Nea, a Chinese Cambodian teenager, has survived the Khmer Rouge only to land in poverty in Texas. Her small family struggles to get by when a miracle occurs. Wealthy and mysterious, Auntie and Uncle write to say they are alive and well, running a Chinese restaurant in Nebraska. As Nea helps pack Hefty bags with meager belongings for a journey into the American Midwest, little does she know their miracle has a dark side. Soon family secrets, small town resentments, lies born of wartime and a forbidden love threaten to tear them apart forever. In the tradition of Holden Caulfield and Scout Finch, Nea must fight to save her family...and herself.
In Chai's coming-of-age novel, 11-year-old Nea, who survived the Khmer Rouge with her scrappy mother, beautiful older sister, and younger siblings, leaves Texas for Nebraska to work in the Chinese restaurant owned by her auntie and uncle. But the miracle she'd hoped for is crushed upon arrival: auntie and uncle, once wealthy, are now struggling, and the locals are more bigoted than they were in Texas. It's the 1980s and the Japanese takeover of the U.S. auto industry looms large; though Nea is Chinese and Cambodian, she's still Asian, and treated as "other." Her relentlessly dour life is only occasionally broken by evocatively disquieting, often painful, dreams, memories, and myths that bring shifts in tone readers will welcome. Chai previously mined her own experience for the memoir, Hapa Girl, and the racism she has described enduring informs Nea and her family's experiences. But they are survivors, and as Nea matures she increasingly uses her wits for her own advancement, forging a path to college, though even this hopeful note can't erase the narrative's depressing aura.