At 15, writing for her Midwest hometown newspaper in the early 1980s, Chai began a story that she would not finish until decades later with Dragon Chica. When a Chinese Cambodian family opened a Chinese restaurant in Chai’s town, Chai went to interview the mother who had survived the Khmer Rouge killing fields, but had lost three of her children before she could escape. “However, her family received so many death threats that she moved the family away from our town before I could finish writing my article. My inability to tell her story has haunted me for years.”
Seemingly as a direct result, throughout Chai’s career as student activist, journalist, award-winning writer, she has vigilantly represented the Cambodian and Cambodian American experience. Over a quarter-of-a-century later, she crystallizes those experiences to create Dragon‘s coming-of-age protagonist Nea: “She cannot, of course, represent everyone, but she embodies the fighting spirit, the loyalty, the pain, and the promise of a new generation.”
Knowing this much adds a deeper sense of urgency to young Nea’s story. At 11, Nea lives a hardscrabble life in Texas with her overworked mother, three sisters, and a brother; they have somehow survived the Khmer Rouge killing fields in their native Cambodia, although they lost their father and so many others. The family is surprised with the miraculous news that they have relatives in Nebraska who invite them into the family business. Once wealthy back home, Nea’s aunt and uncle – unrecognizably aged beyond their years – now run a Chinese restaurant, ironically named “The Silver Palace.”
The reunited family settles into a tenuous routine. Auntie is still reeling from the tortuous loss of her children. Uncle, who gambles away his pain, is desperately trying to keep the family together. Nea, her mother, and her siblings must again adjust to a new town hardly welcoming of strange faces. As secrets whispered and hushed continue to loom, the family’s shared past is not enough to keep them together.
That Chai has lived many of Nea’s experiences (she captures her own difficult Midwest coming-of age in her 2007 memoir Hapa Girl) is evident in her vivid writing. She certainly feels Nea’s anxiety, the desperation of hoping to fit it, the scars of the hateful racism. Where Chai falters briefly is when she seems to rush toward resolutions, most notably in the last few pages when larger-than-life emotions flip-flop too quickly from cemented unforgiveness to sudden understanding. While the overall story clearly belongs to Nea, it’s nevertheless a bit skimpy with Nea’s younger siblings, although her younger brother finally gets a few welcome chapters near book’s end.
That the novel is a timely addition to the too-few available Cambodian American titles is more important than a few quibbles. Told with unflinching clarity and unapologetic determination, Nea’s story is to be mourned, remembered, and ultimately lauded, not only as it bears witness to Cambodian American immigration, but as a commemoration of hard-won American rebirth.