American Born Chinese; review

American Born Chinese; by Gene Luen Yang

Review by Mark Anderson

Yang, Gene L. American Born Chinese. 01st ed. N.p.: New York and London, 2006. Print.

American Born Chinese is a uniquely written illustrated novel. It has three parallel stories: central is the story of Jin Wang the son of Chinese immigrants that has an identity crises and internal conflicts with peer pressure to conform. Second is an allegory of the Monkey King. And third is a story of Danny who has a very strange cousin from China who visits annually. These three stories converge in the final chapter to resolve as Jin matures. The Monkey King allegory teaches the principle upon which true self-acceptance is based and which Jin must learn. The story of Danny shows an alternative life in which Jin gets to be transformed into what he desires, but it cost him his soul, as foretold by the herbalist’s wife. The novel is well crafted and deserves careful thoughtful reading.

The central story of Jin and the peer pressure in school shows that he is stereotyped and oppressed by the Anglo culture. Then the story of cousin Chin Kee uses hyperbolic stereotype to the point that it is kind of repulsive. The issue of racial stereo typing is confronted, but confronted in a sort of backhanded method. At this point we wonder if the author is confronting or encouraging racist stereotyping. We may question if this book is valid for a young audience because they may not understand the sarcastic irony. The key to understanding the author’s intention is the way the Anglo oppressors are portrayed. Their indulgence in racism is portrayed as negative. The teacher who introduces Jin as a new student is portrayed as grossly ignorant. A student comments that his mother has told him that Chinese eat dogs. As Jin is being bullied at lunch the boys say “Let’s leave bucktooth alone so he can enjoy Lassie” (33). Since the author does cast a negative light on stereotyping then we confidently interpret him as being anti-racist, and encourage young readership.

This story can be classified as a didactic-allegory which is the traditional purpose of allegory. It is a classic approach because it teaches in way that we do not realize we’ve been taught until it’s upon us. To varying degrees the struggle for self-identity is universal. As I read this as an adult I still have my own challenges with being secure in my identity. If I had read this and understood it as a teen it may have really helped my growth. The values presented in this book are based upon self-acceptance that is granted to all people by an authority that is greater than the false authority imposed by peer pressure.

The author uses allusion to Biblical literature and symbolism which give it a profound depth. In the second section of the Monkey King story (pg 68 – 71) a wise old sage with a shepherd’s crook appears and asks the Monkey King why he is so angry. The Monkey King resents being called a monkey but the sage claims that he is actually his creator. This infuriates the Monkey King even more and a struggle begins. Several allusions to Psalm 139 of the Bible are made with a quotation that makes an important point, “It was I who formed your inmost being, I who knit you together in the womb of that rock. I made you with awe and wonder, for wonderful are all my works.” (80). Yang teaches us the Biblical principle of self-acceptance that is based upon being accepted by the ultimate authority – our Creator. Psalm 139, especially the first 18 verses, has comforted many people who feel out of place or like a social misfit, or people who are objects of discrimination and oppression from other humans. It has taught many people that there is deep serenity in finding our place as creatures before our Creator.

My best friend in high school was second generation American of Japanese heritage. At that time I didn’t understand the depth of his difficulties in being secure in his identity among the peer pressure of American culture. I wish this book was available for my friend during his teen years. This book can help us all understand the oppressive nature of racism and help those oppressed claim the dignity that is rightfully theirs as bestowed by their Creator.

Copyright; Mark Anderson 2014

Works Cited

Yang, Gene L. American Born Chinese. 01st ed. N.p.: New York and London, 2006. Print.


Everyday Use by Alce Walker; a review

Link to a PDF of the text of “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker: Everyday Use

Contrast and Irony Used to Reveal Cultural Conflict

In “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker

            A mother has two daughters. Fate has dealt them very different cards and choices have been made that have taken them down very different roads. Their characters have changed so much that they are almost not recognizable as sisters. Alice walker tells a story from a mother’s point of view of a visit from her daughter Dee, who moved away to go to school and comes to represent many qualities of another culture foreign to her heritage. These qualities are contrasted with her sister Maggie who has remained at home and represents many enduring qualities of her heritage. The mother represents a rich heritage available to both daughters, but embraced by only one, and cast aside by the other. Walker begins itemizing a list of traits that are associated with one culture; power, privilege, and racism, that are in contrast to another culture; true beauty, sincerity and respect. The contrast between the daughters represents much more than sibling rivalry. The contrast is between two rival world systems.

To read the complete review please see the page with the same title listed in the right hand side bar. It is a bit too long for my main blog and I like the page feature that keeps things in one permanent location.


Emily Dickinson’s #322

 

Symbolism and Natural Reading in Emily Dickinson’s #322

A close reading by Mark Anderson

 

            There came a Day at Summer’s full,                           1

            Entirely for me –                                                         2

            I thought that such were for the Saints,                     3         

            Where Resurrections – be ­–                                        4

 

            The Sun, as common, went abroad,                            5

            The flowers, accustomed, blew,                                 6

            As if no soul the solstice passed                                 7

            That maketh all things new –                                      8

 

            The time was scarce profaned, by speech –                9

            The symbol of a word                                                 10

            Was needless, as a Sacrament,                                    11

            The Wardrobe – of our Lord –                                   12

 

            Each was to each The Sealed Church,                        13

            Permitted to commune this – time –                           14       

            Lest we too awkward show                                        15

            At Supper of the Lamb.                                              16

 

            The Hours slid fast – as Hours will,                            17

            Clutched tight, by greedy hands –                             18

            So faces on two Decks, look back,                             19

            Bound to opposing lands –                                         20

 

            And so when all the time had leaked,                                    21

            Without external sound                                              22

            Each bound the Other’s Crucifix –                             23

            We gave no other bond –                                            24

 

            Sufficient troth, that we shall rise –                            25

            Deposed – at length, the Grave –                               26

            To that new Marriage,                                                 27

            Justified – through Calvaries of Love –                     28

 

(Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems reference numbers added)

 For a close reading of this poem see the page listed in the right side bar “Eamily Dickinson’s #322; a close reading.”

 


book review: Holes; Curses and Hope

Holes; by Louis Sachar

Curses and Hope

Sachar, Louis. Holes. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print.

            This story is about Stanley Yelnats (Yelnats is Stanley in reverse) and his family curse. Stanley is spending time at a youth rehabilitation camp where he and his newly acquired comrades come to terms with a very harsh life but also find incredible sweetness in life when curses are broken. Stanley claims to be innocent of his crime and was just in the wrong place at the wrong time because of an old curse on his family, “It was all because of his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather!” (7). He explains this as the family joke, “he had a great-great-grandfather who had stolen a pig from a one-legged Gypsy, and she put a curse on him and all his descendants” (8). This story is more deeply about a universal curse upon all of humanity, viewing all of humanity as wasting away, vainly digging holes; “When you spend your whole life living in a hole, the only way you can go is up” (160). But the story is also about hope.

            Some of us might personally identify with the characters of this story as; young and in need of maturity, social misfits, and with a background of family curses. This becomes most obvious in the story of Stanley’s friend Zero. The Gypsy’s name was Madam Zeroni, coincidentally the family name of Zero. The name Zero implies someone who has been discarded by society as worthless, “No one cares about Hector Zeroni” (144). We are told the story of his childhood and desperate plight of his mother and how he eventually is abandoned and becomes homeless. This is Zero’s curse but all of the characters have their own version of a curse.

            There is a strong sub-theme of showing racism as evil, or as a curse upon society. Stanley’s companions at camp are not initially identified by their race. They are first described by their character, which is really profound considering our culture’s inclination to describe people first by the category of color. In chapters 25 and 26 we are told the story of the white school teacher Katherine Barlow (who later becomes outlaw Kate Barlow) and her love affair with the black man Sam who sells onions. When a town person sees the two kiss she curses them, “She pointed a quivering finger in their direction and whispered, ‘God will punish you!’” (111). After Sam is killed and Kate turns outlaw the narrator says, “All that happened one hundred and ten years ago. Since then, not one drop of rain has fallen on Green Lake. You make the decision: Whom did God punish?” (115). The issue of racism is significant and is related to the larger theme of curse and blessing.

            The story is a skillfully woven triplet of stories: an old tale of Stanley’s ancestor, the “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-granfather,” who brings a curse on his heirs, a story of a more recent great grandfather who gets robbed by outlaw Kissing Kate Barlow, and Stanley’s story. Sachar’s artistic use of symbolism and allegory make this a fascinating book. I interpret the older story of the original curse as an allusion to the Biblical story of Adam’s sin and the curse brought on humanity, “cursed is the ground for your sake” (Genesis 3). However Stanley and his friends may have acquired their problems, the problems are portrayed as a curse or affliction. In all three stories there is reference to a mystical river that flows against gravity, “the water runs uphill” (30,110). The symbolism of a supernatural river cannot be ignored. I view this as the author’s intentional reference to something spiritual, a reference to the life of God provided for humanity. The Bible uses this symbolism as a theme from beginning to end; rivers that flows out of Eden (Genesis), a river that flows out of a temple (Ezekiel), the river that flows from Jesus (John). I see a very strong allusion to the Biblical drama of mankind’s desperate situation and hope offered to mankind through the work of Jesus to break the power of the old curse and offer life.

            If my interpretation proves too subjective then the story still carries a very valuable message for readers. As Stanley is searching for the water they reach a point of despair, “Big Thumb was his only hope. If there was no water, no refuge, then they’d have nothing, not even hope.” (167). The message of hope is desperately needed and is incredibly healing for young people-all people! This book has a special gift for young people; it shows that being judged by society’s values or being discarded by society is not the end of the story. It shows that curses can be broken.

            I talk to young people weekly, who are incarcerated in our city’s detention center. These teens have family histories that are beyond belief to many people. I have talked to teens whose fathers were killed in gang violence. This week I talked to five teen boys. One said his parents do care about him and he will be glad to go home. Another said his parents are both in jail. One said his parents don’t want him back. Two others were very distant from their families and don’t have any connection with their father. Both of these will go into programs, vaguely similar to Camp Green Lake. The boys were all familiar with Holes. We had a great talk about the concept of having a cursed life and the hope that we can have a new life free from our past. The message of hope is incredibly valuable and Sachar has presented this message beautifully.

 


poor in spirit

Jesus says in the introduction to his Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 5-7) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is the primary premise, and the basis of all that will follow. It is the gospel because it proclaims that those who do not deserve heaven can get in!

You may have heard that heaven is something to be earned. Many religions teach, and many people live their lives believing that we must prove ourselves to God. We may assume a kind of Darwinist view of spirituality; survival of the fittest, only the fittest, who deserve heaven, get in. Religions may teach that those who are really worthy, who pay their money, go to church and stuff like that, will enter the kindom of heaven. I’ve heard people dogmatically proclaim that there is nothing free in this life. The doctrine of karma may be like this; we get exactly what our deeds deserve. But Jesus does a reversal, he proclaims that those who do not deserve heaven can get in. This is amazing, and this is why Jesus is so radical. This is why people follow him.

This principle of Jesus means that we can come before God just as we are with no pretense. We come boldly before his throne of grace, we come to the cross for forgiveness. When we see a poor person begging beside the road they are not offering to give us something, they are asking for mercy. When we come to God we are just hitch-hikers catching a ride on Jesus. This is not my assertion or me devising an easy way, it is the rule of Jesus and the way his kingdom works. It is the way I came to God many years ago, and the way I come today.

And what is the kindom of heaven? First and most important, it is relationship with the King. Then it is being wherever he is. There is a large section on the Sermon on the Mount on my blog Ancient Path (see tab at top of page).


The least likely

The Least Likely

The teacher grabbed me by the hair of my head and shook me, lifting me out of my seat. When she let go she had a fist full of blond hair to throw away. I was seven years old, in the second grade at Lincoln Elementary school. It is difficult to recall exactly what I did to provoke this teacher. I vaguely remember using my newly acquired cuss words to her, “you ass”, “fuck”, and she just lost it. My cussing really had nothing to do with the teacher. It was a reflection of what was going on at my home. Obviously even at age seven I had some anger issues going on. I do remember what home was like that year, and I was definitely developing a juvenile anger reservoir.

During the remaining years in elementary school I didn’t get in much trouble. But in 7th and 8th grade the young hormones started to kick in and I started to act out. I seemed to choose friends who also had a large dose of anger. I engaged in various sorts of teenage deviant behavior, some of it self-destructive, like drugs. But my anger at authority probably characterized my attitude the most. The first time I was arrested at age 15, I was breaking into a school to vandalize it. At the time I was not self-conscious about my anger. But many years later looking back I realized it as the source of much of my crazy behavior.

I remember walking up the street and seeing an axe leaning against a wood pile, I grabbed it and went on up the road with no plan for it. But then I saw a beautiful white fence, the kind you might see in a painting, around a grassy field with horses grazing peacefully, and I just tore into that fence knocking it to pieces. It was sick! I didn’t even know that person who owned the fence and they had never done anything wrong to me. But I made a mess of their beautiful fence.

One morning a teacher called my house. She was crying when she talked with my dad. She said that she couldn’t face her class one more day if I was in it. My dad talked with me and straightened me out. I knew the class was a lot of fun because my best buddies were all in it together. But I had never thought of myself as the instigator of trouble.

I and my friends used to skip school and go hang out in Millcreek Canyon. Actually I have good memories of happy times living pretty carefree, kind of like Tom and Huck. We didn’t really cause any trouble, just wanted to hang out by the stream, be outside. But on one of our longer day hikes we started exploring some old mine shafts and I found a stack of dynamite. I took home about 20 sticks. Wow, what a find for a boy, this was big time! Imagine Bart Simpson with dynamite and you can get the idea. I made an attempt at the ultimate signature vandalism that could have been spectacular; blowing up the pedestrian bridge behind the school. One problem, there were no blasting caps with the dynamite so it wouldn’t go off. I tried several methods but always they resulted in the fuse just going fizz. I sincerely wished the stuff would blow, just once, like in the movies. But it did not,

THANK GOD!

I got kicked out of that school and was allowed to attend the brand new Cottonwood High School. From the first day there was something good watching over me there. The principal befriended me. I think he knew I was having problems and he asked if I wanted an afternoon job at the elementary school as janitor assistant. I did it, and it was good for me. I did nothing wrong. I just went to work every day and stayed out of trouble. There were also other adults in the school, teachers, who saw past my attitude, and treated me pretty good. And a neighborhood police officer that was kind and respectable. Sometimes I would get some unexpected praise for something artistic I had done. I got A’s in woodshop; even though I got kicked out of class more than once.

One day the principal caught me smoking behind the school. He said he would have to suspend me from school. I told him the absolute truth, my father had just left home to move in with his girlfriend and my mother would not be able to take the stress right now. I asked him to consider another option and he found a remedy without involving my mother.

A few months later, just before graduation, the principal called me into his office. He said that the Salt Lake Tribune was coming to take pictures of graduates to be published in the graduation edition. Since my name placed me near the top of the alphabetical order he asked if I would represent Cottonwood High as the first graduate in the newspaper. I was not the actual first graduate. There were many fine honorable students that the principal could have chosen to represent the school. But that good man chose me, one of the least likely, least deserving scoundrels, to receive that honor. It reminds me of the saying of Jesus regarding who gets into heaven, “Those who are first will be last but those who are last will be first.”

My life did not change immediately. But within a year I did come to Christ and then life changed a lot. I’ve never been in trouble with the law since. I’ve never vandalized anything since. I quit illegal drugs and I’ve never returned to them. I still get angry, sometimes deeply angry. But I believe I have a place to turn with that now. After 30+ years as a carpenter I’ve returned to school, and I love it! And I always show respect to my teachers. I also tutor kids who are slow readers at an elementary school. I think maybe some may be having some struggles at home.


Land of opps

California is without a doubt the land of opportunity for those with creativity and guts. In Southern California, 1963, my dad noticed there were no shoe shine boys in the town we had moved to. In all the big cities there were plenty of shoe shine boys, usually black kids standing out on a busy corner hawking their trade next to the paper boys. My dad put me up to my first job, shoe shine. He told me how to build a box to carry my waxes, brushes and snap towel. He also instructed me the right price to ask to ensure I would always get tips.

I started one beautiful Saturday morning riding my bike into town with my shine box hanging over my shoulder. I stood on a corner and didn’t have to call out or anything, men just started lining up for their shoe shine. Then I went to the car lot where my dad worked and about a dozen salesmen, including the owner, all had their shoes shined. One thing my father had neglected to instruct me on was the finer aspects of the art of shoe shining. My problem as a novice was that I would get wax above the shoes onto the people’s socks. It didn’t show much on dark socks but boy if a guy had white sox it was a mess! After a short day of work I rode my bike over to the bank and opened my first bank account. The friendly tellers seemed quite amused, but gladly made my deposit. This was really an incredible day for a ten year old boy.

I continued this Saturday job until we moved to another city a few months later. There is one thing my mother said that I will never forget. She said that one of our relatives had commented that they thought it was shameful that I would be doing that kind of job.


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