“Saving Sourdi” by May-Lee Chai, discusses a classic plot of the metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood. In her story, the two main characters Sourdi and Nea develop in stark contrast to one another. Nea, the younger sister, has difficulty growing up and maturing as her own life, as well as her sister’s life, progresses. Her naivety, aggression, and anxiety influence her decisions throughout the story in a negative way. Chai’s character is easily believable and relatable, everyone has had a point in their lives where they didn’t want to grow up, handled a situation poorly, or realized that their relationship with someone has changed drastically to the point of no repair. Nea, the protagonist in “Saving Sourdi”, is a tragic hero. We experience her attempts at protecting her sister and watch as they fail time and time again. Nea is a flat and static character. Throughout the story she does not change, she remains childish in her actions and decisions. Their mother addresses this issue early on by saying, “You not thinking. That your problem. You always not think!” (Chai 70) Chai does not show us another side to Nea making her a flat character.
We see her in the same light despite the life lessons she experiences. Nea is the same drastic, hardheaded child in the beginning as she is in the end. Growing and maturing is crucial in life. Some people, however, suffer from a sort of Peter Pan Syndrome. Nea can be described as an impulsive, strong-willed, and selfish adolescent who will never truly grow up. The family has never had it easy, always having to work and tolerate prejudice due to their foreign culture. Nea was forced to become a fighter early on no matter the situation. If she was a mature character, she could distinguish between when it was most sensible to simply avoid confrontation and back down. Nea is extremely protective of Sourdi. Her desire to fend for her “China Doll” sister (69) is the stem of all her decisions throughout the story. Sourdi is the prettier and more desirable sister. Chai highlights the incongruity of the sisters’ looks by solely depicting Sourdi’s beauty. By depicting Sourdi as a China Doll so early in the story when the two men are harassing her in the family’s restaurant, Chai sets us up to believe that she needs defending and isn’t strong enough to do it herself. Nea thoroughly believes that is her role in life.
As the plot progresses, however, it is easy to see that Sourdi is in fact quite strong and unbreakable. As Nea interacts with the other characters, she is always brash and rarely takes the time to understand their side of a situation. In many cases, she lies to manipulate people and her situation to achieve her selfish goals. Nea fakes her remorse about attacking the customer just to please her sister: “I was glad I’d stabbed that man. I was only crying because life was so unfair.” (72) When Nea needs to find a way to Sourdi’s home she lies to Duke about the severity of the situation because she knows deep down that it is not as bad as she wants to believe. If Sourdi was in trouble, it would ultimately mean that Nea could get her sister back. Nea fabricates this story to make up for the loss she felt when Sourdi moved on and abandoned her. She would rather believe that it was someone else who caused her sister to mature and move on than to believe it was her own fault or that it was Sourdi’s choice. “I would stay awake all night pinching the inside of Sourdi’s arm, the soft flesh of her thigh, to keep my sister from falling asleep and leaving me alone.” (72) Although her overall purpose at a glance is for Sourdi’s safety, her true ambition is wanting to keep her sister all to herself.
During the story, Chai paints a picture of two extremely close sisters who have been put to the test. The pair has been relocated, put to work, and expected to mature quickly in their harsh new world. Nea is the narrator of the story, and she shares: ”We used to say that we’d run away, Sourdi and me.” (72) The sisters would whisper their secrets back and forth at night, and lock themselves in the bathroom together and hide away together. As children the girls were inseparable but soon the age difference comes between them. Sourdi finds comforts in her first romance with a dishwasher, Duke, and slowly but surely Nea is left by the wayside. This distance is increased when Mr. Chhay is introduced and Nea quickly realizes that her sister is being severed from her life: “It was the beginning of the end. I should have fought harder then. I should have stabbed this man, too.” (75) In America, everyone is supposed to be equal. People are supposed to be able to have the “American Dream” and have a successful career as well as support a family without any trouble despite race, age, gender, or any other factors.
In Ma and Sourdi’s eyes, however, they have seen their traditional culture and are still tied to those beliefs instead. Nea is much more Americanized than the other two women. Ma works very hard to support her children and in an effort to give Sourdi a better life, she makes sure she marries someone who can support her financially instead of someone like Duke who may not be as financially successful. Although she is unhappy, Sourdi understands her role and obeys her elders. Nea, who has been exposed to mostly American culture with little memories of their true roots does not understand this arrangement. As a result, she acts out and rebels against her entire family. The climax of the story occurs when Nea makes a daring attempt at saving her sister’s life. Nea’s irresponsible actions lead to an awkward situation for everyone. Nea refuses to believe that Sourdi is simply a busy woman with a child and a home to care for and immediately jumps to the conclusion that her husband is hurting her in some way. Her over active imagination gets her into trouble. She leaves home without telling her mother, lies to Duke about her true ambitions, blames Mr. Chhay for something he did not do, and creates a huge conflict over a slightly distraught phone call from Sourdi.
The moment when Duke punches Mr. Chhay is the cultivation of Nea’s ill thought out plan crumbling before her eyes. Her immaturity caused an easily avoidable confrontation. Near the very end of the story, Chai shares Nea’s insight on her situation. “Sourdi looked at me then, so disappointed. I knew what she was thinking. She has grown up, and I had merely grown unworthy of her love.” (83) Nea finally realized she was being foolish the whole time. Chai’s protagonist in “Saving Sourdi”, Nea, is naïve, impulsive, and brash. She is unchanging and narrow-minded. Nea’s journey seems solely based on saving her sister when in actuality she is trying to find excuses to avoid growing up. The tragic hero fabricates false dangers to compensate her desire to be needed by her sister who has moved on with her life. Nea feels abandoned becausen Sourdi matures while she remains a child. Ma and Sourdi remain connected with traditional customs that Nea simply cannot understand due to her exposure to American culture. Her over active imagination, anxiety, and aggression get her into trouble. When Nea tries to rescue Sourdi from her husband, it is the last straw and she knows that she has lost her dear older sister for good. “She had made her choice, and she hadn’t chosen me.” (84) Sourdi has matured and moved on while Nea is stuck in the memories of her childhood.