“When I read the words you wrote/ I thought my dying hour had come/ You say you’ve found a new life, a new wife/ In a far-off foreign land” (61). The words of this song embody the struggle that Sundara and her family are facing. They must decide how much to accept of their new life in a foreign land, and how much to hang on to the old life they have left behind. This affects every aspect of their lives and relationships.
There are three main conflicts in the story. The first is the one mentioned above, that of the old vs. the new. This conflict causes the second conflict which is between Sundara and Soka. The third conflict can be found within Sundara herself as she attempts to overcome the horrors of her past and deal with the love in her present.
The fist conflict can be seen in the different ways that the characters deal with the new world. The grandmother has the hardest time adjusting. She wishes for her old home, her old garden, her old food, and her old way of life. She stays inside the house, and inside of her memories of her old land. Soka and Naro are one step away from that. They have jobs and have learned some English, but they still cling to many of their old ways. They still desire to follow the traditions of their home country, and they talk about it constantly.
Sundara is still one more step away. She has very fond memories of her home, but is trying to adjust to American culture. She goes to school and plans to be a doctor. She has American friends, and even falls in love with an American boy. Ravi and Pon have adjusted to American culture almost completely. They understand American traditions and games and love American food.
The second conflict, between Sundara and Soka arises when the old and new begin to be at odds. There is also the matter of feeling responsible on the part of both women. Sundara feels responsible for the death of Soka’s baby. Soka feels the weight of taking care of Sundara so much that she forgets to love her. It is only after Sundara’s emotional crisis that the two begin to be reconciled.
The third conflict, the one inside of Sundara, is the one that I identify with the most. It is so difficult to come from a country where war and suffering are a part of life, to a country where people seem to complain about every minor inconvenience. Sundara feels caught between the need to remember all of the suffering of her people and moving on with her life. All of the Khmers do this, and finally one says, “I am tired of feeling guilty.” In the end, Sundara is able to find a balance between caring for her people, and living life where she is.
The romance in the story is wonderful. Through it, Sundara is able to bring a whole family to awareness of a people other than themselves. Jonathan grows from a boy who’s worst bother is cafeteria food to a young man who is aware that there are people in the world who are suffering. He realizes that he must pursue what is important to him, not what everyone else thinks that he should go after.
The climax of the story is when Sundara sees the doll’s arm and breaks down. She finally comes to term with the emotions that are stored up inside of her, and she allows them to be released. Her family interprets and deals with her outburst in a way that is totally unfamiliar to us, but somehow, it helps the whole family to connect. After the experience everyone becomes more accepting and understanding of one another.
The cultural aspects were very interesting. The song was especially touching. It was a symbol of the grief of the Khmers. It was interesting because very sad songs are not really a part of popular culture in America. There are songs about loves leaving, and hearts breaking, but there are no songs that are wrenched from the heart, full of aching sadness and loss. African Americans have such songs that were passed down from the time of slavery. In the Middle East, where war has been such a part of life, heart-breaking songs are played right along with the latest love songs. In fact, the two are often intertwined. It was interesting to see another culture where the war has created these sad songs.