Monday, July 28, 2008

An Asian in America

American Born Chinese

by Gene Luen Yang

Rating: ****

Culture Shock: *** There are references to the Monkey King and Journey to the West.

Summary: A masterfully written tale told with humour about what it was like growing up Chinese in America.

In an early scene in Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel, young Jin Wang waits patiently for his mother while watching his aunt do accounting on an abacus. They strike up a conversation and she asks what he would like to be when he grows up. Jin answers “a Transformer” and holds up his toy robot as illustration. His aunt ominously tells him that he could become anything he wanted as long as he sold his soul.

Unbeknownst to young Jin, this innocent conversation would be pivotal to his understanding of himself and his place in Middle America. It also reminded me a lot of my own childhood which is why this simple and well-crafted graphic novel affected me so much. When I was a lot younger, I often wished to be like Jin’s toy robot – able to change myself at a moment’s notice and become someone else, anyone else, but who I was. And I was a skinny Asian kid most often the target of bullies. Being me was not a lot of fun most of the time. But this book isn't just about Asians. It is about any person who feels different or alienated. That experience crosses many bounderies of race and culture.

American Born Chinese tells three interlocking tales which initially look like they don't belong together. There is the folk tale of the legendary Monkey King and his battle to be accepted as an equal among gods. Then, there is the tale of Jin Wang, an ordinary Chinese kid in junior high school who is alienated for being Asian. Finally, there is the tale of Danny and his cousin Chin-Kee, the over the top Chinese stereotype who comes complete with his own sitcom laugh track. These tales eventually converge in ways you would never expect. The artwork is colourful but sparse and reminded me a bit of of Dilbert or Bone.

It is a masterfully written tale which, through lots of good natured humour (although much of the humour in Chin-Kee’s tale is cringe-worthy), comments on what it was like to grow up as a Chinese kid in white, suburban America (and Canada for that matter). For me, it almost felt like my inner-most thoughts come to life in comic-book imagery.

You can find out more about this and other of the author's graphic novels at Gene Yang's Blog.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Crouching Keeper, Hidden Dragon

Dragonkeeper Series
By Carole Wilkinson

Dragonkeeper *** (YA ****)

Garden of the Purple Dragon ** (YA ***)

Dragon Moon *** (YA ****)

Culture Shock ***½

Summary: As a YA series, these books are quick and breezy reads that will entertain the young reader. For adults, the bits of Chinese culture and history should keep interest just long enough to get through the improbable storylines.

Not often do I find books by western authors whose protagonists are Chinese or Japanese. And more often, if they touch on Asia at all, the characters are Japanese. Perhaps this is because it is the easiest of all Asian countries for a westerner to identify with since it is the most western of all the Asian countries. So these books captured my attention immediately because they are set in ancient China. What also surprised me was that it is a Young Adult (YA) series.

The Dragonkeeper series by Australian writer Carole Wilkinson follows the adventures of Ping, a young slave girl who helps an ancient dragon escape from the clutches of an abusive Imperial Dragonkeeper. In the first book, Ping helps Danzi the dragon travel to the land beyond while being pursued by a ruthless dragon hunter. The second and third books relate Ping’s journeys with another dragon, Kai, and their troubles trying to find their place in China.

The first and third books are the strongest of the series. The first provides the reader with vivid details about life in Han Dynasty China and also gives us a great set of characters in Ping and Danzi. The third book is also strong because the story centers on the relationship between the dragons and their keepers. We finally discover more about the complex relationship between dragon and man and the events that lead to catastrophe. Dragon Moon is a good story about man’s stewardship (or lack thereof) of the creatures on earth and the environmental message will resonate well with some readers.

However, the second book, Garden of the Purple Dragon, is the weakest of the three. It has Ping and Kai navigating the maze of the Imperial Bureaucracy. Ping makes friends with the young Emperor of China Liu Che who appoints her as Imperial Dragonkeeper. This relationship feels contrived and did not ring true to this reader. Ping is a peasant girl. Despite this fact, she is befriended by the Emperor and given an Imperial title. I know Ping is the protagonist, but the events surrounding her ascendance in the Imperial Court seemed highly improbable to me and will likely feel off even for YA readers.

Finally, since this is a YA series, the modern sounding dialogue and writing style were clearly chosen to engage its target audience. If you are searching for high prose reminiscent of Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori, you will not find it here. The language is simple, straightforward and clean making the reading light and breezy.

Overall, if you want a quick and easy read that takes place in ancient China, you could do worse than take these books to the beach this summer. Just remember that the target audience is Young Adults (which is why I gave each book two ratings)

Culture Shock: Yes, I gave it ***½ and not *** or ****. Why? It deserves a **** because of all the Asian content. There are a lot of Chinese words and the author includes a glossary. The author also gives the reader a lot of cultural information and history to go along with the language. The reason for the half is because as a YA series, the author manages to simplify things for the younger reader. Although I would not recommend using this book as a history text, it does impart quite a bit between its covers.

Nit Pick: the number eight is frowned upon in Dragon Moon since it is “double 4” and 4 sounds like the word “death”. It is the number nine that is revered. The number eight in modern Chinese culture is definitely a good luck number but so is the number 9. I do not know if this is a modern sensibility was the same in Han Dynasty China. I would be curious to find out.

For more information, go to Carole Wilkinson's website.

Monday, July 14, 2008

News, Reviews and Intrepid Travellers

As Calgary breathes a collective sigh and returns to work with a post-Stampede hangover, I note that it has been a while since I’ve posted anything here. This is something I am changing right now. Even blogging is writing, right? It’s what I am going to blog about that should hopefully be of interest.

Asian Echoes has always been about bringing the Asian experience* in literature to the average Western reader. There are many Western and Non-Western novels about Asia and Asians or written from an Asian perspective and I want to introduce many of them to you – one book at a time.

So, what I intend on doing is introducing them to you through book reviews. But aside from the ubiquitous star ratings (which are still only my opinion), I also plan on taking a cue from Intrepid Travel and using a Culture Shock rating. This is not a rating about how good it presents the culture or how accurate it is. Instead, the Culture Shock rating will let you know just how much Asian culture is present between the pages. Does it gloss over the facts and history or does it present a detailed look at Asian life and use many foreign words and phrases? Does it have Japanese characters with Japanese names and no other mention about culture, or do the concepts in the novel require more than a passing familiarity of Japanese customs and mores?

Each short review, aside from a description and recommendation, will include some mention of the cultural aspects present in the novel.

All the novels and books to be reviewed were originally written in English or translated to English and all should be easily accessible at your local book store or at online book sellers.

Here is the Culture Shock Rating:

1 star: The author uses Asian characters and names and not much else. Very easy and very familiar.

2 stars: The author uses Asian characters, names and simple foreign words and phrases most Westerners would find familiar.

3 stars: The author uses Asian characters, names and settings. Some foreign words and phrases are sprinkled throughout the book, but their meanings are apparent or easy to understand from context.

4 stars: The author uses Asian characters and settings. The author liberally uses foreign words and phrases throughout the book, the meanings of which are either understandable in their context or may require a glossary. Basic understanding of culture and history would go a long way to appreciating some of the concepts addressed in the book.

5 stars: The author uses Asian characters, settings and language. Complex cultural and historical information is imparted to the reader (sometimes in the form of info dumps). A good understanding of mythology, culture and history may be necessary to appreciate the nuances in this book.

Watch right here for the first review later this week.

* “Asian” in this case means Chinese and Japanese as these are the cultures I was raised in and am most familiar with. I know there are other cultures such as India which also fit under this classification, but I know very little about them. Since they say “write what you know”, I defer to those who know better.