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Tuesday, Sept. 21, 1999

Does the American Dream beat Hong Kong custard?

PAPER DAUGHTER: A Memoir, by M. Elaine Mar. HarperFlamingo, New York, 1999, 240 pp., $23.

"From Hong Kong to Harvard" proclaims the publicity cover letter accompanying M. Elaine Mar's first book. As a memoir, it is but one drop in the growing flood of reminiscences engulfing publishing houses, and Mar's publisher saw fit to highlight the author's nicely alliterative path from the squalor of an Asian metropolis to the ivied halls of academia. But the phrase oversimplifies Mar's tale.

"Paper Daughter" is a thoughtful and at times gracefully lyrical retracing of Mar's life, one not atypical of her generation. Opening with the crowded chaos of Hong Kong, where her family of three shares a hallway kitchen and bathroom with nine other people, the memoir focuses on her adolescence in suburban America, as an Asian girl trying to make sense of both racial epithets and teenage hormones.

Mar resists telling her story with the benefit of cloying hindsight; instead, her voice has a refreshing novelistic immediacy. Schoolyard hierarchies and American customs are just some of the knotty mysteries the young narrator must unravel, and she does so with a gumption steadfastly discouraged in Confucian society, but which proves useful to survival in a strange new land.

Mar's carpenter father is the first to immigrate to the United States. His sister runs the kitchen at a moderately successful Chinese restaurant outside Denver, and Aunt Becky allows her brother's family to live in the basement of her seemingly palatial house, with separate rooms for cooking, eating and sleeping.

It doesn't take long for the 5-year-old Mar to become keenly aware of her family's status: Becky's son is the preferred child (not only three months older, but also a boy), and her mother constantly reminds her of their lot. "This house doesn't belong to us. It belongs to your Aunt Becky. We have to do our best to stay out of her way," she says.

Perhaps as a result, the house becomes an object of fascination to the young child: It's described as a Chinese cabinet of a building, with rooms under lock and key. But with her family's indebtedness feeling as if it were woven into the wall-to-wall carpets, Mar begins to tiptoe around her new home. "Like Mother, I was learning to disappear . . . to vanish in full sight of others, retreating into myself when physical flight wasn't possible. My voice withered. Silent desire parched my throat."

At school, life isn't much easier. Kids groan when she is picked to be "it," she mixes up her Rs and Ls, teachers assume she won't know the answer. But Mar adapts, first adopting an English name, chosen one afternoon by the Mexican wife of a restaurant employee. "Eee-laine," Mar writes. "So that's who I was. My life cleaved in two."

Though her family remains poor (Mar thinks opening her eyes wider can improve her eyesight instead of expensive glasses), unexpected kindness comes from Aunt Becky, who pays for a class T-shirt and forbids her to tell her mother.

The family finds refuge in the small Chinese community, both at a social club and at the restaurant. Weekends and vacations are spent at one place or the other; the kids play in the lot behind the improbably named Casey's Palace and Annie's Castle Restaurant & Lounge as the adults work inside.

When, many years later, Mar works as a waitress, the restaurant provides the setting for feverish gropings with a white coworker -- and the ensuing battles with her parents.

The high school trauma of parental restrictions and trying to fit into cliques are familiar scenarios, but here the issue is not just curfews and who's popular. It's also the "proper" behavior for a Chinese girl: Kids tease Mar for her straight-As as well as for the shape of her eyes and nose.

When Harvard accepts Mar into its class of 1988, her mother focuses only on how her daughter must now move across the country. Her father has to persuade his wife that Harvard is worthy of the distance imposed.

Harvard, however, is a repeat of trying to fit in: this time among third-generation legacies and wealthy boarding school kids. Mar has attained a piece of the American Dream, but what she really longs for is her childhood, when buying egg custards at the market in Hong Kong meant a perfect day.

The book's title comes from Mar's birth certificate; she is the only person in her family (before her brother is born in the U.S.) to be so documented. Every life generates its official records. But be they baby announcements, immi- gration stamps or college diplomas, they can't hope to capture the stories that lie beneath the ink. What is needed is a skilled narrator to fill in the lines. Mar's story may not be wholly unique, but it is affecting in its honest appraisal of how immigrant life in America can be a mixed blessing.

Yishane Lee is a former staff writer for The Japan Times

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