Mia Tang has lived in the USA for two years. She and her parents immigrated to America from China, dreaming, as so many immigrants do, of a better life, greater freedoms, better financial comfort. And like so many immigrants find, the Tangs have struggled financially in a country far different from their expectations.
Life changes for Mia once again when her parents take over the management of a motel in California. Quickly realizing that the work of cleaning rooms is pushing her parents’ to their limits, Mia takes on the running of the motel’s front desk. She gets to know the long-term residents of the motel and she settles into her new school, where she initially attempts to hide her family’s living situation. Even from her new best friend.
This is an entertaining middle-grade reader but it delves into some big issues. Most prominently, immigration and poverty. Mia is a smart and observant narrator. When the motel owner’s initial promises of payment turn out to have been misleading, Mia becomes increasingly aware of how difficult it is for anyone to move from one economic class to another. Despite viewing the US as a land of opportunity, her family is quickly experiencing the brutal reality that the opportunities exist for those who already have opportunity. At the same time, Mia is also able to recognize her own safety of having a family, a place to live, and a job. Before they’ve been at the motel long, Mia and her parents begin to take in and hide other immigrants. Some are running from abusive job situations, some are in trouble with loan sharks. One harrowing story echoes those I’ve heard in real life where employers will take the passports of their employees, forcing them into living and working situations that are barely better than slavery. Yang presents these stories and situations in a straightforward manner, easy for younger readers to understand, even if the concepts might be new to them.
Race is also an issue explored in Front Desk. As Mia settles into her job at the motel, the security of another nearby motel invites her to share a list of “bad characters” that might hang around. Mia quickly realizes that this list is full of black men and women and she pushes back against this racial profiling. A stolen car outside her motel inspires her to do some of her own investigation, desiring to exonerate a guest accused simply based on the colour of their skin.
The bad guy of the novel is, somewhat predictably, Mr. Yao, the owner of the motel. His only concern is money and he cares very little about the Tangs or any of the other people in the hotel. Mr. Yao is also Chinese but is careful to keep himself distinct from the more recent arrivals, the Tangs. Even Mia’s own mother insists on this distinction, more than once telling Mia not to focus on her writing because her English will never be as good as her fellow students who are native English speakers. Fortunately, Yang creates a more nuanced character in Mia’s mother, showing us a woman who is highly educated and knowledgeable in her own country but feels lost and confused in a new land with a new language.
I bought this book as a gift for my niece on her 11th birthday and ended up being even more impressed with it than I had hoped. It is the first in a trilogy and while I might not go on to read the rest (Front Desk has a satisfying conclusion of its own) I would strongly recommend them to any reader in the 8 to 12 range.