Continued...Lehman Weichselbaum / PAST DIFFERENCES
History doesn't get more immediate and more personal than for Nhi Manh Chung, the author of "Among the Boat People: A Memoir of Vietnam." Chung recounts growing up ethnic Chinese in Vietnam, her gravely dear escape across the Pacific Ocean from the new postwar Communist regime and her successfully reconstructed life as a teacher in New York City. It may not be your story or mine, but it's doubtlessly not very far from the stories of certain of your neighbors and friends, "ordinary" folks with tales yet to be fully told of harrowing pasts endured, foreign or domestic, and challenges winningly overcome. The dramatic core of the book--Chung's struggle to survive when the overloaded boat carrying her and her family from Vietnam capsized and took the lives of her mother, brother and sister--is dispatched with in little more than a page. The horrific details are neither dwelled on nor shortchanged. Elsewhere, with an unflagging and unembarrassed frankness made compelling by the author's smartly extracted color, Chung airs her clan's not-quite-secret scandals and wastes no love on the Communists who were less than embracing of her factory-owning family. She traces her later circuitous progress in New York through one failed marriage, the birth of two children and a shaky restaurant business to a second, happier marriage and her final, well-fitted niche guiding fellow refugees into the language and culture of the English-speaking urban New World.
Along the way, she offers a showstopping travelogue of a post-exile return visit to Vietnam and an intriguing adjustment to the plotline of the musical "Miss Saigon."
Chung has led a life of dedication to purpose and attention to detail, with an arresting gift for eloquence--the makings not merely of a "professional" writer, but a born one.
Of an indoor swimming pool at a posh Saigon recreation club she writes:
A current of air would undulate along its placid surface, raising a single wavelet that glittered outstandingly like one flounce on a plain dress.
And of the club's colonial French female patrons:
I loved to see their sturdy flanks and muscular arms draped in water so transparent that they seemed to be swimming in a glass of white wine.
After a long hunt for a publisher, Chung came full circle to Autonomedia, the imprint for "Abraham" reviewed above and home to one of its editors, Jim Feast, the scholar and poet prominent in New York Downtown scenes and, incidentally, husband to Nhi Manh Chung. But no cheap-shot nepotism at play here--"Among the Boat People" earns more than its rightful place on anybody's bookshelf.
The sum of Chung's story:
...There is only one time when I feel that coming to America was really worth it. That happens when I meet, on the subway or the streets of Chinatown, a lost friend, someone I knew from the Manila refugee camp. When we chat for a few minutes, great waves of happiness sweep through me as if, at least in imagination, I can find room in my life for all those I left behind.