By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
“The Great Wall of Lucy Wu”
By Wendy Wan-Long Shang
Scholastic Press, 2011
Lucy Wu is about to begin the sixth-grade and is ready for the perfect year.
Her sister Regina is going away to college, leaving Lucy with a room to herself. After practicing all summer, she’s ready to show her coach her skills on the basketball court.
However, her plans quickly come undone. Her parents announce that her late grandmother’s sister, Yi Po, will be visiting for a few months and will be in Lucy’s room during her stay. On top of that, she has to go to Chinese school thanks to know-it-all Talent Chang. And as if things couldn’t get any worse, her rival for team captain in the student-teacher basketball tournament is none other than Sloane Connors, the “my way or the highway” bully at her school.
As her life begins to unravel, she finds one person to blame, Yi Po. While many people would view this as being rude and spoiled, I found myself sympathizing with Lucy. One of the main reasons why she is lashing out at Yi Po is because she misses her grandmother, Po Po, who died just a few months earlier.
Although she is Chinese American, Lucy identifies more with the American aspects of her life, preferring pizza and hamburgers over dumplings and rice porridge. But the longer Yi Po stays, the more Lucy begins to understand the life and struggles of her great-aunt and others who lived in China during the Cultural Revolution. Lucy also learns that although she misses Po Po, Yi Po has missed her even longer. The two sisters were separated when they were very young.
One of the things I enjoyed about “Great Wall” was how much Lucy grows throughout the story. She goes from using her bedroom furniture to create a wall to separate herself from Yi Po, to going out of her way to invite her great-aunt to her basketball game.
Lucy is not perfect, but she’s strong and doesn’t back down from a fight, even when she’s terrified of her opponent.
“The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson”
By Bette Bao Lord
Harper Trophy, 1984
When Shirley Temple Wong and her mother set sail from China to America to be with her father, she is more than a little excited.
But the 10-year-old quickly learns that a small Chinese village filled with family is not the same as the busy streets of Brooklyn filled with strangers.
Shirley doesn’t speak English, doesn’t understand American customs, and has no friends. This all changes when a fight with a classmate introduces her to baseball, the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers, and the Major League debut of Jackie Robinson. Soon, Shirley is playing stickball after school with her classmates. She follows the Dodgers in their race for the pennant – her fervor only intensifying during the summer.
But the longer she is in America, the more Shirley questions her Chinese background. She begins replacing Chinese words and phrases with English.
She finds herself thinking about her cousins and grandparents in China less and less.
Despite her concerns, Shirley’s Chinese upbringing does make occasional appearances, such as when praise and compliments make her feel embarrassed and ashamed.
This was one of the things I really liked about the book. While Shirley just wants a place to belong, she doesn’t try to change herself to fit in with her peers. One of my favorite parts in the book is when she gets in a fight with Mabel, a formidable girl in her fifth-grade class. Mabel hurls insults at her, using English words Shirley knows her teacher would never use. Shirley doesn’t back down and fights back in Chinese. She ends up with two black eyes, but she stays strong and stands her ground.
As a fan of the sport, I also really enjoyed the baseball aspect of “Year of the Boar.” Discovering America’s favorite pastime helps Shirley find a place where she belongs. And learning about Jackie Robinson and his role as the first Black player to play in the Major Leagues teaches Shirley that America really is the land of opportunity.
“China Witness, Voices from a Silent Generation”
Pantheon Books, 2009
For anyone with parents or grandparents who immigrated to America, stories about “the old country” are all too familiar.
From tales comparing the academics in America and in their homeland, to how they would use anything they could to fashion toys to entertain themselves, we’ve heard them all.
But have we really? How much do we really know about our parents’ and grandparents’ stories?
The generations that have come before us have been through so much in their lives, and not all of it has been good. This is particularly true for those who came from Asia, where civil unrest and struggle are commonplace.
Xinran understood this as she traveled across China in 2005 and 2006, interviewing the nation’s elders. In their 70s, 80s, and even 90s, her interviewees discuss everything from marriage, to Mao, to the Cultural Revolution, to the country’s modernization. “China Witness” is a collection of vignettes about a generation whose members are slowly dying.
One of the things I enjoyed about this book was that Xinran included stories from individuals from all walks of life. From a humble medicine woman in a small village, to a couple who were among the first Chinese oil explorers, to a man who would sing the news of local events, this book shows how diverse China is.
It was not hard to admire these men and women who were instilled with the fear of repercussions for speaking freely and to open up about their lives. And as a result, readers will admire Xinran’s efforts in making sure to uncover their stories before it is too late.
I also enjoyed how Xinran wrote both in a narrative and question-and-answer style. This provided a nice change of pace and indicates to readers when the interviewee’s “real” story began. ♦
Samantha Pak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.