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Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter    by Lan Cao & Harlan Margaret Van Cao order for
Family in Six Tones
by Lan Cao
Order:  USA  Can
Viking, 2020 (2020)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Family in Six Tones is a memoir written by Lan Cao, a Vietnamese refugee, and her daughter Harlan Margaret Van Cao. The latter was born in Virginia. Her father was Bill Van Alstyne, a white American who was over twenty years older than Lan and a star professor at Duke University.

The memoir is an attempt by Lan to give a first-hand account of what her life was like after leaving Vietnam at the age of thirteen and growing up in a family of immigrants, comparing it to her daughter's experience being raised by both a refugee and an American. We get her impressions of Harlan's growing up years as well as Harlan's own point of view. Lan also gives background information about her Vietnamese family and what their lives were like in the years before she and her immediate family left. We hear their stories until the present time, when Harlan looks forward to entering the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 2020.

Lan Cao has written and published novels and is a professor at the Chapman University Fowler School of Law. She has an engaging style of writing, giving the facts of her life - in perhaps a lawyerly fashion - as well as her emotional reactions to the difficulties she faced, not only in Vietnam from things she saw during the war, but also in attempting to follow the dictates of her Vietnamese family as well as attempt to assimilate into her American life. She was the first member of her family to leave Vietnam, being sent to stay with American friends. The rest of her family was able to leave because of her father's connections, so she was reunited with them and grew up in a small Vietnamese enclave in Falls Church, Virginia, where many refugees found comfort in community.

There was discrimination against the Vietnamese refugees, partly because they were Asian, but also because the Vietnam War was so unpopular in the United States. People called Lan Viet Cong simply because of her appearance. Her parents struggled to find a way to support themselves, starting with a small grocery store and finally destroying their health operating a cleaning establishment. They were convinced that doing well in school was the ticket for their children to become successful in America. Studying took precedence over everything, but they didn't grasp the difficulties that Lan had in a school system that was so different from the one in Vietnam. Lan grew up believing that her success had been attained because of her hard work in school, but discovers that her own American-born daughter didn't respond to the kind of pressure that Lan had endured, partly because Bill's attitude was so different from Lan's.

Lan says, 'Bill was like water - powerful and fluid, taking his cues from the current and the wind, from nature itself, not fixed or defined by any one point. He was always flowing.' While Lan was strict with Harlan, Bill was much more relaxed, and when she complained, he reminded her that he had grown children from his first marriage, who all turned into successful adults without being constantly badgered about studying. Harlan has her own problems in school and those turn out to be more social than academic. Her writing is incredibly good, especially since she is still so young.

I found this memoir to be absorbing. I've read other accounts written by immigrants, but I think that the special problems for Vietnamese refugees arriving in the United States during the chaotic last days of demonstrations by Americans against the Vietnam War make this story unique. Adding and comparing Lan's daughter's experience was frosting on the cake, giving even more depth to their story. Lan says at one point that she was lucky in her life. It certainly gave her opportunities that her education alone didn't, but she grabbed onto the luck whenever it arrived, throwing herself into each endeavor and making the most of whatever came. This book deserves to be given a prominent place in important immigrant writings.

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