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The author describes how he grew up as a Chinese American in San Francisco and how he came to...
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The author describes how he grew up as a Chinese American in San Francisco and how he came to use his writing to celebrate his family and his ethnic heritage.
Years Ago I wrote a book called Child of the Owl. It was about a little girl, Casey Young, who had grown up outside of San Francisco. When something happened to her father, she had to move into Chinatown to live with her grandmother. For the first time in her life, she had to think of herself as Chinese.
The title was symbolic of her situation -- and of mine and of most Chinese Americans. In Western folklore, owls are usually wise animals. In Chinese folklore, on the other hand, owls are nasty animals. They are disrespectful to their parents and will even kick them out of the nest.
For the same act -- such as reading comic books -- Casey can feel just as wise as a Western owl and just as disrespectful as a Chinese one. In the late sixties, when I wore my hair long like many other college students, I knew my own grandmother, Marie Lee, would have liked me to cut it short. Again, like so many other students at the time, I wasn't about to give in to convention.
To do my grandmother credit, she did not scold me or throw a tantrum the way many other grandmothers might have. Her solution was unique like much of what she did. As I sat talking with her in her little studio apartment, she would reach over abruptly and unannounced to brush the hair out of my eyes as a hint that it was time to visit the barber. I would try my best to ignore the gesture and go on talking.
I knew that she accepted her strange, American-born grandson -- far better than I accepted my China-born grandmother. In many ways, she came to embody what I came to considermy "Chineseness" -- that foreign, unassimilable, independent core. Going into Chinatown once a week made me learn about a part of myself that I sometimes wanted to ignore. For a while, she even lived with us while she was recuperating from an operation on her eyes so that for a short time I had to think about my "Chineseness" each day.
Like Casey, I grew up outside of Chinatown. At the end of World War II, my father had bought a small corner grocery and moved into an apartment above the store.
It was an older building so that it even came with a name: the Pearl Apartments. Officially, the Pearl Apartments sat at 1205 Pierce Street. The neighborhood was mixed -- not only in people but in architectural styles. The houses were all different -- Victorians and stucco postwar houses squatting side by side. However, the Pearl Apartments had their own colorful history. Initially the building had consisted of the store and two sets of apartments. But a second building of three apartments had been jacked up from another location and slowly and painfully brought to the corner where it was joined to the first building by a set of stairs.*
*When it was finally torn down to make room for the garage, it took two wrecking balls because it had been so sturdily built.
It wasn't a Victorian; but it pretended to be. The bay windows had panes of glass that curved outward -- which were always a nuisance for my father to replace when I broke one of them. There was ornate molding on the walls that was great for catching dust; and chandeliers -- cheap ones -- hung from the ceiling by long chains through which the electric cord wound, its old insulation looking as fuzzy as a stretched-out caterpillar. I always thought of chandeliers as the corpses of fat spiders, their legs kicking up from their round, upturned bodies. They were great earthquake indicators, swaying whenever a tremor hit. However, they were handiest at New Year's because you could throw serpentines, coiled ribbons of paper, over them until there seemed to be a small tree of softly colored ribbons winding upward from the center of the living room floor.
The apartments each had certain features that had been modern once but were now old-fashioned. In the hallway was a little shelf and niche for the old type of phone -- the kind that stands up like a candlestick -- and each living room had a Murphy bed.
A Murphy bed swung up inside a closet on powerful springs. When the bed was up, it looked like a closet door. In our own apartment, my father had removed the Murphy bed, building instead a homemade captain's bed with drawers that pulled out underneath. The sides curved and over the edge he had put a strip of metal; and it is to that bed I often return in my dreams though I am sleeping some place far different now.
After scrimping and saving, my parents bought the Pearl Apartments, and my father decided to make some small improvements in the other residences. When my father was taking out the Murphy bed from the upstairs unit, one of the springs uncoiled and the sharp tip pierced his cheek. My father combined a steelworker's toughness with the impishness of a small boy, so until the wound healed, he liked to shock people by drinking some water and letting it dribble through the hole in his cheek.
The one drawback to the Pearl Apartments was that there was no heating of any kind. My parents heated one end of the apartment by leaving the door down on the gas stove. The living room fireplace had to warm the other half; and one of my chores as a child was chopping up the old wooden fruit crates to use as firewood.
Often, I would lie there in the bed my father had made, snuggled under the many quilts for warmth, watching the shadows of the chandelier dance back and forth over the high, ceiling as I slowly fell asleep.The Lost Garden. Copyright © by Laurence Yep. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted January 19, 2011
My son (5th grader) read this book for his English class and found it to be an easy read. He is also from similar back ground - being raised in the US feeling American but also having a father from Chile. His grandmother from his father's side doesn't speak any English and my sons Spanish helps them understand one another but not 100%. He felt a connection with the author and I enjoyed reading the book after him to get an extra feel for the story. I loved the analogy to a seed and memories at the end of the book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 12, 2002
I think it was a good book. Most people would enjoy it. It's about the author growing up in a place outside of Chinatown and felt unaccepted by both the Chinese people and the other American groups. The author's family life and culture was very different from what I am used to. Some of the differences were interesting to learn about. Some of the vocabulary might be difficult for elementary school students. This book might be interesting to people of all ages.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 15, 2009
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