CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 8 . . . .December 8, 2006
What Happened This Summer.
Vancouver, BC: Tradewind Books, 2006.
178 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Chinese Canadian teenagers-Juvenile fiction.
Children’s stories, Canadian (English).
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Diana Wilkes.
My father lives one continent and one ocean away, yet runs my life as if he owns the world's most powerful remote control. He wants to be a parent, but what he really wants is success, to present a good face, for people to line up and shake his hand, to congratulate him on the success of his children.
Sure, I want my parents to be happy. I'm not ungrateful. I know immigration was tough. I know the big move was done for us kids. It cost money. Their marriage suffered. Ma was forced to learn English. Even now, she calls herself an immigrant-even though she has citizenship and pays taxes. Is she happy? She says, "If you're happy, then I'm happy."
Is Ba happy? Who knows? Who cares? He works long hours, lives alone and flies back and forth on thirty-hour flights like an astronaut. If he lived here with us, maybe I would go to university. If he slaved in Chinatown at mini-wage, had a boss shout at him all day long and had customers treat him like an insect, I'd want to do more for him. But he's a banker sitting in an office. A secretary answers his telephone. He doesn't need a thing from me.
(From "Astronaut Dads are a Pain," pp. 92-93)
I'll be very happy when I go away to university in the fall.
In the meantime, I have a cellphone that Aunt and Uncle don't know about. I turn the ring tone off before entering the house. I never forget. At night, I hide it under my pillow. I take it to the bathroom because Aunt checks my knapsack and handbag whenever she can. Good thing my desk faces the door and the mirror that hangs there alerts me when the door opens. While doing homework, I play music on my iPod. Aunt can't tell the difference between iPod earphones and cellphone earphones.
Aunt and Uncle want me to stay at home, but I go to the library on weekends.
"Isn't it quieter here?" Aunt asks.
I tell her I need reference books. I say there are group projects. But Aunt hates those because she's afraid I will help other students get better marks. When I am at school, Aunt searches my room for drugs, make-up, tight clothes-for any sign that I might be breaking her rules.
(From "Reading This Novel Made Me Have Sex," pp. 148-149)
Paul Yee's exciting new offering, What Happened This Summer is an important collection of short stories that addresses the unique experiences of today's Chinese-Canadian teenagers. Written in simple, direct language, the nine stories are each narrated in first person by various older teens, guys and girls, who are either Canadian citizens or recent immigrants. They are loosely inter-related and set in cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, and Hong Kong. The stories sometimes refer back to life in China and briefly present the parents' lives, but the primary issues are with the teens themselves. The predominant themes of the various stories place the youth in conflict with traditional parents' values, cultural differences, language barriers, and social change within today's urban youth culture. These are often challenging issues of immigration.
As well as the specific theme of Chinese-Canadian immigration challenges, the stories also present more universal concerns of today's youth such as home, school, sports, work, and the all important social life. And the stories hold no punches. From illegal deals and theft, to dangerous dieting and body image; from casual sex and single parenting, to street racing and accidental death, these stories are relevant and current for today's youth. A brief summary of the first three will suggest the current topics and storytelling skill of Paul Yee.
In the first story, a guy with a hangover at school explains what he thinks about his counselor, "He's a banana: yellow on the outside, white inside, born over here. He's useless." (p. 5) But despite his bitterness and inebriated state, he is intelligent enough to challenge the slick guest speaker who brings up human rights issues in history class. The student knows a good deal about the Chinese immigration, the exploitation of railroad workers, redress, and racism issues then and today, but his opinions surprise his teacher and the guest. They expect the students to think like they do.
In the next story, a twin sister struggles with the accidental discovery of her brother's homosexuality, drug use, and abundance of unearned money. She worries about him and becomes the buffer between her conservative Christian parents and the troubled brother she loves. Not only does she question the differences between churches and religious beliefs on the matter of tolerance, but she tries to find a win-win solution to ensure harmony in her family. The story of this family's immigration is also revealed as they struggle with employment offerings, language acquisition, exploitive landlords, and community support through their church.
The third story's theme is family duty. As the long-awaited son, this narrator enjoys the carefree life in Hong Kong until after the colony's return to China from British rule when he and his aging father immigrate to Vancouver. His popularity in sports, fun with his friends and the many sexual opportunities with girls are gone, along with his self-confidence. He hates it in Vancouver, sleeps night and day, and doesn't try to learn English. When his father tells him of a family debt of honor that requires him to marry a Chinese girl he doesn't know so the family can immigrate to Canada, he rebels further. Struggling with the expectation of duty to his father and the life he wants for himself, he finally lets fate decide with the throw of a basketball. When he finds himself married with a young son, he can't believe his life has come to this. But fate has more plays for him to learn.
The style of Yee's writing is almost poetic in its clarity and precision. The language is simple without being patronizing or overly colloquial. All of the stories are written in first person, present and past tense. Other than an initial uncertainty about the identity of the narrator in each piece, the language is clear and the unique voice becomes apparent. This book would be accessible to most readers, even those youth who are ESL but can read English.
As a leading authority of the Chinese-Canadian experience, Paul Yee presents What Happened This Summer as a moving and memorable revelation of today's youth who often live in turmoil between the traditional expectations of their parents and the social stress of the urban youth culture they are part of. These are poignant stories of Chinese-Canadian youth, specifically; however, the book is not so unique as to be exclusive. There is enough universal relevance and authentic voice for other youth to read and appreciate.
Every Canadian public and high school library must have this book!
Diana Wilkes has taught Kindergarten to grade 10 and is completing a Master of Arts degree in Children's Literature at the University of British Columbia.
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