If it’s not the worst of times, it’s far from the best. What have long been considered the finest American values are under siege. Much of academia, BLM, Antifa, the 1619 Project, social media platforms and others have taken center stage to declare the United States irredeemably racist, marginalize opposing voices, erode due process of law and peddle factually-challenged narratives of history and current events. Mayors and governors bow to mobs as if to some sort of moral authority. Meanwhile, those who seek to describe our successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses in the historical perspective without which no country, no culture can ever be sensibly understood find themselves targets for cancellation.
In that context, it’s often left to immigrants or refugees to remind us of just how valuable America’s promise is to them and to the world. From Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, those who have lived in countries that abjure American values – due process of law, individual rights and liberties – come to tell us that, despite our many shortcomings, we don’t know how good we have it. We would do well to listen.
And so it is with the powerful and finely-wrought memoir Family in Six Tones, by Lan Cao and her daughter, Harlan Margaret Van Cao.
In April of 1975, at age 13, Lan fled Saigon within a month of its fall to the North Vietnamese. Fighting raged in the suburbs as her father rushed her to the airport for the faraway U.S. and a stay she assumed would be short-term. After all, the Communists would surely be driven out and “normalcy” would return to her home in the South.
Like those of so many other Vietnamese, her stay became permanent. Today, 45 years later, Lan Cao is a respected legal scholar in international finance and a modestly acclaimed novelist. Family in Six Tones is, in part, the story of her astonishing success in this country, of nose-to-the-grindstone work and dedication that paid off in academic respect, financial comfort and a gradually-realized freedom from the customs and superstitions of an ancient culture.
Cao graduated second in her high school class in Falls Church, Virginia, despite speaking little English when she’d arrived. From there it was on to Mount Holyoke College, Yale Law School, a silk-stocking New York law firm, a clerkship for a federal judge and a professorship in law. In that last position, she met and married her American husband, superstar constitutional lawyer William Van Alstyne. Their daughter Harlan was born and Lan’s two successful novels were published prior to this memoir.
What is all that if not the American Dream?
“[Y]ou can remind a country you love of its own professed ideals and promises. You love it because it took you in and offered you sanctuary. You love it because its dreams are your dreams too, its history your history, however complicated, and after more years here than in Vietnam, it has become your home. America is my home, and there is nowhere I want to “go back” to.”
Such love for the U.S. appears rarely these days in the pages of the New York Times or on MSNBC.
But Family in Six Tones is no victory lap run by a long-shot winner. It’s the dark, sometimes unnerving story of a refugee stretched to breaking between two worlds, her psyche torn, her interior battles fought at best to a standstill. Lan Cao is a sharp observer and incisive thinker. She charts her passage from girl to woman, Vietnamese to American, Confucian to secular, war to peace, child to mother, single to married, unknown to laureled. Attaining her American dream was a long labor and painful birth, the wholesale transformation of self that took place mostly unseen within a quiet, undemonstrative woman. Far more than her many achievements, that passage is the core of her memoir. Cao lays it down patiently, gradually, like sedimentary rock, immeasurably deep.
How much more different could two cultures be than were those of Vietnam and the United States in 1975? One was Asian and ancient, the other European and new; one revered parents and teachers; the other said “trust no one over 30.” One was humble, the other brash; one was small and insignificant, the other a superpower.
Even the shortest English word was an alien concept:
“[F]rom a cultural standpoint, we never emphasized the self anyway. The English “I” – stand-alone, individual, independent of others – cannot be expressed in Vietnamese. The Vietnamese “I” could be conceived of only in relation to another, constantly shifting depending on the party on the other side of the conversation… In Vietnamese, you and I are relational only.”
From the minutiae of language to the grand sweep of global politics. The United States began impacting Cao’s life long before her arrival here. What we called the Vietnam War was always more theirs than ours, a fact little understood by Americans. As early as age six, Lan huddled in a bunker while bombs rained down around her. The war catapulted her father, a decorated leader of South Vietnam’s elite airborne commandos, to the rank of general. Little Lan accompanied her mother when she volunteered at a military hospital.
“Here was Vietnam and my childhood hewn and pared down to a single picture. My mother applying compresses to shrapnel wounds and torn flesh, cleaning them, bandaging them. A man with intestines peeking from his abdomen, black eyes stilled like glass, body stiff like a corpse, lying on a stretcher. Silently, I used to wonder how old each wounded or dead person was. When I asked, my mother would just say, “Young.”
Her war was not our war; ours was not theirs. We came to believe that our involvement in Vietnam was wrong both morally and geopolitically, so American leftists prided themselves on their role in forcing the U.S. to withdraw and leaving the people of the South to the tender mercies of the communist North. But what was a victory for the anti-war movement, a face-saving for the Nixon presidency, was the bitterest of defeats for the people of the South. It meant uprooted lives, a vast diaspora, thousands drowned at sea trying to escape and countless prisoners fed starvation rations, desperately confessing to imagined crimes. For the U.S., the War in Vietnam was only an American war, an American invasion, an American mistake.
“Americans were concerned about Vietnamese suffering only if they believed it was caused by America. This way, the Vietnamese remained perpetual victims and Americans perpetual holders of power – power to inflict and power to save.”
How timely. Lan’s words echo those of black conservatives writing about race relations today – that, by holding whites solely responsible for racial disparities, white guilt arrogates power – “the power to inflict, and power to save” – to whites, leaving blacks dependent on white noblesse oblige.
Speaking of racism, Cao and her family endured their share. The frank bigotry of a high school teacher, “yella n*****s” yelled at her parents by a black man, the pointed exclusion by classmates, a girl in biology class who refused to partner with Lan because she feared her Asian eyes couldn’t adequately see their dissection specimen, were daily reminders of her unwanted difference.
“Chink,” “slant,” “gook,” “yella.”
Tellingly though, Cao offers those examples only in passing, as if, while remarkable, they were simply additional facts about American culture to be learned and dealt with. Plus, she balances that racism with the many kindnesses showed her by Americans – the teachers who let her eat lunch alone in their classrooms and gave her special tutoring after school “for as long as I needed,” the college classmate who introduced her to warm bagels smeared with cream cheese (“I was completely ‘here,’ and finally not ‘there.’).
And anyway, Cao knew to keep her head down and plug away.
“I went along with their story, the collective memoir Americans had been writing for years…”
She did so because she had to. For Lan Cao, getting along in America meant not only the non-stop hard work necessary for survival, but also becoming someone she wasn’t. Yes, she mastered English, math and science, American customs, American law. But none of it was Lan Cao, for Lan Cao the Vietnamese girl was a fabulist, a dweller in magical worlds, an incipient writer, not of legal briefs, but of fiction. In the midst of the horrors of war,
“I daydreamed about magical things and had a magical view of the world, immersed as I was in the realm of dreams, visions, premonitions…
Although magic was everywhere, I treated it as normal. That was its beauty. My nine cousins… and I immersed ourselves in that world. We believed it was indeed possible, at least once upon a time, to take momentary leave of the earth, even to fly.”
And fly she did, all too prosaically, to Falls Church, Virginia and a life that was far from magical. Still, the lodestone of Vietnam and her mythmaking self continually pulled at her, but in the cold dawn of a strange culture and uncertain future, Lan “put aside childish things.”
Her struggle, desperate and victorious, is most of Family in Six Tones, but not all.
The rest is the memoir of her daughter, Harlan, who wrote hers at the age of 17. Their memoirs are told in alternating chapters, each intertwining with the other, each adding nuance and perspective to the other, each revealing about the other information curiously unmentioned by the other.
So only from Harlan do we learn of her mother’s violent seizures, of her personality that long ago was cleft into three distinct parts that manifest themselves, sometimes when needed, sometimes when not. Cecille the six-year-old playmate for Harlan, No Name, the pitiless perfectionist and protector of the other two and, of course Lan. Their emergence often presages those seizures that her daughter has witnessed since she was a little girl but that no one ever explained to her.
“When I was four, I began to see the demons that lived in her, PTSD demons. Shadow selves. The fits that she suffered from were so violent that her overall personality became erratic and unpredictable as she writhed there on the floor, holding her own throat, trying to strangle the monsters inside her to death so that she could live.”
In Family in Six Tones, Lan suffers most, but Harlan battles monsters too. After all, she’s her mother’s daughter. To her too is given the task of bridging two cultures – her mother’s and her father’s, her Asian looks in mostly-white schools, Confucian perfectionism among blasé American teenagers.
Where Lan’s voice is relentlessly sober, Harlan’s is lighter, that of a remarkably articulate high-school girl. She’s sometimes funny, always thoughtful, somewhat too dramatic and with a bit of surface snark to cover the uncertainty of inexperience. Her life bears little resemblance to her mother’s. Harlan’s reality is the U.S., having lived nowhere else. She’s the only child of two highly accomplished parents, lives in an 8,000 square foot house and has known only safety, prosperity and our American brand of freedom.
But, like her mother, she is caught in between. Her father is American, her mother Vietnamese. His motto is “break one rule every day,” hardly a Confucian ideal. Harlan goes to American schools with American kids and teachers, but her Vietnamese mother dominates her education. Lan tried daily, hourly to drive her daughter to be as driven as she was. But how could she be? Harlan’s been brought up by her mother, but never lived the hard reality that animates her.
“I don’t have the same driving force inside me that she has: anxiety.”
Naturally, the will to obey and the will to rebel, both borne of filial love, both acted out in the context of competing cultures, motivate the daughter. One of the bibles of Lan’s assimilation into U.S. culture was Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style. So she gave it to Harlan hoping it would help her to perfect her English.
“I slyly put my treasured copy on her night table. It stayed in the same fixed position for months. I saw only dried yellowish water marks on it. She was using it as a coaster."
Of course she was. Harlan is complacent – “lackadaisical” is Lan’s word - in ways only a child of privilege can be, a posture that’s utterly alien to her mother, even dangerous. In Harlan we see the emergence of the first-generation American. How much she takes for granted! Her mother – nothing.
The two women’s struggles with each other recapitulate Lan’s personal ones. The lodestone of the East pulls at Harlan too in the form of a single person – the most important one in her life – her mother. So Harlan too knows her own darkness.
“Back when I was fifteen, there was a girl in my high school whom people talked about as if they knew everything about her, when they really knew nothing. And she couldn’t bring herself to walk down crowded hallways. Between periods she would stay in the bathroom until everybody was in their next class, and she would always be late. The growing string of tardies was worth being able to walk across campus without the judgmental stares on her. Even as she walked through the silent halls, the hostile voices in her head whispered and slowly got louder, finally stopping when she got to her classroom. It was impossible to separate delusion from reality, and so she chose to stay by herself.”
That girl of course was Harlan, battling the isolation of being her mother’s daughter, of being part Asian, part American, a stranger in a strange land. Assimilation is hard, even unto the second generation.
As conflicted as their relationship is, it’s also one of deepest love, two flawed individuals irrevocably linked. In keeping with Vietnamese custom, mother and daughter slept in the same bed until Harlan was 13 and, even now, her mother stays on “her” side, leaving a space for her daughter, just in case. Harlan describes it:
“When she falls asleep, her lips part and she snores very lightly. Even when she’s asleep, she speaks to me. Even when we fight and I leave, I lie next to her from far away.”
That love is the stabilizing constant channeling throughout Family in Six Tones. It grounds the emotional violence, calms the turbid waters.
Toward the end of the book Lan returns to Vietnam for a visit.
“Vietnam was my birthplace. And it was the place where I discovered one of my primal truths: Everything can fall.”
Against a backdrop of rioting, arson and vows to destroy this country, it’s a truth – indeed a primal one - worth remembering. We’re lucky to have immigrants - refugees - to remind us.