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The Vietnamese Immigrant Experience: A Mother-Daughter Tale of Angst

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

A Family in Six Tones

street scene in Vietnam
A Family in Six Tones is not a light-hearted, rollicking read. It’s a searing, painful, honest examination of the relationship between mother and daughter, the impact of culture and trauma, the Vietnamese immigrant experience, and the universal, ever-present quest to discover our true identity.

She had me at “hello”

I have to admit that A Family in Six Tones by Lan Cao and Margaret Harlan Van Cao is outside my normal realm. I usually read mainstream / literary fiction, historical novels, mysteries, and an occasional nonfiction work. My memoir-reading is infrequent, and I admit that I don’t gravitate toward immigration stories, not because I’m insensitive or unconcerned, but because it’s so far outside of my experience.

So I was delighted when the writing of Lan Cao, the Vietnamese-American mother who starts the book, took hold of me from the first lines of the introduction. She writes beautifully, in lush, full-bodied sentences, outlining the two main themes of the book: her immigration and her daughter.

“In my life, there is Saigon, my childhood city, and there is Harlan, my daughter. One is loss and the other is love, although sometimes loss and love are intertwined. Both are volcanic, invasive experiences, their own particular battle zones, full of love and warmth. All-powerful, all-encompassing, searing, awakening. Once experienced, they take over your life, altering the very cells in your body, both in the moment and in retrospect.
I am writing as a refugee who lost a country and as a mother whose love is vaster than even the vast parameters of loss.”

The pull between opposite forces

Skillfully, oh so skillfully, at the very beginning, Lan Cao sets up one of the many dichotomies that form the basis of A Family in Six Tones.

  • The struggle between life in Vietnam and life in America

  • The continual tension between mother and daughter

  • The American Dream versus the reality of American life

  • The tug of war between loss and love

  • The fight between sanity and mental illness

  • The balance between maintaining cultural identity and assimilation

Even the format of the book is designed around two opposing forces: the mother, Lan, narrates the first section. The daughter, Harlan, explains her life in the second, and thereafter it’s an alternating play of these two voices and perspectives.

Aerial photo of road dividing a forest

The Mother, Lan Cao

Lan Cao’s father was a high-ranking military officer in the South Vietnamese air. When it became obvious that South Vietnam would fall to the Viet Cong, her father and a United States officer who she called “Papa Fritz” got Lan to safety on American soil. Papa Fritz and his wife take care of her until her parents arrive and the family settles into a large immigrant community of South Vietnamese people brought to Falls Church, Virginia.

Lan’s parents work hard at establishing a presence in their neighborhood, opening a Vietnamese grocery store while Lan struggles with homesickness and isolation. As she ages, she finds solace in reading, immersing herself in the written language. (Just another reminder of how reading creates good writers.) Lan remembers,

“…Reading gave me a chance to have an intimate relationship with this new language. Being alone with a book meant that I had the space to feel my way through the pages and grasp the emotionally fine-grained passages, because when I spoke it, as I had to all the time, it was an alien, technical tongue, something I had only a relational relationship with.”

The effects of Lan’s childhood

For me, a former teacher, one of the most appalling episodes of the entire book was when a bigoted math teacher unfairly graded Lan’s work, giving her a B when she deserved an A, a hateful action that kept Lan from being Valedictorian. When she confronted him about the misgrading, he spat:

“No way in hell am I going to let people like you graduate first at J.E.B. Stuart High School.”

Lan goes on to be a successful student, attending Mount Holyoke College, but the effects of her traumatic childhood escape from South Vietnam haunt her. Her struggles to adapt to a new life, her parents’ inability to assimilate, her fight to succeed in a world not welcoming to “outsiders,” and her own insecurities all contribute to frightening, at times debilitating, mental illness.

Despite periodic difficulties, she goes on to be an attorney, working first at big corporate law firms and then teaching international law at prestigious universities, including Duke, University of Michigan, William & Mary, and Brooklyn Law Schools.

Lan is also the epitome of a “Tiger” mother, constantly pushing her daughter, Harlan to learn more, do more, work harder, be better — just as she, herself, had done.

The daughter, Margaret “Harlan” Van Cao

Harlan Cao is Lan’s daughter with a prominent attorney, William Van Alstyne. Her narrative is interlaced with her mother’s and offers a younger, first-generation perspective. Harlan’s viewpoints of being a teenager in America, are valuable — and scary — regardless of nationality. Typical mother-daughter stress, amplified by her mother’s constant push for Harlan to be better, is a core element of her story, but there are also enlightening glimpses into a teenage culture of affluent kids where bullying, sexting, and sex are the norm.

Reading two separate recountings of the same events shows how vastly different perspectives can be, and how those different perspectives affect the story. The often hostile, push and pull between mother and daughter hurt to read, not because of their ethnicity, but because I had two teenage daughters and had similar conflicts. Years later, I still worry that no matter how hard I tried to be a good mother, I was a failure.

While I couldn’t relate much to the angst and resentment of the teenaged Harlan, I am awed by her accomplishment. This is a young woman who is writing an honest account of her life during her teenage years. Harlan graduated in June of 2020, just a few months before this book will be released.

American flag against sunset

Insight into the immigrant experience

Reading Lan and Harlan’s dual account of an immigrant and a first-generation child gave me insight into how it feels to be displaced and to struggle for a place in the vast and varied American landscape. How hard it is to achieve the “American Dream” when you start from scratch without knowing the language. How painful it is to try to hang onto your heritage while assimilating into society. As Lan notes,

“America can be both sweet and bitter.”

In a poignant passage, Lan recognizes that many immigrants and refugees are here because of war and carry the devastating after-effects with them:

“Years later, when I walked the streets of New York City and saw people I thought had been refugees from somewhere else, I knew they were carrying war’s debris inside their bodies the most of the people on earth were doing. And I thought it’s those who have never seen the wreckage of war who are the exotic ones.”

A Family in Six Tones is not a light-hearted, rollicking read. It’s a searing, painful, honest examination of the relationship between mother and daughter, the impact of culture and trauma, the Vietnamese immigrant experience, and the universal, ever-present quest to discover our true identity.

It’s also a travelogue of the energy and vitality of modern Vietnam, a glimpse into their food and cultural beliefs, a quick tour of the first years of a corporate lawyer’s job, and a testament to the lasting love of mother and daughter, no matter how much they fight or what obstacles they have to overcome.

A triumph of honesty

Lan Cao and Margaret Harlan Van Cao should be applauded for their honesty. They don’t sugarcoat their problems. From mental illness, ostracism, “cutting,” and bullying to rebellion, loneliness, dealing with death, grief, guilt, resentment, and forgiveness, this mother-daughter duo bared all.

A Family in Six Tones is a triumph of honesty.


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