By Samantha Pak
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Editor’s note: At the beginning of the year, we ran a poll on our Web site asking our readers whether they liked our book reviews. Based on the feedback we received, we decided to run a monthly book recommendation list. We hope you enjoy it.
“Tikki Tikki Tembo,” retold by Arlene Mosel and illustrated by Blair Lent
Published by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston of Canada, 1968
“Tikki Tikki Tembo” tells the story of how Chinese names came to be so short.
Long ago in China, parents would give “great long names” to their first sons but “hardly any name at all” to their sons after that. This is the case with the two brothers in the story. The older brother is named Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo, while the younger is named Chang.
At one point in the story, each brother falls into an old well near their home. While it takes very little time for Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo to get help for Chang, this is not the case for Chang. When Chang seeks help for his brother, he is often out of breath from repeating the name so many times.
“Tikki Tikki Tembo” is a classic story that never gets old. It was one of my favorite books in elementary school. I remember when the school librarian first read it to us in class; my classmates and I loved seeing who could say the older brother’s name the fastest.
A decade and a half later, it’s still a great read. Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo is just so much fun to say out loud.
After reading the book as an adult, one of my favorite things about “Tikki Tikki Tembo” is how it shows the way favoritism can backfire. While it was unfortunate to see what happens to Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo when he falls into the well, I loved that people learned a lesson from the situation.
“Child of the Owl,” by Laurence Yep
Published by Harper Trophy, 1977
“Child of the Owl” is the story of Casey Young, a 12-year-old Chinese American girl in the mid-1960s. She has spent most of her life moving from city to city with her father, Barney. They constantly move because Barney is a gambling addict. They have to stay one step ahead of the people who are looking for Barney and the money he owes.
When one of Barney’s late payments lands him in the hospital, Casey has to stay with her late mother’s relatives. She initially stays with her uncle; however, the independence and street smarts she gained from her hard life clash with the family and its squeaky-clean view on life.
Eventually, she’s sent to live with Paw-Paw, her maternal grandmother, in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
When Casey first arrives, she’s lost and doesn’t fit in. Barney raised her to be American and even though she may look like the people who walk the streets of Chinatown and the students in her Chinese class, she still feels like an outsider.
But as Casey and Paw-Paw grow close, Casey learns more about her mother, her Chinese heritage, and herself.
This is another book from my childhood. I remember reading it and thinking how well I related to Casey. Yep does a wonderful job portraying her identity crisis, which I know many Asian American children go through.
The thing I loved most about Casey is how open-minded she becomes when she moves in with Paw-Paw. Although she was raised to be American, Casey doesn’t hesitate to ask about the Chinese aspect of her identity.
Casey takes great pride in what she learns but is shocked when she shares her knowledge with others who couldn’t care less. She discovers that being able to merely speak the language doesn’t make someone any more Chinese than her.
And that gives her the confidence she needs as she waits for Barney to come back and get her.
“The Clay Marble,” by Mingfong Ho
Published by HarperCollins Canada Ltd., 1991
“The Clay Marble” is a story about Dara, a Cambodian girl in the mid- to late-1970s, during the Khmer Rouge. Dara, 12, her brother, and her mother flee from their war-torn village in Siem Reap and end up at Nong Chan, a refugee camp along the Cambodian and Thai border.
There, they befriend Jantu and her family, which is just as broken as Dara’s.
An unexpected attack at the camp separates Dara, Jantu, and Jantu’s baby brother from their families. Jantu is taken to the hospital after her baby brother is injured from shrapnel from the attack. It’s up to Dara to find their families.
Dara is initially scared, but the clay marble Jantu gives her before they’re separated gives her courage and strength.
Dara believes the marble has magical powers and it, not her perseverance, will bring her family back together.
I’ve known about this book for as long as I can remember, but I never read it until now. As I read about Dara and her struggles during this time, I felt that it could almost be my own family’s story. I may not have been alive at the time but the Khmer Rouge, the uncertainty of war, refugee camps, and separation without the certainty of reuniting, are all a part of my family history. My family lived it.
“The Clay Marble” tells a story that does not get told often. It is a story of hope and survival during a very bleak part of Cambodian history. Ho does a good job of portraying not only the desperation and sadness of the time, but the hope and perseverance of the human spirit as well. Dara’s determination to find her family is admirable, and the inner strength she finds through her experiences is inspiring. ♦
Samantha Pak can be reached at email@example.com.