Twelve-year-old Mai Le has no desire to hear why she must give up her summer vacation to accompany her grandmother to Vietnam. As far as she’s concerned, the “quack” detective her grandmother hired to find Mai’s grandfather, who was captured by the Viet Cong and disappeared during the Vietnam War, is leading them on a wild goose chase.
Neither is Mai interested in discovering her roots. A Laguna girl through and through, Mai knows she belongs on the beach with her gal pal, Montana, and the boy she’s secretly crushing on, not slumming it in the stifling heat of the remote village where her grandfather grew up, where she doesn’t speak the language and the notion of personal space and privacy is nonexistent.
So Mai makes it her personal mission to help her grandmother accept the truth. The sooner Ba finds closure, the sooner they can go home. This turns out to be easier said than done.
In Listen, Slowly, author Thanhha Lai takes a refreshing approach to the familiar story about a third culture kid experiencing her ancestral homeland for the first time. Happily, neither the plot nor Mai’s character arc hinge solely upon Cultural Identity and A Newfound Appreciation For One’s Heritage and Land of Origin.
Instead, Mai preoccupies herself with trying to escape her predicament. She also gets into scrapes, has teenage concerns, makes friends, meddles in the villagers’ daily routines (and love lives), and even does an impressive amount of sleuthing with the help of her new friends.
Through these experiences, Mai gains maturity as her motivations for looking into Ong’s disappearance shift from self-centered to altruistic. The fact that she also grows in understanding (and sometimes, appreciation) for Vietnamese culture happens naturally, in tandem with the story.
All the while, Mai’s commentary on Vietnamese culture, American culture, and Vietnamese-American culture is delightfully snarky, humorous, and so very on-point.
Here’s Mai’s take on a very Asian belief: “Anh Minh told me mosquitoes here love overseas visitors, whose blood is loaded with sugar. He said it like that’s a universal fact. True, mine has been doused with Hawaiian bread and cereal and corn chips and just plain corn, all of which you wouldn’t think have tons of sugar, but according to Mom, eating them is like spooning white sugar straight into your mouth.”
And this gem about her mom’s insistence on teaching Mai one SAT word a day: “That’s it. I’m on an SAT revolt, erasing all five-dollar words form my cobwebby mind. Expunged, good-bye. Wait, is expunge an SAT word?…How about zapped?…It will kill Mom when I come back espousing the vocabulary of a middle schooler, which I am. Wait is espouse SAT? I’m going to have to be vigilant. Vigilant? OMG, Mom has completely warped me.”
Even when Mai’s at her brattiest, the fact that she’s self-aware makes her commentary not only bearable, but a delight.
Mai: I won’t learn Vietnamese.
Dad: Then be mute.
Mai: I’ll start making B’s.
Dad: If you can stand it, go ahead.
Mai: I’ll start wearing eyeliner.
Dad: Then get raccoon eyes.
Mai: I’ll wear–
Dad: Listen, Ba has sacrificed everything for us. We’ve raised you to be considerate, so act like it. Be good, listen to Ba.
This is just a few of the many delightful moments that make up Listen, Slowly. I don’t usually end my reviews this way, but here’s the obligatory cheesy pun that I endorse with all sincerity: Listen, quickly go and read this book!