Lan Cao Essay - Critical Essays

Cao, Lan

Introduction

Lan Cao Monkey Bridge

Cao is a Vietnamese-American nonfiction writer, novelist, and professor of law.

Monkey Bridge (1997), Cao's first novel, tells the story of a Vietnamese mother and daughter who leave their homeland shortly after the Vietnam War to immigrate to the United States, where they confront a clash of cultures and generations, as well as secrets from their own family's past. Thirteen-year-old Mai arrives in the United States in 1975, followed shortly afterward by her mother, Thanh, and the two settle in an area heavily populated by other Vietnamese outside Washington, D.C., known as "Little Saigon." Mai quickly adjusts to American life, learning English and adopting American social conventions, but she is at once embarrassed and amused by her mother's difficulty assimilating, and feels herself acutely torn between the two worlds. Not long after their arrival, Mai discovers that mystery surrounds her missing father and grandfather, and that her mother is somehow haunted by the past. While Mai is the primary narrator of Monkey Bridge, Cao uses the device of a diary within the text to tell the story of Mai's mother, who records not only her confusion and apprehension about her new country, but also painful details about the family's past. Cao herself immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1975 and now teaches international law at Brooklyn Law School. In 1996 she published Everything You Need to Know about Asian-American History with Himilee Novas. With Monkey Bridge, Cao is one of the only Vietnamese-Americans to explore the war—called the "American War" by the Vietnamese—and the ensuing immigrant experience in fiction. Critics have almost unanimously praised Cao's evocation of the Vietnamese landscape and culture as well as her depiction of the simultaneous feelings of alienation and hope experienced by immigrants to the United States. Many reviewers have been less enthusiastic about Cao's narrative structure and plot development, finding her use of two narrators—Mai and her mother in the diary—awkward. Nevertheless, Monkey Bridge is considered an important contribution to both Vietnam War literature and immigrant literature, giving voice to a little-explored part of one of America's most painful historical events.

Criticism

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 May 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Monkey Bridge, in Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 1997, p. 736.

[The following review provides a mixed opinion of Monkey Bridge, noting that Cao's evocation of pre-war Vietnam is beautifully written, but finding her plot "lifeless."]

A wonderfully written but unengaging first novel about a young Vietnamese refugee who, in 1975, is airlifted from Saigon and only later learns of her family's dark past.

Mai, whose family befriended Michael MacMahon, an American Colonel in Saigon, comes to the States as a 13-year-old. After staying with the MacMahons for six months, she moves to Washington, D.C., joined there by her widowed mother. The two make their home in "Little Saigon," the years pass, Mai is soon fluent in English, and though mindful of her past—she nostalgically recalls traditional myths and customs—she adjusts to the new country. Her mother doesn't, though, and a bad fall, followed by a disabling stroke, seems to push her even further into the past. Mai hears her talk fretfully in her sleep of her father, Baba Quan, who was to accompany her to the US but never arrived at the agreed-upon rendezvous. Mai tries to contact him, but her mother is curiously discouraging. As Mai prepares to go to college, her mother seems happier, but the secret letters Mai finds her writing are less cheerful. While the letters at first retell old legends and beliefs and describe life in her native village, the last entries, her legacy to Mai, tell a darker and more complex story. Mai learns that her grandmother had been the landlord's concubine and he, not Baba Quan, was her grandfather; Baba Quan was actually a brutal, bitter man, and a Vietcong leader; moreover, her mother had been neglected by her intellectual husband and suffered many miscarriages. Convinced that she and the family have bad karma, Mai's mother acts—successfully—to free her daughter so that she may have a "different heritage, an unburdened past."

Heartfelt evocations of a different time and place aren't enough here to give vigor to a beautifully rendered but disappointingly lifeless story of the Vietnamese American experience.

Michiko Kakutani (review date 19 August 1997)

SOURCE: "The American Dream with a Vietnamese Twist," in The New York Times, August 19, 1997, p. C13.

[In the following review, Kakutani writes that Cao's development of her characters and evocation of time and place "more than make up for" weaknesses in her plot.]

"My dilemma," says Mai, the narrator of Lan Cao's affecting first novel, "was that, seeing both sides to everything, I belonged to neither." Mai lives at once in the past and the present, haunted by the memories of her Vietnamese youth and determined at the same time to create a new life for herself in America. On one hand, she shares the immigrant fears of her mother; on the other, she shares the shiny teen-age dreams of her friends—college, a career, hanging out at the mall.

In Monkey Bridge, Ms. Cao, who left Vietnam in 1975 and now teaches international law at the Brooklyn Law School, tells the story of a family fractured by the Vietnam War (or, as the Vietnamese call it, the American war) It is a story about immigrants grappling with the mind-boggling possibilities and confusions of American life, reinventing themselves as they go along. But is also a story about the collision of public events and private lives, and the devastating consequences of cultural and emotional dislocation on the members of a single family.

Moving back and forth between Mai's first-person reminiscences and journals written by her mother, Thanh, Ms Cao does a sensitive job of delineating the complicated relationship between a mother and a daughter, a relationship that has been turned upside down by their move to the United States. Back home in Saigon, Mai not only found comfort in "the solid geometry" of her mother's life, but also deferred to her politely like a model Confucian daughter. Here in the Virginia suburbs, Mai is the one who quickly masters the language; she is also the one who tells her mother what is "acceptable or unacceptable behavior"

In Saigon, Thanh would buy dozens of hummingbirds and canaries and release them in the garden to generate positive karma for the family. Here in America, such charming gestures, along with her belief in curses and countercurses, are rejected by her teen-age daughter as "bad...

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Judith Coburn (review date 14 September 1997)

SOURCE: "Starting Over," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 14, 1997, p. 10.

[In the following review, Coburn praises Cao's insightful and at times lyrical writing, despite the flaws she finds in the plot.]

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...

(The entire section is 1067 words.)