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Book Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok (Audiobook narrated by Angela Lin)

February 12, 2017 2 comments

Book Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok (Audiobook narrated by Angela Lin)Summary:
Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.

But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.

Review:
There is so much that is wonderful about this book. The incredibly depicted settings of both Chinatown and ballroom dancing. The finely nuanced and richly complicated relationships. The new adult struggles of finding and being true to yourself while still relating to your family of birth. You don’t have to be first-generation American to relate to Charlie’s struggles to reconcile her childhood world with the world she knows now. In some ways I found this to be a Chinese-American version of Dirty Dancing, and that’s a big complement since Dirty Dancing is one of my favorite movies. I also particularly enjoyed seeing a single father realistically deal with his two daughters. He sometimes does wonderfully and sometimes fails them, and their fights are realistic and full of honesty.

If you’re curious about the audiobook version, Angela Lin does an incredible job. Every single character has their own voice and her accents are full of nothing but realism and respect. It was like a well-produced radio program.The praise this book is getting is well-deserved, and if you want to immerse yourself in Chinatown, dance, and new adult issues, you don’t even need to read my review further. Just go get yourself a copy.  But I do need to talk about what didn’t work for me.

*spoilers*
Charlie is dyslexic, and her father never allowed her school to officially diagnose and treat her, which led her to have poor grades and struggle with many typical entry level white collar jobs such as being an administrative assistant. Lisa in contrast is an excellent student who works after school at their uncle’s Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic. Partway through the book, Lisa starts to have nightmares and wet the bed. She’s also been selected to apply for entry and scholarship to a highly selective private school, though, so Charlie thinks it’s probably related to that. I think the vast majority of readers will be able to quickly figure out that Lisa is being molested at the clinic. There are just way too many hints. Lisa doesn’t want to go to the clinic anymore after being good-natured about it. She starts getting jealous of Charlie whereas before she only wished for good things for her sister. And honestly bed wetting and nightmares are extremely typical symptoms of molestation.

But I don’t dislike this plot because of how obvious it was to me. I also fully acknowledge these terrible things can and do happen in otherwise average families, and I’m not against these stories being told. However, I do think it was a poor fit for the tone otherwise of the book. It felt like the idea was that there wouldn’t be enough conflict between Charlie and her family without this extra problem. Like Charlie wouldn’t have been at all worried about her sister or about leaving her family behind somehow without this other problem. I think that’s underestimating Charlie and underestimating how hard it can be to grow and change and become different from your family of origin. The rest of the book is so full of beauty and energy, whether it’s in Chinatown or in the ballroom dance rooms. Then this plot comes in and it just feels like it doesn’t belong. While I feel incredible empathy for people in Lisa’s situation, I came to resent her presence in the story because she felt kind of like olives being stuffed into a delicious lasagna. It’s not that olives are bad; it’s just that they don’t belong. I think that these were really two separate stories, and they should have been told separately.
*end spoilers

In spite of these feelings about the dual plots, I still really enjoyed the read and would happily read another book by Kwok in the future. I also think this is a great example of a new adult read that’s mostly about the emotional experiences of your early 20s. Recommended to anyone looking to get immersed in Chinatown and ballroom.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States by Andrew Coe (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

August 17, 2013 3 comments

Light blue bakcground image with the picture of a white, Asian-style take-out container on it.  The title of the book "Chop Suey A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States" is printed on it in a mix of red and black letters.Summary:
American Chinese food is different from Chinese Chinese food.  This is a well-known fact.  Coe tells the history of how Chinese food came to America and changed and adapted to the cuisine we know today.  Along the way, some of the stories of Chinese immigrants to America and Chinese-Americans are told as well.

Review:
I love food, and I love history, so a book telling the history of a specific cuisine totally appealed to me.  Unfortunately, this book missed the mark for what could have been an enticing history of American style Chinese food.  Instead, it gets hung up in the early history of both Chinese food in China and Chinese food in America in the 1800s then hops, skips, and jumps over how it changed through the 1900s up to present.  While this information is interesting, it is not the history of American Chinese food it is presented as.

The main issue with the book is it spends almost 1/4 of its time exploring the history of Chinese food in China.  While I learned some interesting facts, such as that tofu was invented in the Han Dynasty (page 80), this information is not necessary to convey how Chinese food came to America and changed.  A much briefer introduction to where Chinese food was at before coming to America would have sufficed.  The best part of the book is when it discusses Chinese food in America in the 1800s and explores how US-born Americans’ embracing of Chinese food or not depended on many factors such as the current rates of xenophobia, job markets, and prices.  Viewing the history of the American west coast through the perspective of Chinese immigration and Chinese restaurants was truly fascinating.  One of the more fascinating things that I learned in this section was a detail of the history of the racist perception of Asian men as not masculine.  In that time period, when Chinese immigrants were competing with white Americans and Irish immigrants for railroad and other jobs, the backlash was that since Chinese men “didn’t need” to eat meat to work long hours they could afford to take a lower rate of pay.  Articles attacked the Chinese diet as a sign that Chinese men are less masculine since they “don’t need” meat the way white American and Irish-American men do.  One article title from this time period cited in the book is “Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion. Meat vs. Rice. American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism. Which Shall Survive?” by Samuel Gompers (page 141).  As a vegetarian, I found it fascinating that the sexist perception of a less meat-centric diet (the Chinese did indeed eat meat, just less than American men), has both such a far-reaching history and was used to fuel xenophobia and racism against immigrant workers.  It is clear to me after reading this that a large part of the work for vegetarians is to get rid of the faulty correlation between meat and masculinity.  I could see fixing this having other positive outcomes as well, such as fighting against misperceptions of the masculinity of other cultures.

Unfortunately, the wonderful details found in the chapters on the 1800s gradually cease to exist as the book moves up through time.  While the 1920s get some special attention, such as touching on the fact that Chinese restaurants survived Prohibition well because they had never served alcohol anyway (page 189), slowly these details fall away until we get nothing but the bare bones of how Chinese restaurants functioned and interacted with American history in the rest of the 20th century up to present.  There is even one rather aggravating long aside exploring President Nixon’s visit to China.  While his visit to China definitely gave a resurgence of interest in Chinese food in the US, it was again unnecessary to give such incredible details on Nixon’s visit.  It could have been simply stated, instead, that Nixon visited China, bringing Chinese food to the forefront of American thought again and giving a resurgence of interest in Chinese cuisine.  The book has a tendency to lollygag on topics that are not actually what the book is supposed to be about.  While these topics can be interesting and Coe explores them well, they are not what the book supposedly is about.  It would be better to present the book with a different title or edit the focus back to simply Chinese-American cuisine.

One other factor that made me enjoy the book less is that Coe shows a clear bias toward Chinese culture.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying Chinese culture, but Coe says some things that if he had said them in reverse would be considered completely unacceptable to say.  He frequently presents the Chinese people as more civilized, their way of doing things as more logical and simply better, and even scoffs at the level of advancement of European countries compared to China at one point (page 94).  Lack of bias and simply presenting the facts is the strength of historical nonfiction works.  It would have been nice to see that level of professionalism in this book, regardless of Coe’s personal views.

Overall then, while I learned some new facts about both Chinese-American cuisine and Chinese-American history, the book wanders significantly through Chinese history and Chinese cuisine as well.  Interesting, but not what the title implies the book is about.  Coe also shows some bias that should not be present in a history book.  These are easily skimmed over, however, and thankfully do not come up very often.  Recommended to those with an interest in both Chinese-American and Chinese history in addition to the history of American style Chinese cuisine, as all three are covered rather equally.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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