China Boy (Lee 1991) was an intensely dramatic description of the Chinese American culture and what it was like for a seven year old boy to try and assimilate into a predominately African American neighborhood. This story (Lee 1991) also added the terrible heartbreak of losing his Chinese mother to cancer and then as a result being raised by a white stepmother who rejected the boy’s Chinese culture and customs.
A poor predominately black neighborhood called, the “Panhandle” in San Francisco, California. Kai Ting, the seven year old storyteller was born and raised here, but his family migrated from Shanghai, China. It was situated in the 1950’s era. (Lee 1991)
The names of all characters are changed throughout the book, “We change names at our pleasure. For foo chi, good luck, or for better luck. Luck is everything. Foo chi is controlled by the gods and spirits,” said Kai’s mother. (Lee 1991 P. 13)
“Kai Ting” is the seven-year-old narrator. He was the youngest child, having three older sisters which made him the only boy. He always seemed to be portrayed throughout the story of being very different than his brothers and sisters, but very lovingly adored and prized by his birth mother, because he was her only son.
Kai was described with gentle manners, and he was said to have impaired vision and the body of “tinker bell”. The title of this novel came from Kai’s constant lack of ability to fight which earned him the nickname “China Boy” and made him the constant punching bag of all the black neighborhood boys in the Panhandle until he later found an outlet by boxing at the YMCA. (Lee 1991)
“Toussaint” was Kai’s African American best friend who nurtured and helped Kai throughout the story. He tried to teach him to fight and told Kai, “You’se gotta be a streetfighta.” (Lee 1991 P. 2) “Toos,” as he was also nicknamed, taught Kai black folk songs which Kai began to love because they reminded him of his mother and he also taught Kai how to speak English. (Lee 1991)
“Sung-ah” was Kai’s oldest sister. Kai described her like a tall model. She was described to have deep resentment for leaving have to leave China when the communists took over. (Lee 1991)
“Wai-la” was Kai’s was the second oldest. It was said that in Chinese culture, a second daughter was a sign to be bad luck, and the one who could be blamed for not having a son, so they made Wai-la wear all hand-me-downs from Sung-ah. Worn second hand clothes in a wealthy family in China were considered to be a sign of obvious devaluation. (Lee 1991)
“Ming-li” was the youngest girl and said to be exceedingly beautiful. (Lee 1991)
(All the sisters lived in China before Kai was born)
“T.K. Ting” was Kai’s father. He was a Chinese Army officer. He had tremendous respect for the American culture and desired his children to assimilate into it when they came to San Francisco. He pushed many American values onto his children, especially after their mother passed away. (Lee 1991)
“Mah-mee” was Kai’s birth mother. She was a really eccentric type character and a total revolutionary. In China, “Women were expendable birthing organisms for the glory of the family.” (P. 24)
Mah Me totally resisted this idea, she thought woman were the ones with the great spirits and gifts. She also did not want to come to America and refused to assimilate into the new culture. (Lee 1991) She was described as a woman who made men tip their hat and people simply adored her. She spoke of Jesus Christ all the time and had an inner joy coming from her spirit so strong that she made everyone smile around her. All she ever wanted was a son, and after three daughters, she became extremely superstitious and begged the gods for a son.
Ma-mee prayed to God everywhere she went for a son to the point of being downright outrageous. She was superstitious about everything and believed so much in spirits and ghosts. When Kai was finally born she rejoiced and took him everywhere with her. “Red Egg Parties are held one month after birth, to celebrate the male baby and his mother surviving the birth,” explained Kai’s father (P. 28) Chinese believe in shaping their children. (P. 30) Ma-mee did not even let Kai go outside to play with the neighborhood children. When she took him to first grade (he wasn’t allowed to go to kindergarten) she instructed the school to not even let him go on recess. Ma-mee totally adored Kai until she tragically passed away when Kai was seven years old from the illness, Cancer. The entire family suffered emotionally because of her death.
“Edna” was the white stepmother who married Kai’s father. She was depicted as the typical wicked stepmother. She was very forces him to stay in the street most of the time. Her role is the main theme of the racial theories comparison and I will discuss it further there. She was depecited as a mean, abusive person towards Kai and his three sisters.
The father married her because he always had a desire to part of the American Culture and it seemed like this was his way of being an American, marrying a WASP. (Lee 1991)
“Anthony Cemore Barraza” was the man who taught Kai about boxing at the YMCA and along with a long list of characters, the YMCA “Knights” who were mainly Hispanic seemed to turn Kai’s life from fear and defeat to triumph.
This was written from the viewpoint of seven year old Kai, and it created many parallels of different cultures to each other. It was a narrative story with both historical and cultural references as well as dialogue.
The tone of Kai’s narration is self critical and he delivers his childhood experiences without any emotional sappiness with the exception of his loving tone towards his mother. He is an extremely witty commentator and humor is a big theme in this book.
The beginning of the book was about how the family came from China to San Francisco, a trip that took six months total. It described Chinese family members and culture and a background of everyone. It then emphasized the incredible relationship between Ma-Mee and Kai, her only son. Then after Ma-Mee died, Kai’s father remarried Edna, a White-Anglo Saxon and Kai endured abuse in many forms from his stepmother.
To get back at his wicked stepmother and gain self-esteem, he joined the YMCA boxing team and triumphed over the stepmother he abhorred. The theme most obvious in this book was the stepmother’s refusal to allow the Chinese culture to be a part of her household.
Racial Theories and Concepts
Cultural assimilation refers to relinquishing one’s own cultural norms and embracing the new cultural norms of the country you immigrate to. (Suh 2009)
When Kai’s mother first saw African American people in San Francisco, this was her reaction, “These people. They have been in the sun too long. War has been hard on them too. Their clothes are old, like ours.” (Lee P. 31)
Then, this quote from China Boy is a perfect example of the fathers desire to assimilate into the American Culture, “No more ancestor worship! No more stinking joss sticks! Firecrackers to chase spirits! No!! We should be celebrating Thanksgiving and Fourth of July! And memorizing goddam Constitution!” (Lee 1991 P. 70)
For those struggling with assimilating into a new country It was once thought to be impossible to manage both cultures at once. However, studies have actually shown the opposite to be true; students who retain aspects of their culture and background previous to arriving in the United States actually perform at a higher educational level. (Akiba, 2007).
Kai’s father wanted so much for him to conform to the American ways. Kai reports having wished his father had bought him a calligraphy set which is highly valued in the Chinese culture instead of playing “ball torture” otherwise trying to get him to be like the Americans and play sports. “You need to be in good physical shape in America, “said Kai’s father. Sports were a symbol for American culture in the novel. (P.120)
Racism and Violence
Edna found fault in the very look of her Chinese stepchildren, and their faces which set them apart from her. She was constantly hitting and slapping the children in the face. When one of Kai’s sisters protested to her that “hitting children in the face was not Chinese,” Edna responded, “We are not in China…. That is precisely the point I am striving to make” (P. 97).
Edna punishes the children physically for “illegally spoken Chinese” and for trying to communicate using facial expressions. (P. 96). She tried to get rid of everything Chinese and literally locked Kai out of their house so she did not have to deal with him. (Lee 1991)
Kai talks about being beaten and called “China Boy” by a black rival on the streets of San Francisco, Lee’s (1991) concern is with violence and race in exclusive American context.
In her descriptive model of white ethnic identity and worldview, Katz (1989) classifies values and perspectives of white American cultural identity.
It’s hard to say what exactly caused Edna to have such a strong sense of superiority and privilege, but she did. There were no other white characters mentioned in the book and she was portrayed as the “white representative” and negatively so throughout the entire book. The black characters seemed to have more of an ambiguous air about them. (Lee 1991)
Kai had described his admired mother as someone who saw a “passion for life.” (P. 28) And then, in contrast he described his stepmother as an equivalent to, “Hitler” and “Aryan,” He said, “She came to our house the way the Germans marched into
Paris, certain of conquest and totally prepared to suppress resistance” (P. 76).
Resistance stems from fear and discomfort, because we are asking people to question their belief systems. As a result of feeling threatened they resist. Defensiveness becomes a way to protect against other painful feelings. (Goodman 2001)
Kai’s mode of resistance to his stepmother and “whiteness” was in boxing. Kai learns to conform to a model of American masculinity, which defies a specific Oriental stereotype, then achieves a status within the multi-ethnic community in which he lives. (Lee 1991)
Ethnic and Racial Identity Development
All identity models focus on the psychosocial process of defining the self and some also acknowledge the cognitive complexity of the self-definition process. The models describe racial and ethnic identity as a process that occurs over a lifetime. (Chávez & Guido-DiBrito 1999)
So to conclude, I have discussed the novel China boy in the context of racism and cultural ethnicity in America. The purpose of this novel in my eyes was to help those who are exposed to extreme adversity find an inspiration to rise above and make something better out of their lives. I found a study by Neblett, White, Ford, Philip, and Sellers written in 2008 that I will end with because I think it was a good article on the mystery of resiliency and I am always wondering who or why anyone gets the will to overcome adversity.
Two models that have been used in previous research to understand the impact of racial discrimination in African American adolescents are the compensatory model and the protective factor model (Sellers 2006). The relationship between the risk factor and the negative outcome is weaker for individuals who possess higher levels of the resilience factor than those who possess lower levels of the resilience factor. (Neblett, White, Ford, Philip, and Sellers 2008) More research is needed in this area, but it is exciting to figure out why certain people are more resilient than others.
And what happened to the author, Gus Lee, who used his own life story to write this fictional novel? He overcame hardship and attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he also became an attorney, was a U.S. Senate ethics investigator and legal adviser to the worldwide Connelly Investigation. He then later, became a senior deputy district attorney, acting deputy attorney general and senior executive for legal education for the State of California. (Lee 2010)