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The Chica With the Dragon Tattoo

May-Lee Chai's Dragon Chica makes Meghan hungry for history (and Chinese food).

The Chica With the Dragon Tattoo

BOOK REPORT for Dragon Chica by May-Lee Chai

BFF Charm: Yay
Swoonworthy Scale: 0
Talky Talk: Haiku
Bonus Factors: Freezer Jesus, Tasty Business, History, Immigrant Experience
Relationship Status: Exchange Student Crush

The Deal:

Nea, a Chinese-Cambodian teenager, emigrates to the U.S. with her mother, three sisters and little brother after escaping the Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia in the late 1970s. After living in Texas for several years, Nea's mother gets a call from her sister to come to Nebraska and help run their Chinese restaurant, so they pack up and drive to the serious middle of NOWHERE to take on the herculean task of making a life in corn country as Asian immigrants.

BFF Charm: Yay

I wasn't sure I liked Nea much to begin with. She's 12 at the beginning of the book and very whiny and selfish, but as I read I found myself liking her more and more. It helps that as she ages, she gets better at expressing herself and understanding her feelings and the world around her. I feel bad for her because her sister Sourdi is her best friend, but Sourdi is enough older to leave her behind just when Nea needs her the most (it reminds me of how Jo March is torn up over Meg getting married), and her little sisters and brother are so much younger, they're hard to relate to. they don't remember life in Cambodia and escaping the work camps and picking their way through mine fields, and Sourdi refuses to admit her memories are real, calling them dreams instead. Nea's the one kid who's truly in the middle of two worlds, not quite belonging to either, and I'd love to both befriend her and smack the stupid, ignorant kids at her school who insist on teasing and tormenting her for being different.

Swoonworthy Scale: 0

There's absolutely no swoon in this book, but that's ok. There's a boyfriend, arranged marriage and a rather disgusting deflowering (I won't say which characters are participants in all of these in the interest of being spoil-free), But none of these are romantic. The main relationships are Nea's relationships with her mother and sister and her relationship with herself, her memories and her new life.

Talky Talk: Haiku

The book's not written in haiku or poetry (there's not a single verse to be found), thank goodness. but the writing style's like a haiku -- simplistic on the surface, with the short sentences of a style you might associate with a storyteller for whom English is not her first language. But as you go deeper, you find great beauty within the words. There's not as much story here as in a lot of YA books -- instead of a driving action plot, it's a rather old-fashioned coming-of-age structure of lots of little stories hung on the frame of a girl's growing up. Like a haiku, these short glimpses of nea's life allow great depth because of their concentration. Check this out:

I did not know then how to feel happy for my mother. I did not know what a precious thing it was to be able to fall in love, for the heart to heal enough to beat passionately for another person after it had been broken, again and again. I did not see my mother as a woman with a phoenix heart. I only knew how to think as a child, a spoiled girl.

Bonus Factor: Freezer Jesus

I'm not sure this should be a bonus factor, since it only appears at the very beginning, but when Nea's living in Dallas there's a convenience store in her neighborhood with a miraculous Jesus in the frost of the freezer! With the popsicles!

Bonus Factor: Tasty Business

Nea's family runs a Chinese restaurant -- an ACTUAL tasty business! Which means there's lots of description of delicious things like spring rolls and shrimp and wonton soup! And which means I got really hungry and ate a lot of Chinese food!

Bonus Factor: History

I know next to nothing about the history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge reign, but this book definitely drove me to seek out information beyond Wikipedia. In a turn much like Mao's Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge communists resettled city people in agrarian work camps and also killed as many people as they could get their hands on. It's sad how little we learn in school about crazy awful nasties unless they're in Europe or North America, or unless our government has decided they're the evil flavor of the week.

Bonus Factor: Immigrant Experience

These days, with people foaming at the mouth to declare anyone not born in the U.S. not a real human being, we need more books about the immigrant experience. You know, all those people who CHOSE to come here, rather than having the dumb luck to be born here. All those people who take crap jobs for no pay and no benefits, who live on the crap other people throw away and work their asses off to make a living (P.S. and they're here legally, so suck that), And return all the abuse they get with a smile while quietly seething and thinking, "You think you're so badass? You should have seen the shit I escaped from, assholes." Anyway, yeah. Have some respect. A passport doesn't make a person.

Casting Call:

Don't worry, I won't go M. Night Shamalamaramayama and cast white people in all the Asian roles, even though there's a serious lack of Asian actors and actresses out there (do you hear me, Hollywood? Thanks in part to people who'd rather cast white people anyway). I'll do my best from my more-limited-than-usual repertoire, but I'm happy to take suggestions.

Emily Kuroda as Nea's mom

Suzuka Ohgo as Nea

I wanted to cast a Khmer actress as Nea instead of a Japanese actress, but the only one I could find since I know nothing about Khmer films and can't read Khmer is Khiev Sokharavy. She's absolutely gorgeous and looks more the part of Sourdi, even though I'm pretty sure in real life she's younger than Suzuka Ohgo.

Khiev Sokharavy as Sourdi

See? Isn't she beautiful?

Relationship Status: Exchange Student Crush

Oh, Dragon Chica, when I met you I knew we'd only be together for a little while because soon you'd be heading back to your own country. But in the short time we had, I devoured everything I could about Cambodia and even after you left, I hoped we could write letters and I could try to learn Khmer. I still stalk you on Facebook every now and then, wondering what you're up to, even though it would never have worked out in the long run.

FTC Full Disclosure: My review copy was a free ARC I received from NetGalley and GemmaMedia. I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). Dragon Chica is available now!

Meghan Miller's photo About the Author: Meghan is an erstwhile librarian in exile from Texas and writer for Forever Young Adult. She loves books, cooking and homey things like knitting and vintage cocktails. Although she’s around books all the time, she doesn’t get to read as much as she’d like.