THERE ARE SCENES in Child of the Owl by Laurence Yep that will make every Chinese-American child gasp with recognition. "Hey! That happened to me. I did that I say that," the young reader will say, and be glad that a writer set it down, and feel comforted, less eccentric, less alone.
I remember at Chinese school I wrote English phonics alongside the Chinese words, just as Casey Young, the 12-year-old heroine, does. She has been thrown into Chinese school and San Francisco Chinatown after years of wandering with her vagabond gambler father. My classmates and I used English phonics when we were about 12 also, not because the lessons were getting harder and longer, and we needed a short-cut if we were to keep up in Chinese school and also work at the stores and laundries and also finish the ever-increasing homework from American school.
As in Child of the Owl, the Chinese teacher walked up and down the aisles and made us erase our English sounds. Laurence Yep sympathizes with kids who invent ingenious phonetic systems and are then made to feel like cheaters. He even suggests that a phonetic system might be a very sensible way of teaching Chinese. Ironically, if you ever take Chinese in college, you find that you learn the Romanization first, and the ideographs last.
Another scene with which second, third-and fourth-generation Chinese-Americans will identify is the painful one in which Casey young shops in Chinatown for a dinner for her grandmother. Since she can only speak English, the Chinese push ahead of her, try to charge her extra, won't fill her orders properly, and say, "Native-born, no brains." Casey realizes they are treating her "like a tourist." Laurence Yep explains compassionately:
"The middle-aged clerk picked up and old towel and began wiping at the grease on the steel shelf. 'Back in China,' he explained, 'all the time people they gotta push and push because things so crowded. They come over here. They doan understand they supposed wait their turn.' . . .
"It was like the Chinese were a bunch of people stuck inside a litte forest grove and every day a bunch of American owls came over and dumped on them. And then one day and owl wandered into the middle of the grove and the people got a chance to get even for everything the owls ever did to them by dumping on that one owl."
Like all good children's books, Child of the Owl can enrich an adult's life too. I had thought I was the only person with a mother who leaves the radio dial always on the station with "The Chinese Hour," afraid of losing the Chinese voices and music. Now I see that Paw-Paw, Casey's wonderful grandmother, who gives her her name and her past, handles machinery in the same way. Laurence Yep sees the old people as cleary as he sees the children: "All of them would at some time sit and stare emptily at the traffic passing by on the street below as if they were lost inside their own memories, trying to understand how they found themselves old and alone, sitting on a bench - with the look of people who had been left behind on some grassy shore when the ship had sailed. Only it was more than an ocean they had to cross, it was time and space itself."
Along with the sadness, Child of the Owl makes us laugh with familiarity.Casey Young wears her sweat shirt and jeans aggressively, and I realize that in middle age, I use the same weapons to fight stereotyping. I posed for the cover of my own book in a sweat shirt to deny "exotic." It did not work; there were critics who insisted on assessing whether or not my book was "exotic" and "inscrutable."
Perhaps in order to write straight, an "ethnic" writer needs to ignore the temptation to shock readers out of stereotypes. If we explain every misconception and joke, we would lose sight of our own original visions, and an explained joke loses all its humor. You need to know just the point at which to stop the explanations, and let the readers figure out things for themselves. Usually Laurence Yep knows where that point is as he just tells enough about the Eight Immortals to whet the appetite; just enough about Paw-Paw's piece work in the garment industry; just enough about the cramed apartments and the sense of neighborhood in Chinatown; just enough to ally a child's fears. The book does not get weighted down with exposition for non-Chinese-American readers! I liked it very much when an adult tells Casey that the reason people hand their clothes up on their balconies is that in Hong Kong they use laundry for curtains. We can decide for ourselves whether the adult is telling the truth or putting her on. I found the lightness at this point in Yep's writing very daring.
There are a few instances, however, when he succumbs to too facile solutions to stereotype-busting. A style currently popular among young Chinese-American writers is the hipster voice, a reaction - perhaps an over-reaction - against the stereotypical unctuous Confucius-say voice. At the beginning of the book Casey Young is a hip little kook like the heroines in American movie - throughout the book, one of Casey Young's main references is the movies - which give individuality to women by characterizing them as odd-balls, like Streisand characters, like Lize Minelli characters. Barney and Casey Young remind me immediately of Ryan and Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon. Fortunately, as Casey grows up, she wisecracks less, and she does seem to find new ways of speaking.
Laurence Yep himself has at least two voices, and I was enchanted that he tells a story-within-a-story about the owl totem of the Young family. It disconcerted me, however, when he adds an afterword in which the "I" is no longer Casey Young as in the rest of the book but apparently the author. He tells us that he has not actually seen an owl charm nor heard the owl story but made them up himself. Now in that afterword I believe Laurence Yep to be anticipating those critics - both Caucasian and Chinese-American - who will question whether his work is "typical" of the rest of us Chinese-Americans. So to all those ethnocentric villagers, he in effect says, "No, I'm not misrepresenting Chinese customs. This is fiction." Good art is always singular, always one-of-a-kind, and an artist certainly has the right to make things up to write fiction - but somehow we expect Chinese-American in a way we do not expect of Caucasian-American writers. I hope that when more of our work gets into print that this burden - "Speak for me! Speak for me!" - we lay on each of our writers who gets published will become lighter. Laurence Yep has written a lovely novel that needs no apologies.