Land of Smiles

T. C. Huo, Author Plume Books $16 (215p) ISBN 978-0-452-28185-1
When Boontakorn, a pubescent Laotian boy, swims across the Mekong River to Thailand in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, this dangerous passing is only the first step in a long journey toward the mythical Land of Smiles. The boy safely reaches the Lao Refugee Camp in Thailand, but his mother and sister drown in their later attempt to escape; his father and grandmother join him eventually. In the camp, the Laotians create a complex miniature society, providing basic needs, schooling, language instruction and even mating services for the adults, but everyone thinks only about passing the emigration interview. Finally, Boontakorn and his father are permitted to emigrate to San Francisco, where later he learns that the refugee camp burned down after he left; it's another bit of his past that ""disappeared from the earth."" Now a teenager, Boontakorn's forays into American culture are sympathetically portrayed, his alienation delineated in bittersweet scenarios. He's surprised to learn that he is too young to work legally; he becomes familiar with late 1970s disco music, and struggles with the idiomatic English language. Most of all, he's simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the forwardness of American culture, and finds a sense of place amid San Francisco's burgeoning Asian and Southeast Asian immigrant population. After dropping out of college and becoming a hairdresser, Boontakorn comes full circle when he takes a trip back to Laos with his friend Martha, a Chinese-American anthropologist. At the book's close, this young man comes to terms with the myths and legacies of his heritage, the multifarious and shifting definitions of nationality, of identity and of ""home."" As a chronicle of an exile's courage, bewilderment and numb longing, Huo's taut but impressively atmospheric second novel (after A Thousand Wings) is a valuable addition to our literature of Asian ethnicity. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 09/04/2000
Release date: 09/01/2000
Hardcover - 224 pages - 978-0-525-94281-8
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