Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter

Family in Six Tones speaks both to the unique struggles of refugees and to the universal tug-of-war between mothers and daughters.

About a Family In Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter

In 1975, thirteen-year-old Lan Cao boarded an airplane in Saigon and got off in a world where she faced hosts she had not met before, a language that she didn’t speak, food she didn’t recognize, with the faint hope that she would be able to go home soon. Lan fought her way through confusion, and racism, to become a successful lawyer and novelist. Four decades later, she faced the biggest challenge in her life: raising her daughter Harlan–half Vietnamese by birth and 100 percent American teenager. In their joint memoir, told in alternating voices, mother and daughter cross ages and ethnicities to tackle the hardest questions about assimilation, aspiration, and family.

Lan wrestles with her identities as not merely an immigrant but a refugee from an unpopular war. She has bigoted teachers who undermine her in the classroom and tormenting inner demons, but she does achieve, either despite or because of the work ethic and tight support of a traditional Vietnamese family struggling to get by in a small American town. Lan has ambitions, for herself, and for her daughter, but even as an adult feels tentative about her place in her adoptive country, and ventures through motherhood as if it is a foreign landscape.

Reflecting and refracting her mother’s narrative, Harlan fiercely describes the rites of passage of childhood and adolescence, filtered through the effects of her family’s history of war, tragedy, and migration. Harlan’s struggle to make friends in high school challenges her mother to step back and let her daughter find her own way.

Family in Six Tones speaks to the unique struggles of refugees and to the universal tug-of-war between mothers and daughters. The journey of an immigrant, away from war and loss toward peace and a new life, and the journey of a mother raising a child to be secure and happy. Both are steep paths filled with detours and stumbling blocks. Through explosive fights and painful setbacks, mother and daughter search for a way to accept the past and face their future together.

My Thoughts

Family in Six Tones is a powerful book that made me cry, made me smile and opened my eyes. My husband came to Canada with his brother at the age of 19, sent by their parents in the hopes of a better life for them. I found many parts of his own story within this story (the struggles of different cultures, longing for the home from their youth yet knowing that it is just not the same, the new community that is built in this new country and so on). I can’t even begin to imagine or put myself in the shoes of a refugee or an immigrant, instead I try to do my best to understand and be respectful. For many, they are not leaving by choice (for adventure, for a new job, etc) but instead they are fleeing war, persecution, politics, poverty and so much more. They have seen things that others cannot even begin to imagine. I cried when I got to the part where Lan’s parents sent her to America alone. The strength and love that they had for her was incredible, I can’t even begin to imagine the hurt they carried within seeing their daughter leave but also the sacrifice and hope for her future that they saw.

The story is told in an unique manner – both in Lan’s and Harlan’s perspectives which gives us such a personal look at their lives and helps us to fill in the gaps. We learn about Lan’s family history in Saigon and the struggles they faced before and during the Vietnam War. We watch as she boards a plane to America, not really understanding that this is not a short vacation but instead her parents have made the greatest sacrifice to protect her. We watch as she becomes exposed to American culture and we see the differences between the two cultures and how difficult this must have been for her to find her own way in a country that is so unlike her home. Many times, America is not the warm, welcome inviting place it should be for her – instead she is faced with racism and hate because of her birth place (some of this may have been due to the war but after witnessing how people have treated immigrants myself, it could be more than that). We watch as she grows into a young woman, heads off to college and finally as she becomes a mother. I can’t even begin to imagine the stress of becoming a mother, the fears she would have for her daughter and never really knowing should she raise her in an American culture or her Vietnamese culture. We watch as she struggles with the rules that she grew up with, changes her mind but is always trying to be mindful of the American culture that her daughter will have to navigate.

With Harlan’s sections, we see a new side of Lan – the sides that are permanently affected by what she saw as a child and the sides that she tries to hide. No one can ever truly appreciate the long term affects of war, fleeing your country and starting over can have on you mentally, emotionally and physically. We saw glimpses of this in Harlan’s chapters and she shared this with love, respect and honesty. I loved the way Harlan wrote, she shares her heart openly and you just can’t stop reading.

This is a beautiful story of family, the mother-daughter relationship, the struggles of a refugee and starting over in a new country and culture. I couldn’t put this memoir down, it was an intimate and honest story that was told with respect and love, a definite must read novel.

You can purchase a copy of this book on Amazon.

Rating: 5/5

About the Authors

Lan Cao is the author of Monkey Bridge and The Lotus and the Storm, and most recently of the scholarly work Culture in Law and Development: Nurturing Positive Change. She is a professor of law at the Chapman University School of Law, and an internationally recognized expert specializing in international business and trade, international law, and development. She has taught at Brooklyn Law School, Duke University School of Law, University of Michigan Law School, and William & Mary Law School.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao graduated from high school in June 2020 and will be attending UCLA. She was born in Williamsburg, Virginia, and moved to Southern California when she was ten.

Disclosure: I received a digital copy of this book in order to facilitate this review. All opinions expressed are my own.


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