When my friend Grace of HapaMama invited me to participate in the Smithsonian APA Book Club, I said yes without hesitation. We kicked off the book club earlier this month with Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen.
As a Vietnamese American, I’m always on the search for novels that depict an authentic Vietnamese American experience–at least one that isn’t the stereotypical struggle of Eastern versus Western cultures. Pioneer Girl portrays a a young woman searching for the truth about her family, something that most of us can relate to. While the desire to find our roots isn’t unique, Pioneer Girl demonstrates that we must venture into the unknown in order to find our true selves.
Lee Lien is unable find a job after earning her Ph.D. and is forced to move back to her mother’s home in the Chicago suburbs. Living under her mother’s roof again means dealing with rigid expectations and working in her mother’s Vietnamese restaurant. Sam, her prodigal brother, makes an appearance. However, their mother’s critical stares sends him off out West, but not before he makes off with his family’s valuables. He leaves Lee with a family heirloom: a brooch that may have belonged to Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Lee grew up reading and rereading Wilder’s books, an escape from her life moving from small town Chinese buffets to another as her mother and grandfather sought work. Having found the perfect escape from her mother and her old way of life, Lee throws herself into a search to prove its previous ownership and in turn, discovers that she has more in common with Wilder than she thought.
What struck me most as I read Pioneer Girl were the parallels between Laura Ingalls and Lee Lien’s childhood. Little House on the Prairie epitomizes manifest destiny and the American Dream. The Ingalls left everything and everyone they knew to move west in search of a better life. Lee’s parents and grandfather left Vietnam did the same. Lee’s mother and grandfather constantly moved from town to town to find work in various Asian buffet restaurants in order to survive. The Ingalls made several moves before settling down for good. In their own ways, both families were immigrants. No wonder Lee became so enamored with Laura Ingalls. This unlikely connection, along with the The Little House books, were the only constant in Lee’s childhood during her many moves.
In grade school, I was taught that the American Dream was the opportunity to be who I wanted to be, to pursue whatever job I wanted. In a Vietnamese home, the American Dream meant honoring your parents’ sacrifices to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. While my parents preferred the stability of their blue collar jobs, the income from working overtime, and health insurance; my aunts, uncles, and cousins exercised their right to the American Dream by opening nail salons, running gas stations, owning a seafood picking and packing company. Even as small business owners, they still expected their children to earn college degrees and become engineers, doctors and pharmacists.
READ MORE: Never Good Enough For My Parents
Lee Lien grew up with the similar pressures. Her mother’s hypercritical parenting can seem harsh and unloving compared to other families, but I could personally relate. This was how our parents pushed us to strive harder and to become better. It’s a lot of pressure for any child, much less a child who has to struggle with being different from her classmates. This hypercriticalness is also why I call myself a recovering perfectionist. College became my way to escape those pressures, just the way Lee left for college as soon as she was able. She rebelled in the only way she knew how, by studying American literature. (I rebelled by studying theatre and falling in love with a black man.)
It wasn’t until I was a mother myself that I realized my mother’s hypercritical comments and looks were made out of love. She was proud of what I’d accomplished and the woman I’ve become. It’s just not in her nature or her culture to say out loud. I, on the other hand, have adopted the “American” way of telling my kids how proud I am of them.
Lee studied Edith Wharton but couldn’t explain why, except “the escape, the very whiteness seeming like escape, the fact that her life was opposite of mine.” Her professor encouraged her to study “Ethnic Lit” in order to become more employable. Who wants to hire an Asian American Edith Wharton expert? This is a very telling observation about the publishing industry. This desire for publishers to push writers of color into “ethnic lit” not only pigeonholes their creativity, but muffles authentic stories about people of color. That is a disservice and insult to all readers, not just people of color.
Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen reminds us that we are all pioneers of our lives. We cannot find the truth until we make the leap out of our comfort zone.
READ MORE: Adults Need Diverse Books Too
More about Pioneer Girl and other reviews at Smithsonian BookDragon.
I received a review copy of the book. This post contains affiliate links.