Book review of Real Americans by Rachel Khong

Books

It’s the mid-1960s, right at the start of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, and the Red Guards are methodically upending—many would say demolishing—the cultural heritage of China. Books are burned, artifacts are smashed, history is erased. But two plucky biology students, Mei and Peng, are determined to rescue a lotus seed from the university library. 

This isn’t just any seed. It is a seed from thousands of years ago, allegedly dropped from the sky by a dragon as a gift for a long-ago emperor, with the power to confer a wish on its recipient.  But the emperor died before getting to make that wish. Mei, a scientist by nature, is skeptical of the legend, but she wants to protect the seed from the Red Guards, so she takes it.

Here, Rachel Khong’s multigenerational saga Real Americans splits into three narratives, following Mei, her daughter and her grandson through 60-odd tumultuous years after she immigrates to America. The narration isn’t linear; Mei, who plays the pivotal role at the book’s brief outset, largely recedes into the background until the final third of the book, when, as an elderly retired geneticist, she reflects on her life choices and how they have affected her family: “Aren’t we lucky? Our DNA encodes for innumerable possible people, and yet it’s you and I who are here. . . . In this place, on this small blue rock, innumerable miracles: redwoods, computers, stingrays, pianos, you and me.” 

Through intervening events and discoveries, Khong implicitly asks a very pertinent question: What does it mean to be a “real American”? Is it enough to be born in the U.S.? Can you assimilate from a foreign country, a foreign culture? Is there something in our genetics that binds us inevitably to the lands of our ancestral origins? Real Americans’ answers are at once complex and compelling, as science and philosophy sit cheek by jowl with history and elements of magic. As the three narrative strands merge, their denouement is unexpected yet perhaps predestined: the fruit of a seed planted long ago. 

Read original article here.

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