worst of American fast food, and her rejection of her grandmother's traditional Vietnamese cooking, became the metaphor for Nguyen's childhood effort to make an American identity, to fit in.
In her debut novel, Short Girls, published a few years later, the height of the two protagonists, two sisters separated by temperament and ambition, is the ethnic marker that was their distinguishing characteristic, if race and racism were ignored. Van and Linh (Americanized to "Linny") grow up in Grand Rapids. Their mother works hard to keep the family together financially, until her early death leaves the daughters almost on their own. Their immigrant father withdraws into wild schemes of invention; he tries to patent devices that will make the world more accessible for people less than five feet tall. He mishears the Randy Newman song without any sense of irony: "short people are no reason to live." In portraying him, Nguyen masterfully navigates between the comic and the utterly poignant. He is fond of making "his pronouncements at the dinner table--about how short people were discriminated against, and how short people had to work extra hard to get good salaries and respect." As Van begins to understand some of the difficulties she has had navigating the world, she realizes that "she had been standing on her tiptoes for most of her life."