Why Do You Look at Me and See a Girl?
By Anvi Hoàng
Making coal patties. Selling liquid soap. Shopping at a glittering shoe mecca. She’s done them all living half her life in deprived-post-war-communist-Vietnam-turned-free-market. It’s life in a vacuum when strange types of brainwashing happened. Part memoir and part social ... Read more
Making coal patties. Selling liquid soap. Shopping at a glittering shoe mecca. She’s done them all living half her life in deprived-post-war-communist-Vietnam-turned-free-market. It’s life in a vacuum when strange types of brainwashing happened. Part memoir and part social criticism, Why Do You Look at Me and See a Girl? is a provocative read about a full-fledged bilingual who fights to get free from the dead past and her ancestors’ sins.
The story starts with her grandmother’s prison visit and moves to a journey through the jungle carried out for family reunion. Drawing strength from her, Hoàng completes her transformation in America from an international student to a free naturalized being. As she sheds her adoration for the impeccable American logic, oscillates between languages, and crosses oceans, she confronts the power play and biases, cultural inhibitors and prejudices that condition human behaviors, be it in Vietnam, America or Thailand. All along, she claims justice for her under-appreciated grandma, straightens male and white patronization, tears down tradition and brainwashing, uncovers the Asian submission to western iconography, and resists the attraction of a white guy. In lucid prose and with a hint of quiet humor, Why Do You Look at Me and See a Girl? is an unflinching pursuit of questions about family, finding one’s voice, home, and freedom.
Anvi Hoàng grew up in Vietnam and taught English as a Second Language for six years before coming to the U.S. for graduate studies. In 2015 she co-founded, and as Chief of Operations has since managed, the Vietnamese American Society for Creative Arts and Music (VASCAM). Why Do You Look at Me and See a Girl? is her debut book. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana, with her husband, composer P.Q. Phan.
What on earth did the nun think she was doing, labeling my grandma ‘submission'? I don't care if my grandma looked tired and beaten down. Hell, it was the sixties! Halfway around the globe, America was reeling from the war in Vietnam. Civil rights and anti-war protests were chipping the souls of American people. Right here in Vietnam, the drawn-out war seemed to have no end in sight. No Vietnamese soul was left untouched, young or old. I was furious to hear that the nun called my grandma submissive.
It is not often that we read a memoir with such power, such lucidity, such passion that doesn’t get lost in the personal but informs, provides history, and makes us think hard about what it means to be an American woman from somewhere else, what it means to be in the margins even when things go well, and how a visit home reveals that you now have two homes and each provides you a glimpse of “self”, but reminds you that your “place” is neither fully here nor fully there. Hoàng’s Why Do You Look at Me and See a Girl? is a powerful reminder that a woman from somewhere else’s humanity is fluid, transnational, transcultural and personal but never ceases to speak to a collective reality of so many other women. I have no doubt this memoir will take its place among the best of Vietnamese, immigrant and American stories of self.
— Ignacio M. García, Author of When Mexicans Could Play Ball
Beginning with a distant war and ending with the uneven realities of capitalist life in a global era, Anvi Hoàng delivers an insightful, feminist, and cross-cultural work that illuminates both Vietnam and the United States.
— Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Sympathizer
Anvi Hoàng's Why Do You Look At Me and See a Girl? is an authentic memoir of growing up in Vietnam…, coming to America, journeying around the world in search of peace. Hoàng writes from the voice of experience, commemorating with the memories and the ghosts of her past. Why Do You Look At Me and See a Girl? is a work for the present and an offering for the future.
— Kao Kalia Yang, Author of The Latehomecomer
The author has created a moving account of bridging past and present, home and homelessness, sorrow and joy, and traditions and ideals in the course of her life. Interweaving an elegy for her grandmother with Hoàng’s own journeys across geographical space and inner time, we understand for ourselves how Hoàng’s journey is our own as well. We feel to follow the author’s path as she learns to disregard and move beyond that which would derail her path towards joy and acceptance. The timeless and spaceless search for one’s true home unites us all, and we realize we can no longer see each other as “just” anything—“just a girl,” “just an Asian,” “just an American. ” Highly recommended.
— Valerie M. Hudson, University Distinguished Professor, Texas A&M University
Anvi Hoàng’s compelling Why Do You Look at Me and See a Girl? is described as “part memoir and part social criticism. ” It is certainly a fine example of both those genres. But at its deepest level it takes up the central theme of all great literary fiction: the enduring quest for a self, for an identity, for a place in the universe. And on that level Anvi Hoàng’s book is simply literature, fiercely engaging and genuinely moving literature.
— Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain