Tag Archives: Chinese American

Review for Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Jessica Tran was born into a family of larger-than-life people: her parents are Andover’s local superheroes, her older sister is also a superhero, and her younger brother is a science prodigy. Having lost hope for any powers of her own to manifest, she applies for a paid internship, thinking it will be drudge work. Except it turns out her employers are the town’s supervillains, and her crush Abby also works there. Her internship soon brings more surprises, including a discovery that will change her understanding of everything she knows about her world.

Review:

The moment I found out about this book, I knew I had to get it. The title grabbed my attention because it reminded me of the #NotYourSidekick hashtag on Twitter a while back, which drew attention to the absence of Asians in U.S. media as anything other than side characters. Finding a mainstream American film or show featuring Asians as the central characters is like looking for a needle in a haystack. This past year has shown some improvement, given the airing of Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken, but Hollywood’s erasure and exclusion of Asians is still a barrier to overcome.

Anyway, the concept of this book was everything I needed: Asian American superheroes, bisexual main character, F/F romance, and so on. And C.B. Lee delivers.

The fact that Jess ends up working for a villain was already enough of a twist on its own (not a surprise one since it was advertised clearly in the description, but still), but this book threw in several more twists that I was not at all prepared for. Between the superhero-supervillain arc and the good-god-will-they-just-date/kiss-already romance arc, the suspense kept the story moving.

Exciting plot aside, this book features a cast of well-developed, diverse characters.

Jess is second generation Vietnamese and Chinese. Her parents were refugees from a conflict in Asia after World War III who gained employment from the North American Collective’s government as C-class superheroes in the (NAC=U.S., Canada, Mexico). Although the story takes place in the Twenty-Second Century, Jess’s experience as a second generation Asian are familiar to me: cursing in Vietnamese, going to Chinese school on the weekends, internalizing and perpetuating xenophobic values and then realizing how hurtful the whole “fob” thing is, feeling like you don’t know nearly enough of your heritage languages, etc. Speaking of languages, the Vietnamese and Chinese bits that appeared in the book had the tone/diacritical markings on them (except for one place, not sure if that was an error or not), so I was happy about that.

The racial diversity of this novel extends beyond Jess’s family. There is an established Asian community within Andover, there are other Asian students at her school that she was once friends with, and one of her teachers is Asian. Jess’s two best friends are not Asian, but they are POC. Their races/ethnicities are never explicitly stated, but I was able to infer that Emma is Latina (most likely of Mexican heritage), and Bells is a Louisiana Creole of Color. Their race informs their characters but doesn’t constrain them.

Now, let me talk about the LGBTQ representation in this book. Aside from our bisexual protagonist and her female love interest, we also have a trans boy (Bells) and a minor character, Darryl, who is the president of the Rainbow Allies, the LGBTQ student organization at Jess’s school. In a publishing industry where LGBTQ characters are often the single token non-cishet person in a sea of cishet characters, this book is a welcome change.

One of the awesome things about the way the LGBTQ characters are handled is that the story isn’t focused on their coming out journey. Jess’s [accidental] coming out is referenced for one paragraph, having happened before the events of the book began. Bells began his transition before the events of the book as well. Moreover, his transness isn’t a spectacle used for shock value; it’s casually referenced and revealed when Jess asks him if he’s worn his binder for too long.

Aside from this, there’s also dialogue surrounding pronouns. Jess meets the mysterious M, who is dressed in a mecha-suit, and asks what M’s pronouns are. She also corrects Abby when she uses they pronouns instead of he pronouns for Bells. (If y’all want to be good allies to trans folks, normalize the act of stating your pronouns and asking people for theirs when you are introduced.)

Another nice touch was the way the Rainbow Alliance was described as a clique of gay guys who were friends with each other and socialized more than anything else. Those of us who have experience in LGBTQ circles and communities know that many spaces that are designated LGBTQ are actually mostly about the G while leaving everyone else on the margins. I remember reading about an author panel at a conference that happened recently (last year or this year) that featured only gay [white] men. The depiction of the Rainbow Allies was super relatable for this reason.

Moreover, I understood Jess’s frustration with how depoliticized the organization was. My university has a bunch of Asian American student organizations, and they’re mostly there for socializing; the ones that do service work rarely do targeted service for Asian American communities or causes, just general service work.

The book manages to make commentary on a number of other issues in an organic fashion. For example, it points out the rampant sexism of in our 20th and 21st Century media. At one point, it’s mentioned that Jess has test anxiety, in a passage that acts as a subtle critique of standardized tests and curriculum.

Between all of these things, big and small, Not Your Sidekick is an amazing book, and I can’t wait for the sequel, which is scheduled for release in 2017! (It’s called Not Your Villain and focuses on Bells!)

Recommendation: Read this book and share it with your friends!

P.S. I love the cover art and chapter heading illustrations. They capture the essence of the story so well.

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Review for Bitter Melon by Cara Chow

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Trigger/Content Warning: mentions and descriptions of abuse

My Summary: Due to a schedule error, Frances Ching ends up in a speech class instead of the calculus class she was supposed to take. Despite knowing that her mother will disapprove, she ends up joining the competitive speech team, ditching her Princeton Review course to participate. All of a sudden, she is sneaking around behind her mother’s back to do the things she’s not allowed to do. However, she can’t keep everything a secret forever, so her mother finds out. Eventually, she must make a decision between being the obedient daughter and becoming independent.

Review:

Though at first glance this book may seem like a book about rebelling against the stereotypical Chinese “tiger mom,” it’s actually about a girl struggling under the tyranny of an abusive mother. Frances isn’t just placed under strict rules, she is constantly belittled, manipulated, isolated, starved, and, in one case, physically beaten. Her life is ruled by fear of her mother’s backlash.

For a long time, Frances does not see the abuse for what it is because her mother has told her that she owes everything to her mother, her mother has sacrificed so much for her, and everything her mother does is supposedly for her own good, even when it hurts Frances and tears her down. When Frances accomplishes something, her mother offers no praise, only criticism of her faults.When other people compliment Frances, her mother accuses them of lying or being too generous. She lies, hides things, and destroys or takes away means of escape to keep Frances under her thumb. She treats Frances as an extension of herself and a tool for her own reputation and benefit.

It’s particularly difficult for Frances to escape the abuse or get help because the book takes place in 1989, before technology like the Internet and smartphones made remote communication and access to information convenient. All she has is a single landline phone through which her mother can and does intercept calls for her.

Through her interactions with her speech class teacher and a friend/crush from her Princeton Review class, Frances begins to build herself back up from years of being beaten down. She starts to question the worldview that her mother has manipulated her into adopting and look for a way out of her cage. Through her speech competitions, she comes to understand the power of words, and how her mother has wielded words against her.

This book is not an easy read, emotionally speaking. You are made to feel every ounce of Frances’s fear, guilt, shame, and despair. Thankfully, there are positive things to balance it out: pride, joy, relief, and triumph. The story is dark, but it isn’t a tragedy. The ultimate message it projects is one of hope.

I feel like this book is very important because a lot of abuse in Asian American families flies under the radar, written off as “cultural differences.” Frances’s relationship with her mother is contrasted with that of her fellow Chinese American friend, Theresa, whose mother is not abusive. When Frances brings up the abusive behaviors to other Chinese people in her community, they are shocked and horrified. Though cultural norms may enable abuse and violence (think about how American cultural norms tend to encourage the victim-blaming of assault survivors, for example), there are no cultures where every single person/parent is abusive, and the idea that a culture is inherently oppressive is a biased judgment relying on essentialism that homogenizes people of a culture and strips of them of their individuality and agency.

Recommendation: This book was an engaging and emotionally evocative read with a message of empowerment, so I’d recommend it to anyone.

Review for Little Miss Evil by Bryce Leung and Kristy Shen

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My Summary: Fiona is the daughter of infamous super-villain Manson Ng, but all she wants to do is live a normal life. However, on her thirteenth birthday, her father is kidnapped by an enemy. The ransom demanded is the NOVA, an extremely lethal nuclear weapon that could wipe out an entire city. All of a sudden, Fiona is in charge of her father’s henchmen and must launch a rescue mission. Good thing her father gave her a flamethrower to strap to her arm for her birthday present.

Review:

Asians have been typecast as villains in the U.S. for over a hundred years. The racist stereotype of the “yellow peril” has a long history. For those who don’t know, the yellow peril is the idea that Asians are cunning, ruthless, barbaric hordes who will take over and destroy white civilization. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other anti-Asian legislation in the U.S. were fueled by this xenophobic stereotype. Outside of the legal realm, the stereotype has been perpetuated in books, films, TV shows, etc. American pop culture has seen its share of yellow peril villains: Fu Manchu, Ming the Merciless–the list goes on.

The refreshing thing about Little Miss Evil is that even though Manson Ng is an Asian villain, his villainy is not attributed to or associated with his Asianness. He’s just your typical bad guy who wants to build weapons, steal things, and cackle evilly. Also, he happens to love his daughter a lot and is unintentionally funny with his idiosyncrasies.

And Fiona, despite being the daughter of a villain, is the protagonist and hero of the story. Through her narration, we see her view of Manson Ng: the melodramatic but ultimately caring father. We also see both the perks and downsides to being related to a super-villain.

The plot of this book never strays from the rescue mission. It’s a fast-paced narrative featuring lots of action, suspense, and twists. Even so, it manages to squeeze in a little humor, family bonding moments, and super-villain backstory.

The bonus cherry on top is the way this story smashes certain Asian American tropes in unconventional and hilarious ways. For example, during a conversation with her father about her future, this exchange happens:

“I. Don’t Want. To. Be. A. Super. Villain! I want to have a normal career. I want to go to college and become a doctor and go to Africa to help starving children*!”

Dad turns beet-red. “A doctor? Africa?” He spits each word onto the floor, as if they are chunks of bitter melon dripped in disappointment sauce. “Why don’t you just stab a knife into my heart?”

Usually, the kid is being forced by the parent(s) to become a doctor, and they rebel against that, thus disappointing the parent(s). Here, the kid wants to become a doctor to rebel against the parent. Because the alternative is going into the family business and becoming a super-villain.

There’s also a scene where Fiona gets a 100 on a math test, but not because she’s an Asian math genius. She actually made mistakes on the test. However, her teacher didn’t mark them wrong because the super-villain parents of one of her classmates (she goes to school with two other kids with super-villains as parents) threatened the teacher into giving their daughter a good grade. The teacher gave Fiona a 100 to avoid the risk of backlash from her father. Ha.

So, there are two problematic things I noticed, relatively small but still worth addressing. The first is the asterisk from the bit I quoted above. When Fiona talks about becoming a doctor to help save starving children in Africa, it does the following: 1) homogenizes a huge and diverse continent into a monolith, 2) portrays Africa through the lens of a racist stereotype of poverty-stricken people, 3) perpetuates the Western savior narrative that leads to well-intentioned but ill-advised “voluntourism” that centers the ego of the “savior” and not the needs and agency of the people being helped.

The other thing was the portrayal of a secondary character named Ruby, who has albinism. Although she isn’t a completely one-dimensional character, the way her physical appearance is described (particularly the “blood-red eyes”) perpetuates the othering of people with albinism. Her overall meanness is also falls into the stereotype of people with albinism as “villainous, deviant, supernatural or sadistic” (quoted from albinism.org).

Recommendation: Not for romance fans, as there is zero romance (it’s a middle grade novel, anyway). Great for people who enjoy action, adventure, and kickass heroines!

Review for Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

ortm-coverMy Summary: Life isn’t easy for a Chinese American girl in 1906. However, Mercy Wong doesn’t let that stop her from getting what she wants. Using her wits, she strikes a bargain that gains her entry into the elite school St. Clare’s. However, the difficulties she faces are a bit more than she bargained for. Then, an earthquake strikes, and all of a sudden the social order of San Francisco is turned on its head.

Review:

I didn’t quite know how much I needed historical fiction about a Chinese American protagonist until I read this book. Beyond just having Asian Americans visible in American history, we need their voices in the realm of historical fiction so that they become a part of America’s collective cultural imaginary. This book takes a wonderful step toward realizing that goal.

In terms of worldbuilding, Stacey Lee, masterfully recreates her fictionalized version of 1906 San Francisco. The sights, sounds, the texture of the setting are vivid and believable. I felt fully immersed in Mercy’s world as I followed her adventures.

A critical part of the worldbuilding for this novel was tied to the subjective worldview of the protagonist. Mercy, as a Chinese American girl, occupies a position on the margins of American society. Although it alienates her from the mainstream culture, it also offers an unique alternative perspective and critique on that very culture. Writing this novel from Mercy’s point of view decenters whiteness in a narrative that is traditionally white-centric.

This decentering of whiteness is particularly notable given the setting, both the place and the time. San Francisco is home to the oldest Chinatown and probably had the largest population of Chinese people in the nation at the time. In 1906 and the years leading up to and following it, Sinophobia and anti-Asian racism were a strong force in the white American consciousness. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (all but stopped Chinese immigration to the US), the Alien Land Law of 1887 (denied Asian immigrants the right to own land through racially coded language), the Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885 (prohibited the importation of Chinese laborers unless they qualified under a few exceptions for their profession), and other similar laws had all been enacted to render Chinese immigrants second-class citizens (actually, not even citizens, as they did not have the right to naturalize until the mid-1900s). On top of these legal acts of discrimination, outright violence against Chinese people was rampant. Mobs of white people burned down parts of Chinatowns and lynched Chinese people.

Chinatown, in the eyes of white Americans, was a nightmarish place: opium addiction, gambling, prostitution, filth and disease, sexual perversion–you name any vice, and you can bet it was attributed to Chinese immigrants.

That is an outsider’s perspective, however. Mercy is an insider. She calls the place home and is familiar with its ins and outs, its peoples and rhythms. Her perspective humanizes and individualizes what was formerly a monolithic specter of the yellow peril.

A useful concept to draw upon regarding Mercy’s perspective is that of the “double consciousness.” This phrase was coined by W.E.B. Du Bois to refer to the ways Black Americans lived in a white supremacist society, with their psyches split between their own viewpoint and that of the demeaning gaze of society at large, making it hard for them to reconcile their identities. Mercy also experiences a kind of double consciousness. She is knows intimately her authentic Chinese culture but is also hyperaware of how outsiders stereotype her people. Her double consciousness is sometimes a burden, but she also cleverly takes advantage of it.

In order to legitimize her presence at St. Clare’s, she adopts the false persona of a rich Chinese heiress recently arrived from China. In fact, she was born and raised in San Francisco, but almost nobody at the school is aware of that. Knowing quite well their ignorance of and their assumptions about Chinese culture, she invents bizarre cultural customs to satisfy the curiosity of teachers and students who wish to learn the ways of an “exotic” foreigner. And the white people eat it all up, leading to endless humor.

Mercy is a great protagonist. True to her “bossy cheeks” label, she is witty, feisty, and impertinent in all the best ways. It is both a weakness and a strength, for it gets her into trouble as much as it helps her get out of it or toward a goal. She takes risks and takes falls but keeps her stubborn chin up and moving forward no matter what. She is more than a survivor, she is an ambitious visionary who challenges the horizons of what is doable.

In addition to a lovable heroine, Outrun the Moon has a cast of distinct and dynamic supporting characters, from Mercy’s childhood friend Tom, to the white girls in her class, to the stuffy headmistress of St. Clare’s. They have their own stories and their own development.

In particular, the positive female friendships stood out to me. It would have been easy to go the Mean Girls route and have Mercy’s classmates all be petty, superficial, and bigoted idiots who serve as a foil to a Not-Like-Other-Girls protagonist, but the supporting cast of female characters are as well-developed as Mercy herself, and their bonding experiences made me feel warm and fuzzy inside. (Friendship stories are the best.)

While the romance was a very small part of the book, it was still a nice addition. Tom is sweet, ambitious like Mercy but humble, and the two of them make a great duo. He understands Mercy’s “bossy cheeks” personality and embraces and appreciates it as it is. He is an endearing character.

Although the backdrop to the main conflicts of this book is a terrible disaster, the tone of the novel is optimistic and life-affirming. Times of crisis tend to either bring out the worst in people or the best in people. Here, the latter dominates. Prejudice and divisions are discarded in favor of cooperation and solidarity, sending a message of hope for a fractured society.

The book is timely considering current events. Hate crimes are on the rise, and regressive policy plans threaten the lives and well-being of marginalized folks across the nation. Now is the time to work in solidarity to do what we can to protect one another.

Recommendation: I highly recommend it! It’s suitable for middle grade readers as well as young adult readers.

Review for Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

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Trigger/Content Warnings: Depression, Suicide

Background/Notes: I’ve read this book twice, once in 2015 and once this year (2016).

My Summary: The Lees are a mixed race family (white and Asian) of five living in small-town Ohio. When middle child and family favorite Lydia is found dead in the lake, they are forced to confront all of the things that they have been hiding from one another and even repressing in themselves and find a way to move on from the tragedy of their losses.

Review:

Some spoilers ahead, so be warned!

The beauty of this book is how well-drawn and complex the characters are. They each struggle with something and make mistakes, and their struggles are shaped by their positionality in their family and their society at large. The narrative explores their experiences with being “othered” or overlooked because of people’s biases, explicit or otherwise, including microaggressions. It also deftly portrays the intersections of race and gender and class.

For example, James Lee is a second generation Chinese American, the son of Chinese immigrants who work as custodial and lunch staff at his boarding school. Understanding the hostility toward people whose differences stand out, he feels the compulsion to assimilate into American culture and pursues this relentlessly. However, he continually falls short of blending in because of his race, which he cannot change.

Marilyn Lee, who is white, does not struggle with race directly as much as she does gender. She excelled at math and science in high school and had high hopes for becoming a doctor and escaping/defying the oppressive, misogynistic expectations of the society around her and her own mother. Meeting James transforms her life in positive ways, but her unplanned pregnancy and marriage thwart her progress toward becoming a doctor.

These two tortured souls then project their failed aspirations on their children, especially Lydia, and that is what ultimately leads to the crumbling of their family and the central conflicts of the novel.

The narrative isn’t linear in its chronology. It jumps forward and backward in time, but this structure works well because it exposes the complex web of cause and effect driving the events of the novel. What seems like a localized issue of a particular moment is actually a repercussion from earlier events.

All of that said, this book gave me A Lot of Feelings for various reasons relating to my personal experiences.

Fact #1: I am the middle child in an Asian American family of five (not mixed though).

Fact #2: Because I graduated valedictorian of my high school and neither of my sisters did, I was pegged as the one who would be the most successful out of us three kids.

Fact #3: I have depression and anxiety and experience suicidal thoughts.

Fact #4: I cannot swim. I took lessons, but they didn’t result in much. I was 12 at the time and already too scared to truly learn without inhibitions.

The combination of these facts made me immediately empathize with Lydia’s character. I also confess I had a morbid fascination with finding out how exactly she died. She drowned, but since there was no sign of foul play, suicide was ruled the most likely probability by the police. (The book eventually reveals exactly how she died, toward the end, and I won’t spoil that.)

Lydia struggled with a physics class and got horrible grades for the first time. I went through something similar with my first engineering class in university.

Lydia felt intense pressure to succeed. I did (and still do). Although my parents never told me to pursue any particular major or career, I still felt obligated to pick something conventional and stable with high prestige.

Thus, when I found out she died by drowning, [presumably] by suicide…I looked at the book and thought: This could be me. (And even now, I’m honestly terrified that it might be.) Reading it felt like a wake-up call to change something about my life before I end up sharing Lydia’s presumed fate. It was also an earnest reminder to strive to be truthful and mindful with my family.

Recommendation: This story is an emotional rollercoaster ride, and if you’re okay with having your heart torn out, read it and suffer/enjoy it with the rest of us.