Monday, July 27, 2015

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Anyone that has braved the streets of Vietnam knows the thrill of linking arms and shuffling across the asphalt as cars swerve around bodies like rocks in the middle of a roaring stream. Honest. It is quite the experience. The author captures this unique cultural feature and so much more as Mai, a first generation American born girl, learns about her heritage on a vacation with her grandma to Hanoi, Vietnam. Not that twelve-year-old Mai is looking for any cultural roots. "OMG," she's looking for love "with HIM", while hanging at Laguna Beach with her best friend over summer vacation. Her plans and romantic ideas simmer in the hot sun until her parents douse her with reality making her travel with her Grandma Ba to Vietnam because Ba has new information regarding her husband who went missing during the "THE WAR." Mai's dad goes with on the trip, but he is a doctor whose first priority is to help children in Vietnam's remote areas in need of medical services. Mai's mom is a lawyer on a big case and both insist Mai escort Ba. The parents want Mai to know her heritage. Mai's  knowledge has some humungous gaps considering she refers mainly to what she learned from watching a PBS documentary on the Fall of Saigon. Mai says she is "unicultural"; but this trip changes Mai teaching her what it means to be bicultural, enriching her life in ways she never expected.

Mai matures in small increments. She's spoiled, privileged and has a snarky attitude that is hilarious and balanced by a kind heart. She will do something nice followed by a "I rock!" She loves her Ba completely and will do anything for her, "I'm now too tired to yawn but I still rock as her caretaker, asking if her throat is sore." In the beginning all Mai can think about is leaving Vietnam as fast as possible, but she starts to empathize with Ba and appreciate Vietnam. Ba is one of the few adults that Mai listens to: "My body loosens and expands, remembering how it used to make room for her words to wiggle deep into the tiny crevice alongside my bones, muscles, and joints. Becoming a part of me." Ba is the eloquent character in the group, a foil to Mai's egocentric voice. The title of the book comes from one of my favorite passages as Ba describes dealing with the loss of a loved one to Mai, "I tell you of loss, my child, so you will listen slowly, and know that in life every emotion is fated to rear itself within your being." In our fast-paced world, listen slowly, can take on many meanings.

Mai struggles with learning the language bemoaning, "...she [Ut] doesn't understand my non-Frenchy English. It's exhausting but so is my life." She calls her attempts to communicate, "Tarzanish Vietnamese." She's impatient and strong-willed making for a strong female character. When the detective shows up, she hates it when adults take forever to get to the point. "OMG, what are the chances of me meeting the second wordiest human on the planet?" Or she attributes all the building designs to one architect. "Now that I'm no longer shocked by the maneuvers of every moped I notice that just about every house is built in the stacked style like Co Hanh's. It's confirmed. One architect designed for the whole country." Mosquitoes love her sugary blood and she goes to war with them after being turned into their pincushion. Funny observations such as the "doll-sized" food portions and "How am I supposed to get beyond lanky in a land where ice cream is made of red beans instead of cream?" That's not exactly true but Mai likes to exaggerate for a laugh. And boy, did I laugh a lot. She also captures the overcrowded roads in Asia with comments like, "...let me enjoy my cloud of toxic fumes from thousands of lawless mopeds in peace." She pulls some shenanigans on the women regarding thongs and starts to make friends with Ut, having far more exciting adventures than she would have at Laguna Beach.

Mai thinks of nothing but going home as fast as possible. She tries to manipulate events and others to make it happen, but later starts to adjust to her new culture and cousins. Ut is a strong-willed, frog-obsessed cousin who shaved her head - her reason is funny because it is practical but mortifies her beauty-obsessed mom - and she stands up to Mai's snobbish ways changing Mai's outlook in the process. The two develop a friendship where they respect and don't try to change each other. When Ut argues over 40 cents bargaining for food, Mai silently bargains behind her back so Ut thinks she got a good deal and Mai gets the food she wants. Mai wonders why everyone knows English better than she knows Vietnamese. Ut helps Mai along with the serious translator, Ahn Min, whom Mai can't resist poking fun at all the time.

Mai loves drama. In a subplot she whines that her love triangle in California is being replicated in Vietnam. In California, Mai and her best friend are interested in the same guy. She can't say his name because she has such a crush and refers to the boy as "HIM." By the end Mai has matured enough to say his name and not be so dramatic about talking to him. Ahn Min, her translator in Vietnam, is interested in another girl but a different girl is interested in him and thwarts his effort to get her attention. I am not sure how this ties in with the overall theme of a girl finding her heritage, but it does show Mai growing up and processing her crush on a boy and that people are the same and have the same basic needs regardless of where they live in the world. Some funny and memorable episodes happen during this part.

The author captures the frustration of learning a new language and how difficult it can be to communicate. Mai calls words she doesn't understand "ghost words." This imagery reminds me of Buddhism and how worshipers follow the "ghost" month where dead ancestors are allowed to spend a month visiting families, feasting, and finding victims among the living. Buddhism is the largest religion in Vietnam even though the government has periodically tried to extinguish it. When Mai goes to Saigon to locate the guard, she speaks sentences using Vietnamese mainly out of frustration and desperation. She's thrilled when this happens and the Vietnamese man understands her. Afterwards her usual cocky attitude comes back loud and clear, "I'm now officially bilingual and can rule the world!" It doesn't last long though. Pretty soon "The detective yells at us, using python sentences that strangle the air." What a great description of what it is like learning a language. 

Mai pokes fun at cultures and conventions in the United States and Vietnam.  They don't hug each other in Vietnam and Mai forgets many times hugging her relatives when she is happy. They seem to like it. Even Ut, although she swats her in response out of embarrassment. It is one of many instances where Mai shares her culture with her cousins or vice versa. This is the excitement of learning a new culture and sharing differences in a healthy way. Mai also diplomatically refers to the past fighting as "THE WAR." In Vietnam it is called, "The American War" and in America it is called, "The Vietnam War." Her neutral stance avoids the name controversy and shows the war for what it was, a bloody war between two countries. Mai jokes about food, sizes, architecture, and clothes. "I don't know anyone here to care what I wear, much less how often and what brand. It's freeing." She's also such a teen with an egocentric attitude. "I'm so bored, the kind where you bite off all your nails and wish they'd grow back instantly so you could bite them again." She's a hoot. Learning about heritage and other cultures has slowly changed my views of the world and exposed my biases and stereotypes I didn't know I had. I'm trying to listen slowly.  Don't miss this winner.

5 Smileys

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