Title : My American Sister
Author : Judy Tham
Genre : Literary Fiction ; South East Asian Literature ; Multi-cultural fiction
Pages : 246
I received this Review Copy from Penguin Random House SEA in exchange for an honest review.
Thank you Penguin Random House and Chaitanya Srivastava for this amazing opportunity!!
A story of a family paying the price of an unapproved birth under China’s One-Child Policy.
What price does a family pay for an unapproved birth?
Li Fu and Mei, farmers from a far-flung province seeking a livelihood in the capital, Beijing, flout the country’s One-Child Policy by giving birth to a second daughter, Ying. Unable to pay the hefty penalty, their baby is forcefully taken by corrupted officials and sold to an orphanage and is eventually put up for adoption. Stricken by grief, the family falls apart. Li, obsessed with finding his missing daughter, leads a dysfunctional and chaotic life with his eldest daughter Yan after his wife walks out of the family. Seventeen years passed before he eventually locates Ying in San Francisco.
However, his dream of a reunited family is quickly crushed when Ying, now an all-American girl, cannot accept her biological family’s un-American way of life. Intolerant of their behaviour and illegal immigrant status, Ying does the unthinkable – calling the immigration department to deport her family back to China. Overcome with guilt and remorse, Ying decides to go to China to face her father and tell him the truth about their arrest and deportation.
Told from the perspectives of the two sisters, this novel reveals the dark side of crosse-cultural adoption and love between father and daughter. The story is inspired by actual accounts of missing children in China, some of whom were abducted by corrupted officials for profiteering.
My American Sister is a gut-wrenching novel by Judy Tham. Despite this being a debut novel of the author, she has exhibited so much maturity and character shades with her extraordinary storytelling style. One of the best things about this book is the kind of characters the author has portrayed through her words.
This book is based on China’s One-child policy which was implemented in the year 1980. A poor Chinese family from the rural part of China moves to the capital city in search of a new livelihood. The man of the house Li Fu, a short-tempered egoistic man, gets into trouble with the government authorities after breaking the One-Child Policy. This ultimately leads to the abduction of their second child, Ying aka Faye and who was later illegally put up for adoption.
Li Fu who is extremely fond of his second daughter psychotically gets on a mission of finding her. He becomes more and more obsessed with it and he neglects his wife, Mei and his first daughter, Yan completely. Li Fu keeps blaming his wife for everything that has gone wrong with their life. After sustaining her husband’s torture for a long time, Mei leaves her husband and Yan.
Seventeen years later, Li Fu, finds the whereabouts of his beloved second daughter and decided to happily reunite with her. He also sees this reunion as an opportunity to start a life in America with the help of Ying’s adopted mother. However, this reunion doesn’t go as per Li Fu’s grand plan because Ying is more American and has an entirely different and sophisticated lifestyle than Li Fu and his first daughter. These differences makes it difficult for Ying to socialise with her true family.
This is a story of a family which gets completely distraught and dysfunctional after being robbed of their second child. This book clearly talks about poverty, what poverty and a loss of a child can do to a family. This is one of the most honest, brutal, raw, difficult and realistic books you will ever come across.
The plot is narrated from the POVs of two sisters, Ying and Yan. The author has shown a great deal of transformation in her narrative style while writing Ying and Yan’s perspectives. The readers can see the cultural, class, social and lifestyle differences between both these sisters.
Every single character in this book was significant and unique. No character in this book was pointless. Ying’s character was super relatable and understandable. The way Ying reacts when she finds out her adopted American mother has illegally adopted her. The repulsiveness she feels while meeting her father and sister for the first time. How she doesn’t approve of their way of living has been beautifully and sensibly captured through Judy Tham’s words.
Moving on to the next major character, Yan, the firstborn of the family. While reading the book, it is natural for the readers to loathe her character. She has been nothing but a bitchy sister to Ying as soon as they meet. She has this soft, innocent aura around her but she does all kinds of mean things. But once you complete the book and reflect on her attitude and behaviour, you will be able to justify her doings. She has been wronged and neglected by her parents all her life, despite being the only child around her parents and she takes it out on her beautiful and educated American sister. Writing a flawed character like Ying and her father Li Fu is not at all easy and Judy Tham has done it like a pro.
Li Fu is a selfish and opportunistic man. He has more grey shades to his character. Sophia, the adopted mother of Ying, though she is the sole reason for sabotaging this entire family’s lives, on the brighter side, it is because of her, Ying was able to have the life she is living. And the best thing about Sophia was she repented, she wanted to make things right for a mistake she did in the past. And on the other hand, Li Fu, just takes advantage of her guilt.
They were other side characters who brought some light and happiness into this deep and serious book. One such character is Charlie, Ying’s boyfriend. He was lively and always had Ying’s back whenever she needed him the most. Ying’s best friend Michelle – is half Singaporean-Chinese-American. She is the one who changes Ying‘s perspective towards her roots. Ying, who doesn’t know anything about her origin finds it really difficult to understand her father and sister’s way of disgusting living. Michelle is that friend who would blindly support you and wants to see you happy. Then Julie, Sophia’s friend who keeps Ying under control. Teenagers definitely need a stern person like her in their life.
This book also showcases a little bit about the Chinese in America, their quarter and lifestyle. It also talks about illegal immigrants in the US, what pushes people to do it and all of those things. The author had shown a drastic variation in the way Yan was brought-up in China and how Ying was brought-up in the US.
Finally, the author completed this complicated plot in a much more fulfilling and wholesome manner. This book was simply wonderful. It will just blow you away.
I completely enjoyed the book. I still can’t understand how the author has written such characters because writing a straight line good, likeable or hate-able character is super easy. But writing flawed characters with multiple shades and grey areas is extremely difficult. You can’t simply love them or hate them, these characters are super complicated. I seriously wonder how she has gone to that mind space to write certain characters and scenes because this book indeed has a lot of traumatising and disturbing scenes.
I should say, I was scarred by certain characters, scenes and their behaviour. It was disgusting but at the same time, I was able to understand why they were behaving the way they were. I kinda hated Yan and Li Fu, quite often. I can’t even understand how Sophia tolerated these two at her home. I don’t think I will have the patience to have these kinds of characters under my roof. And again, that’s what made me respect and like Sophia.
The book was completely relatable, I realised India and China aren’t that different when it comes to culture, mindset, poverty and the lives of poor people. One of the many reasons why I picked up this book was, I haven’t read many books based in China and I wanted to read one. Currently, we know China for how fancy it is but this book showed a completely different China. The slums and poverty. I had different expectations and the book presented me with something else. I have slight mixed feelings about the same. I got this “Slum Dog Millionaire” vibe while reading it. (If you are Indian, you will know what I mean.) And another thing which I felt was kind of odd was the American slang of Ying aka Faye kinda felt fake. That didn’t feel very natural.
Apart from these two things I absolutely loved this book. It’s one of the best books I have read in recent times and I’m sure, this book is going to stay in my heart forever.
I would like to suggest this book to literary fiction and multicultural fiction lover. If you are someone who would like to read more Asian literature, you would simply love it. I do not suggest this book for young readers as it has some mature and traumatic content which might scar them.
My rating for this book would 5 out of 5 stars
You can purchase the book here!
Once again, thank you Penguin Random House for the review copy 🙂
Happy reading folks!