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Authors: May-lee Chai

Tiger Girl

BOOK: Tiger Girl
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CRITICAL PRAISE FOR
DRAGON CHICA

“It is very rare that a coming of age novel transcends its inherent limitations and attains the complex emotional resonance of adult fiction.
Dragon Chica
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.”

—Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author,
A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

“Powerful, witty and profound,
Dragon Chica
introduces readers to a new kind of American heroine.”

—Alicia Erian,
Towelhead

“Eleven-year-old Nea has seen the very worst this world has to offer—from 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.


Dragon Chica
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.”

—Nina de Gramont,
Every Little Thing in the World
and
Gossip of the Starlings

“From the killing fields of Cambodia to a Chinese restaurant in the middle of the cornfields of Nebraska,
Dragon Chica
takes the reader deep into a compelling story about two sisters and the secret histories that surround them.”

—Marie Myung-Ok Lee,
Somebody's Daughter

CRITICAL PRAISE FOR
HAPA GIRL

“I was captivated by May-lee Chai's
Hapa Girl
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.
Hapa Girl
made me think about the bonds of family and the vicissitudes of place long after I finished the last page.”

—Lisa See,
Snow Flower
and
The Secret Fan

“Easily labeled a coming-of-age story or a narrative about racial tensions in 1960s America, this memoir—whose title employs the Hawaiian word for mixed—is 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 recommended . . .”

—
Library Journal

CRITICAL PRAISE FOR
A GIRL FROM PURPLE MOUNTAIN
nominated for the National Book Award

“Gripping and historically grounded read”

—
Publishers Weekly

“Tragic, funny, lyrical, and respectful, this intimate and unforgettable family chronicle is also a history of modern China.”

—
Library Journal

tiger girl

a novel by

MAY-LEE CHAI

First published by GemmaMedia in 2013.

GemmaMedia
230 Commercial Street
Boston, MA 02109 USA

www.gemmamedia.com

© 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

17     16     15     14     13               1     2     3     4     5

978-1-936846-45-0

Chai, May-Lee.

Tiger Girl / May-lee Chai.

pages  cm

ISBN 978-1-936846-45-0

1. Cambodians—United States—Fiction.  2. Refugees—United States—Fiction.  3. Self-realization in women—Fiction.  4. Family secrets—Fiction.  5. Women college students—Fiction.   I. Title.

PS3553.H2423T54 2013

813'.54—dc23

2013021807

Cover design by Howard Wong

CONTENTS

PART ONE

CHAPTER 1
         
War Stories

CHAPTER 2
         
The Apsaras Who Fell to Earth

CHAPTER 3
         
The 108 Little Hells

PART TWO

CHAPTER 4
         
Uncle

CHAPTER 5
         
The Monk's Cell

CHAPTER 6
         
The Knife Thrower

PART THREE

CHAPTER 7
         
The Sisters Who Turned into Birds

CHAPTER 8
         
The Plan

CHAPTER 9
         
The Good News

PART FOUR

CHAPTER 10
       
The Gangster

CHAPTER 11
       
The Homecoming

CHAPTER 12
       
In the Days of the White Crocodile

PART FIVE

CHAPTER 13
       
The View from the Aquarium

CHAPTER 14
       
The Lost Boys

CHAPTER 15
       
On the Altar of Miracles

PART SIX

CHAPTER 16
       
The Day After

CHAPTER 17
       
Sacred Heart

CHAPTER 18
       
Tiger Girl

PART SEVEN

CHAPTER 19
       
The Family Banquet

CHAPTER 20
       
Return to the Palace

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

PART ONE

A mountain never has two tigers
.

—traditional Cambodian proverb

CHAPTER 1
War Stories

“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
français
.” 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 lycée. 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.

BOOK: Tiger Girl
10.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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