Article by Malcolm Aquino
Gus Lee’s China Boy opens with our protagonist, Kai Ting, getting the ass kicking of a lifetime from the local bully, Big Willie Mack. Kai Ting is the only Chinese boy in the Panhandle section of San Francisco, a predominantly black neighborhood. He’s had a hard time adjusting to the American life his father speaks so highly of. His mother has taught him in traditional Chinese ways. He must avoid violence, never start fights, and never bring harm to other, unless he wants his qi to diminish and doom his ancestors to a life of suffering in the spirit plane. Kai Ting is the youngest of four and is the first and only son of the Ting clan. Kai Ting also has the privilege (to the rest of his family) of being the first Ting born on American soil. Kai Ting never feels American while simultaneously not feeling Chinese. Both his Shanghainese and English are terrible, often mixing together into some sort of dialect that only he really understands. He loves French fries almost as much as he loves dumplings. This struggle of discovering cultural identity plays a pivotal role in Kai Ting’s growth through the novel.
To understand Kai Ting, we must go to his origin story. His father, called TK or The Colonel by locals, is an ex-Kuomintang solider trained by the U.S. military. It is through the training that TK nurtures his infatuation with American ideals and culture. He comes from the monied class of China, although his family has lost much of its wealth due to his father’s crippling opium addiction. TK is disillusioned with China and its culture. He often criticizes things like face, guanxi and the rejection of foreign cultures that are prevalent during the time of the novel. He wants nothing more than to bring up his family in the American culture and abandon Chinese culture. Oddly enough, he is not a hardcore Nationalist supporter, even going so far as saying that they and the Communists are pretty much the same.
Kai Ting’s mother, also a Shanghai elite, is a very traditional and superstitious woman, following most old Chinese traditions. However, she also has a Western education, is a practicing Christian (sometimes) and loves American movies. She has a special bond with her father, who was her entire life before she got married to TK. She finds lots of things in U.S. vulgar, strange and nonsensical, and she teaches Kai Ting all of the customs and cultural rules of China. She is especially overbearing of Kai Ting, always making him do all sorts of strange things that will, as she puts it, “give him good karma.” She also only speaks to Kai Ting in Shanghainese, refusing to allow her children to lose who they are. She also keeps a box of books, letter, photos, and other things that she brought with her on the Ting exodus from China.
The Tings, as Kai finds out, are not all that different from the other families in the Panhandle. Many of the black people who call the Panhandle home are also refugees, escaping the racist horrors of Jim Crow in the South. They too, had to give up everything to come to a new land and make a living. He learns that fighting is just a part of growing up and becoming a man to many black children. After much internal struggle and a particularly nasty pummeling involving a girl and a trash can, a local Mexican mechanic and war vet named Hector Pueblo convinces Kai’s father to pay for boxing lessons at the YMCA.
Kai Ting’s time at the YMCA is his journey into self-discovery. He is at first apprehensive and completely terrified of boxing. Everyone is bigger, stronger, and faster than he is. He has no killer instinct, none of the anger that comes from being a down and out minority in the United States. He learns that not everyone is out to hurt him, and that there are quite a lot of great people in this “Beautiful Country,” as it is called in Chinese. He also learns that there are quite a lot of people like him, with one foot in American culture and one in another. He learns there is nothing wrong with doing things from both sides. You don’t have to be completely Chinese or completely American. His father also becomes very conflicted with this notion, as he learns himself, that even someone who loathes Chinese culture as much as he does, he can never really shake a lot of the things he does and says that make him Chinese in the eyes of others.
Though this is a work of fiction, Kai Ting’s story is anything but far-fetched. The Chinese are the third largest immigrant group in the United States, behind Mexicans and Indians. Many of them have roots in Guangdong, Fujian, and Hong Kong, first coming to the United States as laborers and prospectors during the California Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental railroad. There is a Chinatown in pretty much every major city in the U.S. The Chinese are so ingrained in the American DNA that the U.S. has its own form of Chinese food, evolving to the palates of non-Chinese. While many of the Chinese immigrants are well established in the U.S., there has been a recent upsurge of new Chinese immigrants. With China’s newfound wealth, Chinese parents are sending their kids to study abroad. Chinese international students are the highest population of international students in the U.S. and growing steadily.
While the novel is painted through the eyes of a Chinese boy, Kai Ting’s story really isn’t unique to Chinese immigrants. His story is the story of millions of families who came to the United States to seek a better life or to escape whatever nightmare was consuming their homeland at the time. His struggle of cultural identity is one that every American immigrant or child of immigrants faces, with one side on each side of the fence. The desire to assimilate and just be an American is something that all first- and second-generation kids must deal with. If there were ever an example of a truly “American” novel, China Boy would be the one.
Malcolm Aquino has been exploring China for the last two years. If there is beautiful scenery and delicious food, chances are he’s been there.