Authors: May-lee Chai
“It is very rare that a coming of age novel transcends its inherent limitations and attains the complex emotional resonance of adult fiction.
does this with great aplomb. The book explores with subtlety and depth the mature, universal issues of identity and connection, but it also retains its direct appeal to younger readers.
“May-lee Chai has performed a remarkable act of literary magic.”
âRobert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author,
A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
“Powerful, witty and profound,
introduces readers to a new kind of American heroine.”
“Eleven-year-old Nea has seen the very worst this world has to offerâfrom civil war in Cambodia, to the rice fields of the Khmer Rouge, to the bullying hallways of American public school. Thankfully, her heart and imagination bloom wide enough to let her continue longing for the best. As she grows into a woman, Nea navigates her difficult life with clear-eyed and courageous idealism. May-lee Chai has written a brilliant and important coming-of-age story about a young refugee who refuses to give up her search for that promised refuge.
is an important and deliciously readable novel that will hold you in thrall; you won't be able to look away from these pages, even as your eyes fill up with tears.”
âNina de Gramont,
Every Little Thing in the World
Gossip of the Starlings
“From the killing fields of Cambodia to a Chinese restaurant in the middle of the cornfields of Nebraska,
takes the reader deep into a compelling story about two sisters and the secret histories that surround them.”
âMarie Myung-Ok Lee,
“I was captivated by May-lee Chai's
from the first sentence. It continued to be so powerful that I read it in one sitting. It's at once brutal and sad, humorous and plucky. Chai has beautifully captured the deep racism and bigotry that lurks in our country with how one misguided decision can change a family's fortunes forever.
made me think about the bonds of family and the vicissitudes of place long after I finished the last page.”
The Secret Fan
“Easily labeled a coming-of-age story or a narrative about racial tensions in 1960s America, this memoirâwhose title employs the Hawaiian word for mixedâis truly an homage to a loving marriage. Only the strongest kind of love could survive the crucible of a community hoping for a family's failure. Highly recommendedÂ .Â .Â .”
“Gripping and historically grounded read”
“Tragic, funny, lyrical, and respectful, this intimate and unforgettable family chronicle is also a history of modern China.”
a novel by
First published by GemmaMedia in 2013.
230 Commercial Street
Boston, MA 02109 USA
Â© 2013 by May-lee Chai
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Printed in the United States of America
17Â Â Â Â Â 16Â Â Â Â Â 15Â Â Â Â Â 14Â Â Â Â Â 13Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 1Â Â Â Â Â 2Â Â Â Â Â 3Â Â Â Â Â 4Â Â Â Â Â 5
Tiger Girl / May-lee Chai.
pagesÂ Â cm
1. CambodiansâUnited StatesâFiction.Â Â 2. RefugeesâUnited StatesâFiction.Â Â 3. Self-realization in womenâFiction.Â Â 4. Family secretsâFiction.Â Â 5. Women college studentsâFiction.Â Â Â I. Title.
Cover design by Howard Wong
A mountain never has two tigers
âtraditional Cambodian proverb
“You're so lucky,” Ma said to me, the highway straight as a ruler's edge, the fields dense and green, ripe to be harvested. “Too bad you can't get good grades. You don't try hard enough. You're not stupid. You could do better.”
It was August, just before the start of my sophomore year of college, and Ma was driving me back to school after a summer spent helping at the Palace, our family's restaurant.
I stared out the window at the blowing grass laid low in the ditches, the yellow-tasseled heads of the late summer corn whipping back and forth in frenzied waves. Darkening clouds lumbered across the sky like war elephants amassing on the border of some ancient battleground. Thunder rumbled, and I thought, Oh god, don't let it storm, no tornadoes, god not now, don't make us have to pull over in some shelter or, worse, have to spend the night in a Motel 6 like last spring. Not when I'm so close to making it through this summer without having another fight with my mother.
I didn't believe in any particular god, not in the rule-ridden god of the Baptists who'd sponsored us to come to America when I was eight, not in the blood-drenched god hanging on the cross in Sourdi's husband's church, not in the god of money whose three porcelain henchmen perched on the shrine in the back of Ma's restaurant. But I prayed to all of them now: god of weather, god of wind, god of mothers, god of Nebraska, hear
my prayers. I clenched my fists so hard that my nails dug into my palms.
“I was a good student. I received a nineteen out of twenty on an essay in
.” Ma pronounced it the French way. Frahn-say. “That's like an American A+. But the war was coming. My parents had to pay for my brothers' education.”
“I thought you got married at sixteen?”
She ignored my interruption. “And then I had so many children. What chance did I have? I wanted to go to college and become a poet.”
“I thought you always wanted to own your own restaurant and become a rich woman?”
“No. That was only after your father fell ill and we were so poor. I wanted to become an intellectual, but we couldn't afford it.” Ma sighed. “I had to use my brother's copybooks. I had to trace their letters with my pencil, but I was a good student.” She didn't add,
not lazy like you
, but I heard it in my head, her voice so disappointed because my GPA had fallen over the course of freshman year and I'd decided not to take any more pre-med classes and I wasn't going to become a doctor and be rich the way she'd hoped. “My teachers wanted me to go to lycÃ©e. They begged my parents to send me. They said I was a girl with potential.”
“Good thing you didn't go. The Khmer Rouge would have killed you.”
She inhaled sharply, and I knew I'd gone too far.
The heavens opened and rain fell like rocks. Giant goose-egg raindrops splattered across the windshield and battered the top of the car.
The world went gray, as though a light bulb had gone off in the sun.
Ma slowed to a near stop in the far left lane.
I craned my neck, wondering where all the trucks had gone, and tried to see if there was traffic coming our way.
Ma squinted her eyes, leaned forward so far that she could have rested her chin on the steering wheel, and eased the Honda to the shoulder. We crept forward, inch by inch, but it seemed as though the world were racing past us. Water poured down the middle of the highway, rushing toward the drainage ditches on either side. I watched as the rain beat the corn to the ground and the wind blew the rain in horizontal streaks across the windows.
As we sat on the shoulder, I thought, I could ask her now. Ask her about the lie. The lie that separated us. The lie that kept me tossing and turning at night and ruined my concentration during the day. The lie that she was my mother.
I wondered if maybe this storm was happening for a reason, but then I felt hokey and stupid and superstitious. I didn't believe in fate. Miracles, sure. The fact that we were alive at all was a miracle. But this storm's stranding me in the car with Ma felt less than miraculous. It felt like punishment.
The counselor at school had urged me to speak to my mother. “Be honest,” she said. “If you're honest with your mother, then you can expect she'll be honest with you.” A lovely sentiment, I thought, but she didn't know Ma.
My mouth felt very dry. My palms were sweaty. My throat felt tight.
The storm howled outside the car. Ma gripped the steering wheel as though she were the captain of a steamship, as though if she could just keep the wheel steady, we'd hold to our course, even as the world melted around us, swirling, as if we were being drained from a cosmic tub.