With a title like I Love Yous Are For White People, how could a reader resist going out and buying a copy? The book's front cover describes author Lac Su's tale as a "true story of heartbreak, culture clash, and survival on the streets of Los Angeles." But Lac's story can be more accurately described as shock and awe – so shocking that it leaves the reader in awe about how something like this could happen to anyone.
The reader is first introduced to Lac being towed by his father as they march up a hill, his mother and sister not far behind. As far as Lac's concerned, it's a normal day in Da Nang, and he's spending precious quality time with his father. It's only until the family starts racing toward the ocean docks that he (and the reader) realizes the thunder is actually an explosion. Then, bullets start whizzing by.
What would have been a typical Da Nang street scene of "the rush hour melee, adulterous men rendezvousing with mistresses, and mothers catching their sons drinking & smoking" is suddenly shattered by the chaotic destruction that surrounds Lac and his family. Da Nang has been captured by the Communist North, and the family must flee for their lives by boat.
The first chapter provides a very powerful introduction, including a harrowing escape from Vietnam, a sinking ship, and the courageous actions of the author's father trying to save his family from the sinking vessel. Thankfully, the author and his family make their way to the United States to start a new life in Los Angeles.
The rest of the novel's events are no mere cakewalk, however, as Lac struggles to assimilate to life in America and win the respect of his father. Each chapter varies in terms of emotional intensity, and unfortunately, Lac's father gives new meaning to the phrase "hard-ass Asian parent" as he molds (or literally, beats) his son into a man. The author eloquently summarizes the challenges of being subservient to his father: "It hurts the most when I'm doing my absolute best and it still isn't enough. Striving to meet my father's expectations is like climbing out of quicksand: the harder I try to get to the top, the more I'm sucked back down by his unrelenting criticism." With each beating and verbal harangue, the relationship deteriorates almost to the point of no return.
It makes for interesting reading to see how Lac attempts to make social connections, specifically with gang members outside his family to compensate for a normal father-son relationship. Part of the novel's charm is also the descriptive language of the author's writing. Whether describing the cultural observations he makes about everyday life or describing his own personal feelings, it's as if the reader is next to Lac sharing the same trials and tribulations.
Take, for example, Lac's first day of school. The fear, anxiety, and uncertainty that affects a child when they take their first big step into the world suddenly comes rushing in: "I try not to cry by sucking my lips through my teeth. My nostrils flare, and my eyes begin to blink rapidly. I'll do anything to keep the tears from flowing. I want Pa to tell his refugee friends that I was a good boy and I didn't cry on my first day of school. That's what Pa and his friends do – they obsessively compare their children's progress in America. Some of them have boasted that their kids has 'adapted to the white lifestyle right away.'"
Without giving away the reasoning behind the book's title, the story ends on a satisfactory note where Lac's father learns to say "I love you" in his own special way. By the midpoint of the novel, the protagonist is already on a downward trajectory as he delves deeper into the gangster lifestyle. By the time the novel ends and he shares this moment with his father, the damage is done, and the novel ends just like that.
The reader is left hanging, wondering: "What happened to Lac at the magnet school? How did he get his life back together? How did he meet his wife?" The answers to these questions are answered in the epilogue, but it's not enough. Readers will have to make due with I Love Yous Are For White People, which is still well worth the read. In the meantime, we'll be waiting for "Lac Su: The College Years."