Dad is waiting for me to turn toward him. Yeah right. One little glance would encourage another diatribe about connecting with my roots. They’re his roots, not mine. I’m a Laguna Beach girl who can paddleboard one-legged and live on fish tacos and mango smoothies. My parents should be thanking the Buddha for a daughter like me: a no-lip gloss, no-short shorts twelve-year-old rocking a 4.0 GPA and an SAT-ish vocab who is team leader in track, science, and chess. I should at least be able to spend the summer resting my brain at the beach. Instead, I get shoved on this predawn flight.
My parents slapped me with the news just last night when I was floaty and happy because sixth grade was finally over. I was thinking summer vacation, sunsets, bonfires. But noooo, with buggy eyes and stretchy smiles, they cooed out the news that I “get to” escort Ba, Dad’s mom, back to Vietnam for six whole weeks. (1-2)
Twelve-year-old Mai (known as Mia at school) is being forced to fly halfway around the world to help her grandmother Ba come to terms with their grandfather’s disappearance during the Vietnam War. Never mind that it happened years ago, and that Mai had plans for this summer, that she doesn’t understand the language, and that her own father isn’t staying with them due to previously scheduled charity work. The detective is struggling for specifics, so in the meantime Mai meets her many, many cousins, including Anh Minh who learned English with a Texas accent at an American boarding school, and Ut, a reluctant tour guide who is more interested in caring for her frog than her newfound family member. The culture shock is incredible, resulting in a misunderstanding about thongs and powerful smelling herbal remedies for lice and stomach aches. But as time passes, Mai begins to see the beauty in this alternate way of life, discovering that it might be up to her to re-acquaint her grandmother with seeing the good things of today instead of focusing on the past.
The details in the book are incredible. You can feel the heat, you can smell the medicines, and you can experience a world that probably few readers would ever consider visiting before reading this book. Mai’s changing moods, spoiled nature and trepidations, but also her awe of this whole new environment, are convincingly displayed.
Away from the airport, it’s green and more green rice paddies. This doesn’t seem right. The documentary showed the airport was right in the middle of the city. Ba stirs, reaches inside her bag, and [… her] other hand twists a knob in the air. Dad agrees, of course. The air conditioner, which makes her even more carsick, goes off. Windows down. Invisible flames whip into the taxi. I feel like on of those desserts Mom blows a torch on. […]
I stick my head out. No it doesn’t feel any cooler. Then I can’t believe it–right on the roadside, not behind a fence or anything, stands a real live water buffalo. Chewing on grass, mud on its back, nostrils the size of golf balls, mega croissants for horns. […]
“Stop, Dad, tell him to stop. STOP!”[…]
“This is so cool!”(15-16)
I am slightly unsure about the portrayal of some of the older Vietnamese ignorance about modern-day conveniences, but it seems like it’s plausible based on details presented in the book, such as the lack of reliable and widespread Internet. It does however show that there are some benefits behind traditional ways, which I think balances out those portrayals. I learned quite a bit about Vietnamese language and history, as Mai and her cousins exchange vocabulary lessons. I’m not attempting to duplicate those symbols and lessons here because I wouldn’t know how. Conversations in Vietnamese are designated by italics, and translated into English with more frequency as the book progresses. While the contextual clues make it clear what is being said, I do wish a glossary and/or author’s note had been included for quick reference and further information.
The final reveal of the truth of Mai’s grandfather’s whereabouts and life during the war is something that will pull at people’s heart-strings. Mai’s turn around is convenient but appropriate after spending so much time among her Vietnamese family. This is a coming of age story for sure, but also a story of coming home and coming to terms with your past. Highly recommended.