Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for November, 2008

China Boy

Posted by nliakos on November 2, 2008

by Gus Lee. Plume, 1991.

China Boy is the story of little Kai Ting, only son in a Chinese immigrant family in San Francisco in the mid-twentieth century.  The book is set during Kai’s eighth year of life.  His beloved mother has died and his father has married a cruel, abusive American woman whose apparent goal is to erase every vestige of Chinese language and culture from the home while breaking the spirits of the two children who are still living there (Kai and his older sister Janie).  (The reader has to wonder how the father could stand by and watch his wife abuse his children to such an extent.)

Kai, an undersized, weak child who inexplicably never masters either Chinese or English, is the punching bag of the other boys (and one girl) who populate the extremely rough neighborhood of the Panhandle, where the family lives.  The book tells the story of how a series of kind adults, mostly staff of the Y.M.C.A. where his father finally signs him up for boxing lessons, support and teach Kai how to stand up and fight for himself.

Many of the characters (such as Hector Pueblo, the Mexican mechanic who rescues Kai from a savage beating on the street; Mr. Barraza, the boxing coach; Mr. Punsalong, the multiracial boxer with a background of martial arts; Angie Costello, who takes it upon herself to fatten Kai up; and Mr. Lewis, the one in charge of the Y boxing program; Toussaint LaRue [Toos] and his mother; and the other friends that Kai makes in the neighborhood and at the Y) are skillfully developed into people we can imagine and would like to meet.  Unfortunately, Lee writes their speech so that someone learning English would never understand: e.g., “He’s muy rapido, you know, bery quick. Black boy get in his face and firs’ t’ree punches, firs’ kick, yo’ boy go lik’ dis and lik’ dat, so touch.” (p. 123)  or “China Boy, you’se jus a stupid fool ofa chink.  You’se standin here in my schoo’ yard, like ratfacedogshit. I’se gonna teach ya’ll some Fist City, China Boy….Gimme yo’ face…” (p. 183)  Since there is a lot of dialogue, an English language learner would have to really struggle to comprehend; and this is not a good model for speech, needless to say!

There is a lot of graphic violence and at least one truly evil character (the wicked stepmother).  It’s a good story, though–one though it  has been told many times before (e.g., The Karate Kid), never fails to entertain and inspire.

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A Free Life

Posted by nliakos on November 2, 2008

by Ha Jin (narrated by Jason Ma) 2007 BBC Audiobooks America

A Free Life chronicles the lives of Chinese immigrants in the United States.  Nan Wu was in graduate school in the Boston area when the Tiananmen Square event in 1989 prompted the United States to make it easy for Chinese students to remain in the U.S.  The book follows Nan, his wife, and their son as they separate (Nan goes to New York City, where he becomes a chef) and then reunite and move to the Atlanta area, where they buy a Chinese restaurant, the Gold Wok.  Nan considers himself a poet but rarely has the time or the inspiration to write.  In the end, however, he returns to his dream of writing poetry.

The book has an autobiographical feel to it.  I don’t know anything about the author other than that he, like Nan, grew up in China and now lives in the United States and writes in English.  Nevertheless, I constantly had the sense that he was describing his own travails and triumphs, especially where poetry is concerned.  Ha Jin is known as a writer of fiction, whereas Nan Wu resisted suggestions that he turn to fiction as “easier” than writing poetry in a new language.  A Free Life gave Ha Jin an opportunity to publish his own poetry as that of his character.

The style of writing is peculiar.  Jin says that Nan read dictionaries and learned idioms; another character in the book was always misusing idioms.  To me, the book sometimes felt like an ESL idiom textbook.  These textbooks present a group of idioms and then contrive a text which features all of them–with varying degrees of success.  That is how A Free Life often felt to me.  Idioms were used with abandon, but not always in ways that I, a native speaker/writer, would have used them, and sometimes in ways that seemed awkward.  Had I been Jin’s editor, I would have advised him to go easy on the idioms.  On the other hand, English is not the possession of its native speakers in America, England, and Australia only.  Sometimes a non-native writer can give the English language a delicious twist that becomes part of the charm of the book (I am thinking in particular of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy).

Another strange characteristic of A Free Life is how the chapters ended.  I expect a chapter ending either to provide closure to the chapter or to link to the following chapter in such a way that the reader will have a hard time putting the book down (think: The Da Vinci Code!).  Many chapters in A Free Life just stop…. sometimes on a note that relates neither to the chapter that is ending or to the next one.  I often felt that the book needed an editor to tighten it up.

Despite my complaints, I stuck with the book until the end because it gave me insights into the lives of immigrants in the U.S.–particularly Chinese immigrants–and because I came to like the characters and to want to know how things turned out for them.

Posted in Fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | 2 Comments »