Jeanne Schinto, The Women’s Review of Books
Over twenty years ago, in the communal fitting room of a discount clothing store on the outskirts of Washington, DC, where I used to live, I happened to glimpse the scarred body of a Vietnamese woman as she tried on a dress. I had seen the war on TV, just like everyone else; I had also seen our own maimed vets. But the woman in the fitting room brought me up short. I can’t even begin to imagine this kind of suffering, I thought to myself.
Lan Cao’s deeply moving first novel, Monkey Bridge, has had something of the same effect on me as that glimpse of scarred flesh. Only this time, thanks to Cao’s gifts for story-telling and making metaphors, I finally can begin to imagine the lives of the people who settled in the “Little Saigons” that sprang up in Arlington and Falls Church, Virginia, and who found themselves, like our vets, “an awkward reminder of a war the whole country was trying to forget.”
Monkey Bridge’s publisher claims that this is the first fictional exploration of the Vietnamese experience in America. (Another book which many readers may be familiar with, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey From War to Peace, by Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurtz, is a non-fiction memoir.) Cao herself left Vietnam as a teenager in 1975, so she might well have written a factual account instead of a novel. I’m glad she didn’t. What makes her book special is not its documentary or essayistic aspects, but its memorable characterizations, its pattern of images and the insights that those images invite.
When Monkey Bridge opens, in 1978, seventeen-year-old Mai Nyugen and her widowed mother, Thanh, have been living in an apartment in Falls Church for three and a half years. With the help of a US Army colonel who became their family friend in Vietnam, Mai was airlifted out of Saigon before it collapsed; Thanh’s escape followed, on the day of the capital siege. Since then, Mai has learned English, and much more. Having yielded almost instantly to the “sly but seductive pull” of the American dream, she wonders: “How did those numerous Chinatowns and Little Italies sustain the will to maintain a distance, the desire to inhabit the edge and margin of American life?”
Thanh, in contrast, has not adjusted well to the strange country of her exile, where black, not white, is the color of mourning, and where schools use genetics, not karma, to explain things. In the open-air markets of Saigon they knew her “slick bargaining skills, and she, in turn, knew how to navigate with grace through the extravagant prices and rehearsed huffiness.” No haggling is permitted at the Seven-Eleven, and “the precision of previously packaged food” in the A & P makes her feel useless, unmoored.
As a result, Mai, the “outsider with inside information,” is forced into the premature adulthood of the classic immigrant child:
The dreadful truth was simply this: we were going through life in reverse, and I was the one who would help my mother through the hard scrutiny of ordinary suburban life. I would have to forego the luxury of adolescent experiments and temper tantrums, so that I could scoop my mother out of harm’s way and give her sanctuary. Now, when we stepped into the exterior world, I was the one who told my mother what was acceptable or unacceptable behavior. (p.35)
It’s familiar literary terrain – only the ethnic group has changed; but Cao has created fresh archetypes through the use of exquisite detail and nuanced language, and because she understands so well the particular historical moment that Mai and Thanh are forced to occupy. “In one way or another,” Mai notes, “my mother and her friends were not much unlike the physically wounded. They had continued to hang on to their Vietnam lives, caressing the shape of a country that was no longer there, in a way not much different from amputees who continued to feel the silhouette of their absent limbs.”
When Thanh suffers a stroke, it’s bad luck for Mai, too, who hopes to go away to college. If only she could locate her grandfather, Baba Quan, who, for mysterious reasons, was left behind when Saigon fell; if only he could come to the United States, then, Mai thinks, her problems would be solved. “He could step in and care for [Thanh], and…she would not be – would not feel – abandoned.”
The parallel story of Baba Quan is told by Thanh in her private journal, a treasure-trove of Vietnamese folklore and myth that intersects Mai’s narrative. Through it we learn Baba Quan’s true identity; the secret history of Thanh’s birth; and the sorrows of her marriage to Mai’s father, who died not in the war but in his sleep at the age of fifty. A philosophy professor and a member of the opposition movement that presented itself as the alternative to both the Vietcong and the government, he first saw Thanh as a young woman in white pantaloons crossing a monkey bridge. A monkey bridge is essentially a tightrope with handrails for crossing over water, comprised of a narrow bamboo pole that is roped together by vines and mangrove roots. It’s a mode of transportation only for “the least fainthearted” and “the most agile.” It’s also what Thanh and Mai – and every immigrant – must attempt to cross on their way from one culture to the next.
Thanh’s best friend in Little Saigon, Mrs. Bay, has made a much more successful crossing than Thanh, even though neither one of them can make sense of “The Bionic Woman.” Mrs. Bay has literally devoured America: a doughnut baker at the Mekong Grocery in Falls Church, she has grown fat since her arrival. She has also changed her birth date and, in consequence, her astrological sign, making herself the superior of her dead husband – this in preparation for their reunification in the afterlife. In a refugee community, customarily short on birth certificates and other documentation, personal histories are often altered. “Out of the rain [of war] came a clatter of new personalities,” Mai observes.
But Mrs. Bay doesn’t merely provide comic relief. For one thing, she knows the truth about Baba Quan (though it is up to Thanh to tell Mai about it). For another, she is the link to the GIs whose intercontinental migration has not suited them any better than the refugees’ has. It is her presence at the Mekong Grocery that has made it a popular gathering place for them.
She was a keeper of the Old World, and to them she represented the hidden pan of their lives, which they could not show to others, most of all to other Americans. In some ways, like us, they were custodians of a loss everyone knew about but refused to acknowledge. These American men who frequented the store had been too altered by Vietnam, its hidden mine-fields and burial grounds…. Those who had been in Vietnam, the vets and us, were forever set apart from everyone else, who hadn’t. (pp.64-65)
In Northern Virginia, amid ghosts and monuments dedicated to our own Civil War, Thanh and Mai do find peace of a sort, each in her own way, though Mai’s may be temporary. In the end, she is headed for Mount Holyoke (Cao’s own alma mater) in her red-pleated skirt and Dorothy Hamill haircut – a certifiable American success. But the acceptance letter can’t diminish her deep sense of loneliness, nor change the fact that the new personality she has forged to make such acceptances possible is partly a mask. She has crossed the monkey bridge, and rightly fears she is about to discover what she has left behind.