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  • Living in Two Cultures:Bette Bao Lord's Stories of Chinese-American Experience
  • Roni Natov (bio)

My grandmother was a Polish immigrant who came here at the age of 16 and, my mother proudly insists, spoke not a word of Polish from the moment she stepped foot on American soil. She tried all her life to lose all trace of her European accent, to sound as American as possible. As children, we all thought her very brave, which she was, however self-denying or -rejecting. For the immigrant today, total assimilation is not regarded as necessarily positive. Economic opportunity and access into middle class respectability, we have learned, is possible without a total rejection of our ethnic roots. The great fantasy of immigrants —that they would be comfortably assimilated into the American melting pot —was somewhat undermined with the questioning of the American dream during the '60s and '70s by anti-war groups, feminist activists, black and Hispanic separatists, and by the American Indian movement. With the popularizing of Alex Haley's Roots, many young people began embracing their ethnic heritage. As Thomas C. Wheeler noted in 1971, in his collection of essays, The Immigrant Experience, "The blandness and massiveness in American life is not only proving ethnic identity more necessary but more attractive, an oasis of identity" (14). And today we find, along with pockets of relatively homogeneous communities of older immigrants who have clung to their own tastes and customs, a renewed interest in ethnicity among young people.

For the young American minorities of today, the issue of how to integrate the past with the present, how to take what is nourishing from the old community and establish new bonds by forming peer communities, is essential to the questions about identity that face all youth -about defining self and other, and about the values they inherit from their families, those they accept and those they reject. How can they find their own unique voices and still be part of a community?

How to translate all this for young children is the crucial question for Bette Bao Lord, who immigrated to the United States from China when she was eight years old, close to the age of the heroine of her autobiographical novel for children, In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. According to Lord, "Many feel that loss of one's [End Page 38] native culture is the price one must pay for becoming an American. I do not feel this way. I think we hyphenated Americans are doubly blessed. We can choose the best of both."1 This optimistic statement feels facile, almost simplistic when I think of Maxine Hong Kingston's chronicle of her violent struggle to integrate her Chinese heritage with her American peer culture in The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. But because Lord's book is written for seven- to ten-year-olds, the optimism which informs this book and its resolutions feels appropriate. The heroine learns in the course of a year how to retain her Chinese identity and to assimilate into Brooklyn life of the '40s, as the title suggests. Interestingly, the process —how this actually happened in this fictionalized account of the author's own experience, and the problems raised by the clash of these two cultures —faithfully mirrors, on a child's level, that struggle depicted in The Woman Warrior.

Lord's story begins right before the Chinese New Year: "In the Year of the Dog, 4645, there lived halfway across the world from New York a girl called Sixth Cousin. Otherwise known as Bandit" (1). The fairytale style and the mythic structure of the 12 chapters, each a month in the year span of the novel, prepare us for the happy ending we, along with children, have come to expect from fairy-tale narratives. As the Year of the Dog gives way to the Year of the Boar, Bandit learns that she and her mother are to immigrate to America to join her father and live there. To Bandit, America, the land of gold streets and movie stars, is also the uncivilized world where, according to her clan in China, you dodge the...


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pp. 38-46
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