Twelve-year-old video buff Anthony is devastated when his family moves from Chinatown to a remote northern community. There are no other Asian families around and everyone loves hockey, which Anthony just doesn't get. The move is even harder on his grandmother, Po Po, who doesn't speak English and puts a fake chicken over the front door for luck. Desperate to fit in, Anthony takes to the ice for the first time and is a total disaster! But he manages to make friends after standing up the school bully, who asks Anthony to teach him "kung fu"! Anthony starts putting together a documentary about his new town, which turns out to be full of interesting people. As he discovers the joys of small-town life, his new friends get an introduction to his Chinese culture, and even Po Po begins to feel at home.
About the Author
Aaron Lam writes and produces documentaries. He lives in Oakville, Ontario.
Kean Soo is a cartoonist and illustrator. He was born in Hong Kong and now lives in Canada.
Read an Excerpt
I should have been spending less time with Jackson. He was the biggest dork in the world. Hanging out with him meant trouble. Besides, we were only twelve years old — and that was waaaay too young for jail!
My fingers were freezing, but I didn't want to put my phone down. I was getting awesome video footage of two fish kissing. Yep. You heard that right. The fish were kissing.
My buddy Jackson was holding two big fish, one in each hand. His gloves were getting slimier by the second, which was totally grossing me out. At the same time, I couldn't stop giggling at the puckering sounds he was making with his lips.
Like I said — a perfect shot. I'd been wandering around shooting video. No script. No director. Just me and my phone. I was capturing the sights and sounds of Chinatown. Then I ran into Jackson outside of Old Man Chan's fish market. Always the class clown, Jackson had started to perform what he called a "fish soap opera." Fresh fish from a plastic bin in front of the market ended up being his actors.
Then Old Man Chan showed up. And he wasn't happy with what he saw. Come to think of it, I don't think he was ever happy. We called him "Old Man" because his face was scrunched up like an old piece of leather. And he didn't have any teeth, which made his mouth look like a sinkhole. We were pretty sure he was over a hundred years old.
Poor Jackson didn't see Old Man Chan coming up behind him. He kept going with the fish-kissing action. I stopped shooting, but Jackson didn't notice.
Old Man Chan cleared his throat. Jackson froze. An expression of terror appeared on his face.
"Always the troublemaker," said Old Man Chan in Chinese. "Would you care to explain what's going on here?"
Jackson slowly turned to face his judge/jury/executioner.
"Hi, Old Man ... I mean, Mr. Chan," said Jackson. His face turned bright red. "Would you believe this is for a school project?"
"Not for a minute!" replied Old Man Chan. His eyes ping-ponged between the two of us. "Both of you should get out of here before I call the police. Or worse — your moms!"
Jackson gently laid the fish back onto the ice. Then he bolted down the street. I politely smiled at Old Man Chan and went on my way.
In a few minutes, my phone buzzed. Jackson was texting to see if I'd survived my encounter with Old Man Chan. "Barely" was my response. "LOL" was his response to my response.
I took my time on my walk home, soaking in the exciting sights and sounds. Right in the heart of Toronto, Chinatown was filled with restaurants, bakeries, and markets. Souvenir shops everywhere sold the cheesiest "Welcome to Canada" trinkets you could imagine. I've heard people say that Chinatown is too noisy, but I never really thought of it that way. Chinatown always sounded alive, never ready to call it quits for the day — or night.
In case you hadn't figured it out yet, I loved Chinatown. I grew up there. I had the perfect life within its crazy streets. I would have laughed at the idea of leaving it. But that never even crossed my mind.CHAPTER 2
HOME, SWEET HOME
Our house was on a narrow street near Spadina Avenue, one of the main roads in the neighbourhood. Ours was a small, old house, but it was home. Five of us lived there: me (the one and only Anthony Chung), Mom, Dad, my grandmother, and my older sister Chloe. Chloe is only two years older than I am, but she likes to remind me that she's ten times smarter.
I'd barely made it through the front door. I didn't even have time to catch my breath before I heard a voice. "Did you forget your gloves again?" It was Chloe, yelling at me without even looking up from the TV. "I don't know why Mom and Dad bother buying you such nice winter clothes! When I was your age blah blah blah blah blah ..."
I just tuned her out. She was the single most annoying human being on the planet — probably because she was so good at everything. Chloe was a straight-A student and the most popular kid at school. She was also good at every sport ever invented.
"Keep it down!" an annoyed voice shouted in Chinese from upstairs. "And turn down that TV!"
Grandma Peng, who we called "Po Po," thought we were spoiled brats. She had a growling voice that sounded like a landslide, along with an impressively ancient face. If Old Man Chan looked like he was a hundred years old, Po Po looked like she was a thousand. Imagine a cross between a rhinoceros and a prune. I know. Scary stuff.
Po Po had never spoken a word of English in her life. Ever since she moved to Chinatown from Hong Kong many moons ago, she never had any reason to learn English. Everyone here spoke her language. I could talk to Po Po because I spoke Chinese too. But I avoided her as much as I could because she was always complaining about something.
And that's exactly what she was doing that day. The day that turned out to be The Absolute Number One Worst Day in My Whole Entire Life.
I was texting with Jackson when a sudden pounding on my bedroom door made me jump.
"I'm studying!" I yelled. I thought it was my sister trying to annoy me.
The knocking continued, only harder this time.
"I said I'm studying! Go away!"
"Is that any way to talk to your Po Po?" It was angry Chinese coming from the other side of the door. "Don't your parents teach you any respect?"
Oops. "Sorry, Po Po. I thought you were Chloe."
"Well, can I come in or not?"
"Sorry," I said again. It was better to be safe than sorry. "I was just texting Jackson. Please come in."
Po Po opened the door. She came in and took a seat on the edge of my bed. It was strange that she would venture into my room at all. She often complained that it smelled like dirty socks. I was expecting some more scolding about not having respect. Or maybe about spending too much time on my phone texting Jackson. But it never came. Instead, she started crying.
"What's wrong, Po Po?" I asked. "Was it something I did?"
She looked at me and smiled. What a rare sight. "Of course not," she said. "I'm just sad that we'll be moving. I don't want to leave."
I couldn't believe my ears. "We're moving? What are you talking about?"
Po Po's eyes widened. "They never told you?"
They? I was more confused than ever.
Po Po just shook her head. "Your mother and father should have told you. We'll be moving in a few weeks."
The thought of leaving the house was like science-fiction. I'd lived there my whole life. All of my friends lived nearby. What were Mom and Dad thinking?
"Po Po, why are we moving? We're all happy here."
"I think I've said too much already. I'm sure they'll explain everything tonight."
Then she was gone.
I was left alone in my room with no answers and another hour before my parents came home from work.
My phone buzzed. It was Jackson again. He always texted me whenever he was bored, which was most of the time.
JACKSON: I'm bored. You want to come over and play video games?
ME: Nope. Not in the mood.
JACKSON: I just found an awesome new skateboarding video on YouTube. I'll send you the link.
ME: Don't bother. Not in the mood.
JACKSON: Dude, what's wrong?
ME: Everything, I think.CHAPTER 3
THE WORLD UPSIDEDOWN
I was waiting as Mom and Dad walked through the door. One look and they could tell I wasn't exactly the happiest person in the world. They asked me and Chloe to join them in the living room. ?"Your Dad and I have something important to tell you," Mom said. She had the sense to hesitate a bit.
"Is it good news?" asked Chloe. She clearly didn't get the memo from Po Po. "Did we win the lottery?" Mom cleared her throat. "We're moving. Right after Christmas."
Chloe looked stunned. I could count on one hand the number of times I saw her speechless.
"How do you kids feel about that?" Mom asked.
Chloe finally spoke up. "Where are we going?"
"To a small town in Northern Ontario. It's called Berksburg. And from what I've seen of it online, it's really pretty."
"But why?" I was doing a lousy job of hiding how mad I was. Kids were always the last to hear about anything and I hated it.
"The magazine is downsizing. I need to find another job," said Dad.
That was a huge shock to me. He'd worked at the magazine for as long as I could remember.
"But why this 'Burgerburg' place?" asked Chloe.
"Berksburg," Mom said.
"Yeah, whatever. But why?"
"We've known about this move for a few weeks now," Dad continued. "Your mother and I already have jobs lined up in Berksburg."
I couldn't imagine my parents working at different jobs. Or all of us living in a different town. It felt like a nightmare I just wanted to wake up from.
"I've found a job as the art director of the newspaper up there," he explained. "Your mother will be teaching at the high school."
Chloe leapt to her feet with a sudden burst of excitement. "That's fantastic!" she shouted. She gave Mom and Dad enormous hugs. "That sounds like so much fun! I can't wait to start packing!"
What? I couldn't believe Chloe. Couldn't she see what a disaster this was? I stomped back to my bedroom and slammed the door behind me.
Thus ended The Absolute Number One Worst Day in My Whole Entire Life. Things could only get better. Or so I hoped.
* * *
I spent the next few days online doing research about Berksburg. The town's official website looked ancient, like it was made during the early days of the Internet. The graphics were really out of date and half the links didn't work. The ones that did work led to really boring pages about the area's natural beauty. Trees, wildlife, and stuff like that.
I couldn't care less about trees and wildlife! I was a city boy. I wanted to know about the best places to shop for comic books and video games. I wanted to know about the best places to get good Chinese food. I wanted to know where the best movie theatres were playing the latest blockbusters.
The weeks sped by and moving day came too quickly. I looked around after I'd packed up my stuff. It was the first time I'd ever seen my bedroom completely empty. The sight made me realize I couldn't avoid reality forever. We were moving from the best city in the world to the most boring town in the universe. Yuck!
The movers arrived and started loading our furniture and boxes into the back of their huge truck. Some of Dad's old friends had a moving business and they'd agreed to lend their services. The guys were sweating like crazy, but they still looked half-frozen.
Jackson dropped by to say goodbye. We promised to keep in touch. But I wondered how long it would take before he forgot about me.
"We can still play video games together online," he said in a depressed voice. "And I'll still send you links to funny videos."
Jackson was always sending me links to videos that would make me laugh so hard I'd fall out of my chair. At least I could look forward to that — when the chairs were off the truck.
"Stay out of trouble," I said. I knew that he'd ignore my advice anyway. "And say hi to Old Man Chan for me when you see him again!"
It was time to set off for our new home. We piled into the family SUV and hit the road with the moving van following behind us. It was strange seeing our house grow smaller and smaller through the rear window.
Soon, Chinatown was behind us and we were on the highway to the northern wastelands of Ontario. I really didn't know much about Berksburg, but I was expecting to see a lot of igloos and polar bears.
As we continued driving north, all signs of our previous life started to vanish. Before long, even the CN Tower shrank into the horizon behind us. All signs of city living started disappearing, replaced by rolling farmland and the occasional cow or horse.
A few hours into our drive, even the farmland was disappearing, replaced by forests of tiny pine trees that poked up through the rocky ground.
Occasionally we'd pass a group of kids playing shinny on a frozen pond. Shinny — what a stupid and pointless game! I never understood the national fascination with all things "hockey."
The next thing I remembered was waking up with a major crick in my neck. I must have dozed off. Mom was gently shaking my shoulder from the front seat.
"We're here, honey," she whispered.
"I told you it would be great," Dad said. "The fresh air. The peace and quiet. Very nice."
"This place is totally awesome!" shouted Chloe. She was like a cheerleader on a sugar high. "Awesome! Awesome! Awesome!"
Po Po was awakened briefly by the fuss. She just grunted. Then she closed her eyes and resumed her snorefest.
I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and tried to focus on my surroundings. We were parked in front of a big white house with a porch that wrapped around one side. I was surprised at the size of the front lawn. It was as big as the local park back in Toronto. This place was a lot bigger than our old house, which didn't have a porch or a front lawn at all.
The moving truck pulled into the driveway behind us. Wow — we had a driveway now. We'd always struggled to find a parking spot on our street in Chinatown.
Everything was different. Strange.
"Welcome to Berksburg," Dad said. "We're home."CHAPTER 4
WHAT PLANET AM I ON?
Po Po was freaking out. One minute she was snoring happily and the next she was out of the car. She looked like a boxer ready for action. I had no idea what was going on, but that was usually the case when it came to Grandma.
"This is totally unacceptable!" she yelled in Chinese. She seemed to be talking to no one and everyone at the same time. Po Po's voice sounded harsh even when she was happy. It was downright scary when she was mad. I fought a strong urge to go running for the hills. This was the wilderness. There had to be hills.
Po Po pointed a crooked finger right at Dad's nose. "What are you trying to do? Bring bad luck to this family? Why didn't anybody tell me about the house before we decided to come here?"
Mom and Dad looked confused. They clearly had no idea why Po Po was so angry. When she saw their puzzled faces, she became even angrier.
"Didn't you notice that over there?" she asked. She pointed to the railway tracks that ran through the field across the street. "You couldn't ask for worse luck!"
I could tell from the blank looks that no one understood what she was talking about.
"You should never have railway tracks in front of your house!" Po Po explained. "It represents the centipede. And the centipede will bring misfortune upon the family. We need a chicken!"
I started to laugh. A chicken? What was she talking about?
"This isn't funny, young man," Po Po barked at me. "We need a chicken to place over the front door. That's what my parents would have done, and their parents before them."
Then I started to understand why Po Po was freaking out. This was about Chinese tradition and old beliefs.
"A fake chicken will do," she continued. "Just like the ones you can buy in Chinatown. The chicken will protect the house by scaring the centipede away."
Po Po was superstitious. Super superstitious. She always took her ancient beliefs seriously. Sometimes she would move furniture around to avoid bad luck. Or she would take down a mirror because it was facing the wrong direction.
"Po Po, I don't think we'll be able to find a fake chicken in this town," I said.
"We must find one," she replied. "We must. If this family is to prosper, things must start off right. The foundation must be stable if what we build upon it is to be strong."
Dad put his hand on Po Po's shoulder in a vain attempt to calm her down. "We can look for a chicken on the Internet," he suggested.
"Oh yeah," said Chloe sarcastically. "I'm sure they have a category for 'fake chickens' on eBay."
I pulled out my phone so I could start looking online. I really wanted to know if I could find a rubber chicken for sale online. But I couldn't get a wireless signal. I suddenly panicked. If I couldn't get online, what was I going to do for fun around here?
I snapped back to reality. Po Po was still ranting about chickens and centipedes.
Mom was fighting to stay calm. But I could see she was getting mad too. "We can't always live by the old beliefs," she told Po Po. "We live in a modern world now. We shouldn't live in the past."
Po Po didn't respond. She was too busy looking for more things to complain about.
The movers had everything loaded into the house within a couple of hours. Then it was a matter of unpacking and finding new places for everything. I wasn't in the mood to do anything but whine, but I forced myself to open my first box. The sooner I got started, the sooner I'd be finished.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Fake-Chicken Kung Fu Fighting Blues"
Copyright © 2018 Aaron Lam.
Excerpted by permission of James Lorimer & Company Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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