Throughout AAPI Heritage Month, I'd like to highlight a few of my favorite YA novels that feature Asian-Americans. Some of them you probably will have heard of, but I hope I can at least introduce several books you might not know about. This is the first in a series of book recommendations.
Seeing Emily — Joyce Lee Wong
Blurb — This free verse novel introduces readers to sixteen-year-old Emily, one of three Asian students at her high school in Richmond, Va., and the only child of protective, ambitious parents. She loves her parents and has always strived to please them, but her interest in a sexy new student, her growing passion for art, and her need to break away without breaking her tightly-knit family apart, force Emily to create a web of lies that ultimately traps her just as tightly as her circumstances. Through her art she finds a key to freedom and a new understanding of her place in the world.
Review — Did you catch that? SEEING EMILY is a novel in free verse. Before you turn away, I'm going to disclaimer this review by saying I am the first person to disregard books in free verse. I just haven't had great experiences with it. The biggest problem I have with free verse is that it often is so obvious and pervasive that it distracts from the actual story by being so visibly and obnoxiously there; it's constantly shoving itself in your face. No such issue here. By the time you're in the second chapter, you'll practically have forgotten that this is written in nontraditional form.
Like many books about Asian Americans, this one is primarily about Emily finding what it means to be Chinese-American; specifically, how to balance being Chinese with being American. And it's a great thing when you finally realize that those two terms are not mutually exclusive. The uncertainty of being a teenager is deftly combined with the struggle to reconcile your traditional home life with being immersed in a very different culture at school with your friends. One of the best characteristics of this book is how strong Emily is as a standalone character. The way the book is written, she really shines as the focus.
Lee Wong should be commended for the sensitive, realistic way she portrays Chinese parents. With all of the hullabaloo about Tiger Mothers and the best parenting techniques, it is really easy these days, especially for teenagers, to see their parents as the villains. There's no way around it: Asian parents are controlling and hard to please. In the book, Baba and Mama are like any parents; they're deeply involved in their daughter's life, watching her pull away from them, and they're anxious about it. They are bossy, determined, protective, and concerned. And man, do they work hard. Because if there's one defining factor I can say about Chinese parents, it's that they are the hardest workers in the world. Emily's wavering identity puts a strain on her relationship with her parents.
Her internal debate is manifested through her perceived need to choose between her American boyfriend and her Chinese parents. For Chinese-Americans, there's sort of a weird dichotomy of feeling ashamed of your "backward" upbringing and also feeling the need to defend it when people misunderstand it. The truth is, Chinese culture is complex, neither better nor worse than American culture, but it is really hard for young people who are finding themselves to realize that.
The book does a great job of giving the reader a true sense of Emily's personality and attitude by intermingling a series of childhood memories to show how they have shaped her present self. The great thing is many of the stories are probably universally relatable to Chinese-Americans growing up. My mom packs my dad's lunch every day for work, and I remember how he used to say people would twist their noses at the food in his lunchbox because they hadn't seen it before and therefore thought it must be disgusting. I never packed lunches to school for that reason; I don't like having to defend my food. My mom used to sew my clothes in junior high, and people would poke fun of the way I dressed. Emily experiences a similar moment and how the feeling of pride in her mother's needlework was overshadowed by the shame that came from her classmates' teasing. The pain of walking home from the bus stop and having stupid, young boys pull at the corners of their eyes and say things like "flat-face" and "yellow" is not something a child can easily forget, and unfortunately, it is reasonably common, even now. The pressure of fitting in can drive young Chinese-Americans to want to reject part of their identity, and I think that's an incredibly sad thing that becomes something those people come to regret later in life.
I hope there are more books that show the Asian-American teenage experience, because it is a difficult and confusing time, especially when navigated alone. Even if you are not Asian, at its core, the book is about the desire to be "normal" and the fear of standing out. Everyone, at some point in their lives, wants to fit in. For some people it is easier than for others. If you have ever been torn between two groups, whether they are social cliques, cultures, or something else, this is a book you will feel for and enjoy.
Next time — Asian-American self image