Friday, 7 December 2007

Nyonya Goes West

My first published book review! Writing this was fun, and a portent of things to come. I could have started off with an even better book, but sometimes, you don't get what you want. It would, I'm sure, be a recurring theme in this new endeavour.

Honest, homespun tale

first published in The Star, 07 December 2007

Because of their boundless potential to horrify, amuse and tug at the heartstrings, works replete with anecdotes of cross-border culture shock are abundant in the media. Consider An Englishman in New York, A Yankee in King Arthur's Court and An American Werewolf in London.

So it's perfectly understandable that something titled A Nyonya in Texas should hold similar promise. The nyonya (Straits Chinese lady) in question here is Lee Su Kim, who also happens to be an accomplished writer and an Associate Professor of Language and Culture at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in Bangi, Selangor. A picture of her in a white kebaya beside her summarised CV is on the back cover to dispel any scepticism.

This rather short volume chronicles the author's sojourn in Texas, the quintessential cowboy capital of the world.

A close inspection of Lee's CV had me wondering what happened during the frenetic years after she had left Texas for good, and why this book was not published sooner. By now, many of us are all too aware of strange and outlandish American customs and laws, thanks to their soap operas, late-night talk shows, and those weird and wacky reality TV series.

Around the time Baywatch was still popular, the United States was a place of mystery, even to its own denizens. It's a place as big as any Texan's tall tale, and – depending on who you speak to, each state is practically a foreign country.

One unifying factor is the pride Americans have for their roots, never mind that a majority of them are European, Asian and African transplants from a long time ago.

By subjecting herself to their tender mercies, Lee valiantly takes one for the team. Her frustrations, triumphs and defeats in dealing with cultural and lingual hurdles are rendered in heartfelt, if somewhat localised outpourings (relax, each word is thoughtfully explained, and there’s a glossary somewhere).

While the ignorance and idiosyncrasies of Texans – and Americans, in general – are well-documented, some anecdotes here will make you want to whack their heads with a rolled-up newspaper. Then there are lessons on the futility of packing your own culture (like durians) with your luggage. Her farewell to Texas is made all the more poignant by her personal tragedies.

Before I knew it, I'd reached the end of the book. Like a fireworks display, it's colourful, flashy and loud, but ends too soon. There is great potential in this book, but it is let down by choppy, uneven storytelling. Aspects of her heritage felt over-explained, especially at the beginning. If you're a local, it gets very tedious.

Almost half the book tells stories outside of Texas, with plenty of flashbacks to the author's younger days at home, leaving me with the impression that her life in the Lone Star State wasn't as action-packed or eventful as was hinted on the book cover and the blurbs. I also suspected that there were other chapters in the story that were left out or never told, or perhaps the words weren't there for those stories yet.

The illustrations could have been done better. The artist made the author's character look waaay too good. For beginners untouched by Discovery Channel, this book may be a big eye-opener. In fact, I do fear that they'll be as big as saucers before the uninitiated reader reaches the last chapter – and be hard to shut long after he's done. Those well-acquainted with Western culture, however, won't find anything new.

Being a bona fide "banana", I wouldn't find A Nyonya in Texas a necessity in my bookshelf. I am, however, glad this book was written for it is an honest, homespun tale about how travel broadens one’s horizons and how everyone has pride in their heritage.

A Nyonya in Texas
Insights of a Straits Chinese Woman in the Lone Star State

Lee Su Kim
Marshall Cavendish Editions
186 pages
ISBN: 9789833346103


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