Judith Coburn, Starting Over, LA Times

Mar 03, 2020 by Lan Cao, in Monkey Bridge

A monkey bridge–three bamboo stalks lashed with vines–figures in two of this novel’s turning points. Apparitions: A man first sees his wife-to-be in white silk fluttering above him on such a bridge; a trapped American Marine glimpses through the mist the figure of a Vietnamese friend floating above a minefield and signaling the way out of the lethal maze.

In “Monkey Bridge,” the first novel by Vietnamese American writer Lan Cao, Vietnamese refugees, the relatives they left behind and the Americans they meet reach for each other across just such a simple and magical connection.

It’s the late 1970s, and teenager Mai Nguyen has been settled in northern Virginia with her mother since fleeing Vietnam in 1975 during the fall of Saigon. They live in what the refugees call “Little Saigon” where they can talk, eat and shop Vietnamese under the watchful eyes of their own fortunetellers. Just like the old country.

But it wasn’t a clean getaway; it never is. Family, friends and the native land still haunt them. Somehow, in the rush to escape from Vietnam, Mai’s grandfather Baba Quan didn’t make the rendezvous point, and there’s been no word of his whereabouts. The American post-war fever of revenge prevents any telephone calls, mail or visits between the Americans and Vietnamese. A curtain of stars and stripes has fallen, and Baba Quan is all but dead to his daughter and granddaughter. And like other ghostly visitations recalled in the story, he hovers over Mai’s and her mother’s dream-life as if on a monkey bridge.

In America, the generation gap that inevitably opens up in immigrant families divides Mai and her mother. While her mother and her friends build Little Saigon into a sanctuary, Mai wants to be American, chattering in English, mastering the supermarket check-out line and hanging out in fast-food restaurants with new, non-Vietnamese friends. Cao movingly evokes the cultural gap between teenager Mai’s bedazzlement at Safeway’s air-conditioned efficiency and its produce embalmed in plastic and her mother’s longing for the hustle, bustle and bargaining of Saigon’s open-air markets. Mai, like most immigrant children, becomes the go-between, translating Vietnamese and American languages, customs and laws. The child becomes the parent and the parent the child, as everything new must be interpreted and explained.

As do all teenagers, Mai tries to put over what she can on the grown-ups, telling her mother that American custom requires students to go to college far from their families, “the equivalent of a martial artist leaving her village to study Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple or even Siddharta Gautama going away to seek enlightenment under the bo tree.” She’s too guilty to tell her mother that Little Saigon is a prison to her, not an oasis. In one of the book’s most moving chapters, Mai brings her American friend Bobbie to watch a Vietnamese fortuneteller minister to a reverent crowd of her mother’s friends. To the older refugees, the fortuneteller’s prognostications are gold. But to Mai, who already has crossed over into the new world, it’s just a fun scene.

In Cao’s hands, there is sometimes a hilarious cast to these cross-cultural matings. When her mother is hospitalized with a stroke, Mai discovers that the older woman’s favorite TV show is “The Bionic Woman.” It seems the character’s bionic ears remind Mai’s mother of her own long ears, or the Buddha’s, which droop halfway down the side of his face. Such ears are to the Vietnamese a sign of longevity and luck. But as for the program’s actual plot, the teenager must translate:

“The Bionic Woman had just finished rescuing a young girl, from drowning in a lake where she’d gone swimming against her mother’s wishes. Once out of harm’s way, Jaime made the girl promise she’d be more careful next time and listen to her mother.

“Translation: the Bionic Woman rescued the girl from drowning in the lake, but commended her for her magnificent deeds, since the girl had heroically jumped into the water to rescue a prized police dog.

” ‘Where’s the dog?’ my mother would ask. ‘I don’t see him.’

” ‘He’s not there anymore, they took him to the vet.’ “

Traditionalists, both Vietnamese and American, may bristle at such cultural mish-mashing. But Cao, one of the first Vietnamese American novelists to publish in English, shows, as do other immigrant writers before her, how the new Americans believe far more fervently in the American dream than do longtime citizens. Mai’s mother and her friends may cling to their old language and their fortuneteller, but they’re just as avid about the “possibility for rebirth, reinvention and other euphemisms for half-truths and outright lies” that starting over in America promises.

The novel’s weaknesses oddly recapitulate the cost of the immigrants’ protean approach to life in America. The novelist overreaches wildly, especially at the end of the novel, where she attempts to condense Vietnamese history and the war with the Americans into a few hyperactive pages. After early chapters of lyrical and subtle writing, the novel rockets to a close with so many plot developments that it’s more like a bodice-ripper than like literary fiction. The voice of the narrator, supposedly Mai’s, is too knowing and literary to be a teenager’s. And her mother’s journal is too close to the narrator’s densely metaphoric style to ring anything but false. There are patches of psychobabble and metaphors repeated so many times that the storyteller’s spell is broken. Has becoming an American converted Cao to a culture in which big dams wash out fragile monkey bridges?

But then, even in the unconvincing mother’s journal, there are insights: “Why do children resemble their parents? . . . In my daughter’s reasoning, it is a fact, intangible but scientific, that the child can inherit the face of the parent, but not the parent’s karmic history. . . . Yet karma, my child, is nothing more than an ethical, spiritual chromosome, an amalgam of parent and child, which is as much a part of our history as DNA strands. There is no escaping it, the fact of mother and child, as synchronous and inseparable as left and right, up and down, back and front, sun and moon.”

Such writing makes the reader look forward to Cao’s next novel.