27 May 2021

Rainbow people and golden mountains

My niece and husband are reading side by side on a couch. The girl's face is covered by her open book (The Rainbow People), while the man's face is concentrated on the book in his lap (The Power and the Glory).
Do not disturb. Thank you.

Recently, the Tall Man and I visited my family for our first face-to-face meet up in nearly a year and a half, which is a long time for adults but a seeming eternity for kids. I planned to bring some books for my niece and nephew -- affectionately referred to in my head (and here) as Little Peep and Big Peep. I scanned my bookshelves to assess my old favorites. Some had made the long journey from my childhood home to college, then grad school, and now would be making the full circle back. Perhaps one of them would become a Peep favorite, too!

After making my selections, I packed a box and headed off. Once we gathered together, though, all was forgotten amid the flurry of hugs and dim sum. My brother's sheepdog remained at the Tall Man's side as he petted her with one hand and ate with the other -- the ultimate in multitasking. Then I felt a wet tongue lick me from elbow to shoulder, and I jumped in my chair. It was hard to tell whether the dog had fully accepted me as part of the family, or if she just wanted a bite of my fluffy char siu bao.

It was only later, after taking refuge from the scorching sun, that the box and its contents resurfaced. I was resting in the bedroom when Little Peep brought the parcel upstairs. "Goo-Goo,"* she said, plopping the box down on the bedspread beside me, "Uncle [Tall Man] told me to ask you which book I should read."

I sat up and walked her through the options. "This is one of my favorites!" I pulled out Redwall by Brian Jacques and waved it in her face. I might have been a bit too eager.

"That looks long," Little Peep shrugged. "This one, too."

Even though most of the books were more geared towards Big Peep's age, I really wanted Little Peep to find something she wanted to read. I was also hoping to sneak in a nap while she occupied herself.

"What about this one?" I said, pulling The Rainbow People by Lawrence Yep out of the pile, a brightly colored dragon swirling on its seafoam green cover. "It's a collection of Chinese folktales, so you can read as much or as little as you want. Look." I flipped through the book with her. "Each chapter is a separate story. Why don't you try it out?"

She gave me a dubious look, but took the book and started scanning the pages. After a few moments, she looked up and declared that she liked it.

"Great! Why don't you read it with Uncle [Tall Man]?" I sank back into bed with a smile and a sigh of relief.

Later on, I went downstairs and found two intently-focused bookworms on the couch: the Tall Man with Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, and Little Peep splayed next to him with The Rainbow People.

"What happened to reading together?" I asked.

The Tall Man didn't look up from his book. "We started reading a story about a dog and cat, but I was too slow so she kept going on her own."

"I hate cats!" Little Peep glared at me so fiercely that I felt like the offending cat. I couldn't remember that story at all and had no defense for the animal.

"At least you have a dog instead," I replied with a laugh. "What about the rest of the book so far?"

"It's really good! I skipped the ones that were too scary or boring."

I did recall one story with an illustration of a skeleton wearing mountain pattern armor. It's the only image from the collection that remained vivid in my mind. "They can be scary or creepy," I agreed. "These folktales are different than some stories we know today that seem all happy. But you can always go back and try the ones you skipped when you're ready."

Little Peep nodded and went back to the book. I knew a dismissal when I saw one. Reading, after all, is a sacred space that tolerates disturbance in small doses.

"This is part of who you are."

But as I left to see what was happening in the kitchen, I couldn't help but grin. Of all the books in the box, Little Peep had gravitated towards one of the most significant. The Rainbow People was very likely the first book I read that featured Chinese people and culture. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. O., had given me the collection, and her elegant inscription contained an important reminder: "This is part of who you are." She was not Asian, but she knew I loved to read and write stories. Mrs. O. recognized how important it was to read about people who looked like me, even though I had not grown up in China or Hong Kong like my parents had.

I told a Chinese American friend about sharing these folktales with Little Peep, and that sparked a conversation about other books we had read as kids. She recalled devouring a series of historical fiction books.

"There was something about a golden mountain, I think," she said, referring to Gam Saan 金山, a term used by some Chinese immigrants in the mid-1800s to refer to California during the Gold Rush.

"Was one of them called Dragonwings?" I had owned another book by Yep and recalled it was part of a longer series, although I hadn't read the rest. Dragonwings is loosely based on the life of Fung Joe Guey (or Feng Ru 馮如; many Asian immigrants changed the spellings of their names voluntarily or involuntarily upon arrival in America, due to clerical errors or English-speaking officials being unable to pronounce their names). Fung was an inventor who was the first to fly an airplane on the West Coast -- and the first Chinese aviator in the US. (Here's an incredible newspaper article from 1909 that captures one of his experimental flights. History is cool!)

After some searching online, my friend confirmed that she had likely read Yep's Golden Mountain series. That lead us on a rabbit trail to track down other stories of early immigrant life, including Lisa See's memoir On Gold Mountain for adults.

As for other Asian Americans in kid fiction, the 1980s and '90s were a bit sparse, at least from my own experience. I can only recall Japanese American Claudia Kishi from the Baby-Sitters Club, who my younger self thought was artsy and totally cool. Then there were the Chinese American mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club, which I read somewhat grudgingly in high school but now hope to return to as an adult. (There's a new PBS documentary about Amy Tan's life, which is on my to-watch list.)

These days, we're lucky to have the Diverse Voices movement, which has helped to broaden the types of stories we read. I've seen that diversity emerging in young adult fiction, which I read quite a bit, but I'm not as familiar with Chinese or Taiwanese American books currently available for younger readers. Here are a few books I've read or that have come highly recommended, though:

Book cover of "I Dream of Popo"

I Dream of Popo
by Livia Blackburne, illustrated by Julia Kuo (2021)

Despite knowing Livia for a number of years, I didn't know much about her life growing up in Taiwan or her ocean-crossing relationship with her maternal grandmother. I Dream of Popo, based on Livia's experience, captures the delights, tensions, and longings of a dual culture kid, with textured illustrations by Julia Kuo. I bought the book as a gift, but ended up keeping it for myself. It reminded me so much of my own popo (婆婆) that I cried fountains. You will probably cry fountains, too, so grab a tissue box now.

Book cover of "Eyes that Kiss in the Corners"

Eyes that Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho, illustrated by Dung Ho (2021)

My brother and sister-in-law used this book to teach Little and Big Peep about the specialness of their features, after Little Peep's classmate asked about the shape of her eyes. The family even shared the book with Little Peep's class for Read Across America week, which was a great teaching moment. I love the sweeping illustrations by Dung Ho and wish this book had been around when I was a kid, struggling to explain why I had "squinty" eyes. Eyes that Kiss in the Corners celebrates beauty and acceptance in all its forms, especially our own.

Book cover of "American Born Chinese"

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (2006)

I discovered Gene Luen Yang as an adult when I picked up his graphic novels Boxers & Saints. This historical fiction duology capture the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) from both sides of the war, in all of its expansive, mythic, yet conflicted glory. I would recommend it for more mature readers, since there is quite a bit of violence depicted. But I have bookmarked Yang's American Born Chinese and one of his more recent comic books, Superman Smashes the Klan. They capture two perspectives of Chinese American life: the first, the tale of third-grader Jin Wang's adjustment to the awkwardness of a new school; and the second, a retelling of a little-known Superman story, in which a Chinese American family helps the Man of Steel expose the KKK in the 1940s. Epic!


Happy reading! If you have other favorites, whether specifically about Chinese or Taiwanese Americans or about the larger AAPI community, I'd love to hear them. Leave a comment, message me, or find me on Goodreads. :)


* Note

Goo-Goo (or Gu-Gu) is short for gu ze 姑姐 (gu jie in Mandarin pinyin), an aunt who is your father's younger sister. All Chinese family references are relative to the person speaking, and there is a different name for every type of relation. It made for a lot of mental gymnastics as a kid ("What am I supposed to call so-and-so again?"), but in that way, you can tell how someone is related to someone else just by how one refers to another. For more about this naming system, see the explanation on Little Chinese Things.

1 comment:

  1. E - for Little Peep, may I recommend what I think is was Sister & mine equivalent book: she might remember more of when we got it, but I think I was in 2nd grade or so: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_the_Year_of_the_Boar_and_Jackie_Robinson