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Starting Over

MONKEY BRIDGE. By Lan Cao . Viking: 260 pp., $23.95

September 14, 1997|JUDITH COBURN | Judith Coburn is a magazine writer who covered the war in Vietnam. She is working on a memoir about her experience there

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.

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