I’ve finished reading China Boy, which I selected for the Diversity Rocks Reading Challenge. This autobiographical novel by Chinese-American Gus Lee caused me to tear up a couple of times. I recognized the experiences of immigrant children in Lee’s story, and made a more real connection now, as one of my students is growing up without a mother’s love.
In this novel, Kai-Ting is the prized and only son in a Chinese family, who has arrived to 1950s San Francisco, after an escape from civil war in China. Small and treasured, Kai-Ting enjoys the indulgent love of his doting mother, who succumbs to cancer when the boy is still small. Left with his inattentive father and three older sisters, Kai-Ting is unaware that his mother has died, as it is custom for this news to be kept from small children.
Soon after this loss, Kai-Ting's father takes a new wife. She is cruel and hostile, and she is American. Edna does everything possible to erase all memory of Kai-Ting’s real mother, and physically disposes of all things Chinese that remain in the home. She forbids the children to speak their native language. To make matters worse, she locks Kai-Ting out of his house daily. He is to remain outside until she calls for him. This places him in harm’s way, as the boy gangs in the neighborhood see him as an easy target and beat him daily. Bloodied and vulnerable, Kai-Ting gets no sympathy from Edna, who steadfastly refuses him safe harbor.
Kai-Ting seeks his mother in the faces of several characters in the story, who in their own ways supply what is missing in the boy’s life. Kai-Ting also goes to the YMCA for boxing lessons, with the hope of learning how to defend his puny frame against the bullies in the street.
You can't help but wonder why Kai-Ting's father appears to be so inattentive, unwilling to protect and nurture his only son. The reader feels like reaching in and rescuing poor, pathetic Kai-Ting. In the story, many characters outside the family are concerned for Kai-Ting, but none of them intervene. I suppose it was the way things were back then. I also noticed that Kai-Ting had an incredible time learning English, while at the same time losing his native Songhai, language of Shanghai. His garbled, mixed-up attempts to communicate were often humorous. As a bilingual teacher, I'm pretty sure Kai-Ting did not have access to ESL services.
I enjoyed this book very much, and highly recommend it.