In his debut, marketing consultant Su recalls growing up Vietnamese in the ghettos of America, and the cultural divide between two generations.
The riveting opening sets the stage as the family raced to a rickety boat to escape their homeland, dodging communist gunfire as they ran. The son of war refugees, the author came of age in the poor enclaves of Los Angeles with an emotional burden familiar to children of immigrants. Though he longed to succeed in America so that his parents’ sacrifices were “not for nothing,” he rebelled against his stifling upbringing. During the course of a dangerous adolescent descent, Su sought companionship with a Vietnamese street gang, neglected school and, for a time, disappointed his overbearing yet sympathetic father, an iron-willed man who jostled his way to wealth in Vietnam before the communists took over. Su’s father emerges as the central force in his life. Together, they rummaged through dumpsters for shoes and other useable castaways. His first day at an American school was a special occasion, so his father forced him to wear a suit. When he was caught after stealing $500 from his mother’s piggy bank, his father beat him and forced him to strip naked before locking him outside in order to shame him. He later revealed to his son the purpose of the bank: a college fund for Su and his siblings. Filled with emotive vignettes, the prose is sometimes forced, and the book doesn’t demonstrate the bold vision of Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala (1999) or the grace of Andrew Lam’s Perfume Dreams (2005). But Su offers a compelling narrative of immigrant life, cultural dissonance and the tug of familial obligation.
Uneven but memorable.