Negotiating Asian American Childhood in the Twenty-First Century:Grace Lin’s Year of the Dog, Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days
The idea of the “model minority” continues to haunt mainstream perceptions of Asian Americans in the United States. As Asian American theorists have observed, this stereotype is primarily one of containment: it describes qualities of docility and acceptance of American cultural norms and of minority status within American society. Yet it is also an indicator of national anxieties about what Lisa Lowe calls the “unfixed liminality of the Asian immigrant—geographically, linguistically, and racially at odds with the context of the ‘national’” (19). Like the older idea of the “yellow peril,” the model minority speaks to the fears that dominant society has constructed around a supposedly inassimilable other. For Asian Americans, often viewed within the United States as perpetual foreigners, these fears are tied not only to the civil rights demands of other minority groups within the United States, but also to U.S. economic anxieties with respect to Asia.1
In the twenty-first century, the myth of the model minority is increasingly embodied by the figure of the Asian American child, who has become a focal point for U.S. concerns about the emerging dominance of Asia (particularly China) in the global economy. News outlets frequently compare children’s test scores in Asia and the United States as indicators of the regions’ economic futures, and the anxiety created by these comparisons is reflected in popular considerations of Asian American children and whether or not they “out-perform” white children in school. Recent examples of this “Asian panic” include the media firestorm that followed the publication of Amy Chua’s memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011) and a 2011 viral YouTube rant by a white student at UCLA complaining about “hordes of Asian people” invading the campus. In the first case, a memoir and parenting guide claiming the superiority of “Chinese parenting” over [End Page 106] “Western parenting” sold over a million copies in its first few months of publication and unleashed a tremendous and polarized response across the United States. In the second, a racist YouTube clip denouncing the presence of Asians and Asian Americans on a university campus not only garnered more than a million hits worldwide (many of which, undoubtedly, were critical), but, as scholar Mitchell James Chang observes, was posted with the kind of impunity that suggests that “her opinions were not just abruptly contrived by a single student gone wild, but actually emerged from a broader educational context … whereby Asians are negatively racialized.” In both cases, Asian American children and students are portrayed in competition with white students in a zero-sum game for increasingly scarce U.S. jobs and resources. Their educational achievement is not only taken as a given, but is considered solely as a factor of race, rather than along with other categories such as class, education of parents, or geographic location within the United States. Such media portrayals reinforce previous stereotypes of Asian Americans as the yellow peril and the model minority, a threat by virtue of their (race-based) educational success.
Asian American children’s literature plays a vital role in addressing, mediating, and contesting dominant representations of Asian American children in popular culture. In their introduction to a special issue of The Lion and the Unicorn, Delores de Manuel and Rocío Davis describe the power of Asian American children’s literature to combat the invisibility of “real” Asian Americans in popular culture, an invisibility due in large part to their overshadowing by popular stereotypes. De Manuel and Davis mention the identical, inscrutable features of Asian characters in children’s classics like The Five Chinese Brothers, the nonsensical “Chinese” of Rikki Tikki Tembo, and the martial arts and Fu Manchu-type villains in movies like the Karate Kid franchise (viii). Recent Asian American children’s literature also contests the model minority myth and its manifestation within the figure of the Asian American child. In this essay, I address the ways in which Grace Lin’s semiautobiographical children’s novels The Year of the Dog (2007), The Year of the Rat (2009), and Dumpling Days (2012) negotiate the complex terrain of Asian American identity in the twenty-first century. Specifically, I examine how Lin’s work counters the dominant construction of the Asian American child as a threat to white American educational achievement, the product of a monolithic Asian “culture,” and an embodiment of the U.S.’s decline in the global economy.
P Is for Pacy: Claiming America for Asian American Children
Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog, The Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days are children’s books based on the life of the author, as suggested by the name [End Page 107] of their protagonist, Grace “Pacy” Lin. Pacy is a Taiwanese American girl growing up in upstate New York; her experiences are extrapolated from Lin’s own childhood and occasionally updated to include contemporary references, such as “4D” technology (DD 7), with the result that Pacy is both “real” and modern, addressing Asian American identity from an autobiographical standpoint and from the perspective of children today. The character Pacy appears in the so-called “Pacy books” (The Year of the Dog and its sequels), as well as in a number of Lin’s other works, including the picture books The Ugly Vegetables (1999) and Dim Sum for Everyone (2003). However, in recent years, the Pacy books have been overshadowed by the runaway success of Lin’s critically acclaimed Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (2009), a magical novel that draws on Chinese folktales to tell the story of a young girl in a timeless Chinese past.2 Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was named a 2010 Newbery Honor book and is regularly featured on classroom and library reading lists. Lin herself has credited the Newbery Honor for making her less of a “niche” writer for Asian American girls. She explains: “Since I won the Newbery Honor, I’ve felt like I’m able to reach many more readers. I’m very proud of being a multicultural author and illustrator, but for the first time I felt like the ‘multicultural’ adjective wasn’t as important. Now, after winning, it was more about ‘Grace Lin, author and illustrator’ than ‘Grace Lin, multicultural author and illustrator’” (Lin, “Q&A”).
The fact that an award given to an Asian-themed novel can move an author into the mainstream, whereas Asian American-themed books cannot, may reflect trends in primary and secondary education, specifically a “touristmulticultural” approach to race and ethnicity that emphasizes learning about traditional cultures rather than the contemporary lives or actual histories of people who identify with that culture. Education scholar and activist Louise Derman-Sparks defines a tourist-multicultural curriculum as one that disconnects, trivializes, or misrepresents ethnic groups by introducing diversity through the “visiting” of “other” cultures, whether through holiday celebrations or exotic images of traditional life; according to Derman-Sparks, these curricula do not give children the tools they need to actively counteract bias in their own lives (Derman-Sparks 8). In K-12 schools, the tourist-multicultural curriculum can be seen in popular selections of ethnic American texts; even though schools often seek out Asian-themed texts to fulfill diversity requirements, the texts they select tend to be Chinese rather than Chinese American, or Korean rather than Korean American. Asian-themed texts written by Asian American authors may also perform important functions for ethnic American children; as Lin points out, the Chinese protagonist of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon provides Asian American children with a fairy tale alternative to the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Cinderella (“Q&A”). Yet [End Page 108] for both Asian American and non-Asian American children, the Pacy books also make significant contributions to contemporary children’s literature. According to Patricia Chu, Asian American narratives serve a dual purpose, both to claim America for Asian Americans and to engage in “scrutinizing or rewriting accounts of Asian ethnicities received from Asian or American sources” (7). Lin’s The Year of the Dog, The Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days accomplish both aims; they claim America for the Asian American Pacy, and they also scrutinize and counter model minority myths about Asian American children in the United States.
The Pacy novels are written for young school-aged children; the School Library Journal categorizes them as ideal for grades 2–5, but they may be (and are in actuality) read by children in kindergarten to middle school (“Year”). According to Lin, the novels are modeled on Carolyn Haywood’s classic children’s book “B” Is for Betsy (1939) and its sequels, which follow the white American Betsy through her school, neighborhood, and home life. Lin writes, “When I read those books, it was as if I was wrapped in a warm hug. I saw all the things that I loved and lived—my neighborhood, my friends, and my school. The only thing I didn’t see was me” (Author’s Note). Like Haywood’s books, The Year of the Dog and its sequels follow Asian American Pacy through her everyday life growing up in suburban upstate New York. They chronicle issues of concern to all elementary school children, such as finding a best friend, dressing up for Halloween, or trying out for the school play. Yet the novels also document the ways in which Asian American identity complicates these issues, as Pacy’s friendships and involvement in school activities are affected by her ethnic and racial identity. When Pacy tries out for the school play, The Wizard of Oz, her friends tell her “Dorothy’s not Chinese” (YOD 70), and she worries that people will laugh at the idea of a Chinese Munchkin (YOD 77).3 Meanwhile, Pacy’s friendships are complicated, first by her instant camaraderie with the only other Asian American girl at the school and later by her insecurity when she meets other Taiwanese American girls who accuse her of being a “Twinkie,” a racial slur suggesting that she is “Americanized … yellow on the outside but white on the inside” (YOD 101). A significant theme throughout the novels is Pacy’s need to negotiate the terrain of school, neighborhood, and home from the perspective of an Asian American child.
This act of rewriting American childhood from an Asian American perspective is emphasized by the novels’ self-referentiality. Like Lin herself, the fictional Pacy is an aspiring writer who wants to know why “nobody in books is Chinese” (YOD 71). After her white friends insist that Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz is not Chinese, Pacy questions the invisibility of Chinese characters in popular culture: “You never see a Chinese person in a movie or [End Page 109] in a play or in a book” (71). Her best friend Melody, who is also Taiwanese American, claims that this is not the case, and to settle the dispute the girls go to the school library to find a “Chinese book.” When they are given The Five Chinese Brothers, Pacy rejects the 1938 children’s “classic” tale by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese featuring yellow, slant-eyed men with queues.4 As is typical in Lin’s novels, Pacy’s criticism of The Five Chinese Brothers remains understated. She simply notes that Melody’s brother does not have a “ponytail” like the characters in the book, and that the book does not contain “real Chinese people” like herself (71). When Melody argues that the book is fictional, Pacy clarifies what she means by a “real Chinese person book”; it is “one with people like us—Chinese-Americans” (72). By distinguishing between fiction and stereotype, Pacy refuses to allow orientalized texts to define her as an Asian American. Rather, she calls for novels that contain realistic depictions of Asian Americans in the contemporary United States (in other words, novels like the ones in which she is a character).
Pacy does not just advocate for such books; she also acts on her ideas. After this incident in the school library, Pacy enters a book-writing contest to fill the gap in realistic depictions of Asian Americans in fiction. In a neat self-referential twist, Pacy’s entry, The Ugly Vegetables, is also the title of Lin’s first picture book, in which a young girl’s embarrassment at her mother’s “ugly” Chinese vegetable garden turns into delight for the whole neighborhood when her mother uses the vegetables to make Chinese soup. With this move, Lin allows young readers to infer that Pacy’s winning entry is also her own: that the story is “true.” Readers can also believe that the adult Lin has realized Pacy’s childhood ambition to write books that feature Chinese Americans. If, as Pacy claims, the invisibility of Chinese Americans in popular culture means “no one Chinese is important” (71), then books such as The Year of the Dog and its sequels provide a rebuttal to that claim, proving that Chinese and Chinese Americans are both important and visible in a way that they were not before.
Not Exactly the Same: Subverting Stereotypes
If one function of the Pacy novels is to rewrite the terrain of American childhood from an Asian American perspective, another is to contest popular representations of Asians in the dominant culture. Lin is vocal about crafting her work in response to stereotyped portrayals of Asian Americans. Her book for beginning readers, Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same! (2010), counters the identical, orientalized brothers in The Five Chinese Brothers by featuring identical Chinese American twins who insist that they are not in fact “the same.” The resonance between these two texts is apparent from [End Page 110] the first page of Ling & Ting. While The Five Chinese Brothers famously begins, “Once upon a time there were Five Chinese Brothers and they all looked exactly alike” (Bishop and Wiese n.pag.), Ling & Ting corrects this misconception: “Ling and Ting are twins. They have the same brown eyes. They have the same pink cheeks. They have the same happy smiles. People see them and they say, ‘You two are exactly the same!’ ‘We are not exactly the same,’ Ling says” (2). Furthermore, Lin’s book dismantles the Western stereotype that “all Asians look alike” without falling into it herself. The Five Chinese Brothers have no reason to look exactly alike, and the illustrations by Kurt Wiese suggest their identical appearance through racial stereotypes: the smiling men are drawn with yellow skin, slits for eyes, curling lines for queues, and their hands tucked in robes. In contrast, Ling and Ting have nearly identical appearances for a nonracial reason: they are identical twins. They have pink cheeks and modern dresses, and in the first chapter the barber slips when cutting Ting’s hair, making them easily distinguishable. In this way, Ling & Ting can be read as a response to the kind of stereotyped portrayal of Asians that was common in Western children’s literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.5
Similarly, Lin’s Pacy books subvert the model minority stereotype by demonstrating the complexity of Asian American identity: to use Lowe’s terminology, they reveal the “heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity” of Asian American subjectivity. Lowe uses these terms to theorize Asian identities in the United States that necessarily exceed dominant, orientalist constructions of Asian Americans. By heterogeneity, she indicates the diversity of generation, class, gender, and national origin among Asian Americans; by hybridity, she refers to the practices produced by situations of colonialism or unequal power relations; and by multiplicity, she indicates the ways in which subject formation occurs along different axes of power, such as race, gender, and capitalism (67). The model minority stereotype depends on a monolithic “Asian” subject, but Pacy’s own experience demonstrates the differences that exist within Asian American communities. Like Lin herself, Pacy is not easily defined, either in terms of ancestry, cultural affiliation, or personal identity. Although she considers herself, at the beginning of The Year of the Dog, to be “the only Chinese girl in the whole elementary school,” she goes on to explain that the term is not technically correct, since her parents come from Taiwan, a country with ambiguous status with respect to China (18). The Lin family’s national origin reflects the heterogeneity of Asian Americans in the United States, even within a broadly defined Chinese American community. To complicate matters further, when Pacy asks her mother what she should say “when people ask me what I am,” her mother replies, “You tell them that you’re American” (YOD 18–19). The issue of ethnic or national [End Page 111] affiliation occurs throughout the Pacy books, as Pacy continues to negotiate her place in America and, when she travels abroad, in Taiwan. Yet despite Pacy’s efforts to reconcile these identities, she also rejects sole identification with them. After considering the “confusing” matter of national origin, Pacy observes, “But my friends didn’t call me Chinese, Taiwanese, or American. They called me Grace” (19), a statement that is not entirely true (as evident by her friends’ statements about Chinese Munchkins and similar remarks), but rather reflects Pacy’s desire to be identified as an individual rather than through a nation of origin.
Lin’s novels continue to deconstruct a monolithic idea of Asian American identity by demonstrating cultural differences even within the Taiwanese American community. A major plot line in The Year of the Dog involves the arrival of another Taiwanese American girl to Pacy’s community. Like Ling and Ting, Pacy and her friend Melody are not exactly alike; in fact, they are not even related. However, their first meeting is marked by the assumption of many Americans that their racial identity does make them alike. For example, the woman serving spaghetti in the school cafeteria refuses to give Pacy “another” plate when Melody has already taken one. When Pacy protests that she has not yet taken a lunch, the woman does not believe her, “shaking her head and looking at me suspiciously” (21). Again, Lin’s critique is understated, as the scene moves quickly from the cafeteria worker’s suspicion to Pacy’s joy in discovering the reason for the confusion: the arrival of a new girl who is also Taiwanese American. Pacy celebrates their similarities, agreeing that she and Melody are “almost twins” (25), because they are both middle children, have long black hair, play the violin, and cannot write in Chinese. Significantly, however, these similarities are not racial characteristics, but details that any child would find important: birth order, hair style, and extracurricular interests. Pacy’s and Melody’s shared ethnic heritage is marked only through negation, in that neither of them understands written Chinese.
The novel also reminds the reader that the girls’ families are not exactly alike. One of the most obvious differences between them is the food that they consume. As in many Asian American novels, food is a major trope in the Pacy books; indeed, food scholarship is a growing field in Asian American literary studies, as scholars continue to identify foodways as important signifiers in Asian American texts. According to Wenying Xu, food narratives in Asian American literature are not incidental, but a “dominant site of economic, cultural, and political struggle” (14). More relevant for the field of children’s literature, Jennifer Ann Ho has charted the importance of food and foodways as a trope through which adolescents forge complex and hybrid identities in Asian American coming-of-age novels. In the Pacy books, food is certainly a signifier of Asian heritage; not only are the novels filled [End Page 112] with descriptions of Chinese and Taiwanese delicacies, but Pacy’s relatives frequently explain that in Taiwan “everything is about food” (YOD 42), “food is the treasure of Taiwan” (DD 6), and “eating is a hobby … in Taiwan” (DD 15). Food is also the most obvious site through which Pacy and her family forge a hybrid Asian American identity. When Pacy fills the Chinese New Year tray with both Chinese candy and M&Ms, her father exclaims, “It’s just like us—Chinese-American” (YOD 4). For this reason, the fact that Lin distinguishes Pacy’s family from Melody’s family using food is not insignificant. Eating brown rice rather than white rice, with little salt or oil, Melody’s family serves health-conscious food that prompts Pacy to ask in disgust, “Are you sure this is Chinese food?” (YOD 31). Just as Pacy and Melody are not exactly the same, their families have different relationships with food; if food is a marker of identity, then food in these novels signifies the heterogeneity of the Asian American experience.
The Pacy books also demonstrate that Asian American identity is determined along multiple axes of race, gender, generation, and, importantly for children in their target audience, career aspirations. In fact, the plots of The Year of the Dog, The Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days revolve around two main storylines, one concerning Pacy’s need to negotiate an identity that is both Asian and American, and the second concerning her anxiety over discovering the answer to the quintessential question of American childhood: what to be when she grows up. Here, Lin deliberately counters stereotypes of Asian American children excelling in math and science by featuring a protagonist whose “special talent” and career choice—to be a writer and artist—are not highly valued in the current global economy. In an Author’s Note, Lin mentions that The Year of the Dog is not entirely autobiographical; while Pacy loses the school science fair, in real life Lin won first prize. Indeed, Pacy shows neither special aptitude nor interest in math or science. When her father teases her about her grades in math, Pacy explains, “Math is my worst subject” (DD 47). And Melody’s and Pacy’s entry to the science fair is described with more than a touch of humor, as their poster proudly announces: “Feed Your Plant Soda for Optimal Growth” (63), and the judge chides the girls for using flawed scientific methodology. In this instance, Lin’s deliberate departure from autobiography emphasizes the author’s validation of Pacy’s career choice; by using the science fair as a plot device enabling Pacy to eliminate subjects from a range of possible talents, Lin allows her to explicitly discard science in favor of a career in the arts.
Even traditional Chinese or Taiwanese ceremonies are written to emphasize the diversity of the Asian American experience. In The Year of the Rat, Pacy attends a one-year birthday ceremony for a young cousin for which her family prepares a “destiny tray” full of items symbolizing various careers; the [End Page 113] toddler’s choice of object is meant to represent his future path in life. When Pacy sees the family move the paintbrush to the edge of the tray so that the child will not choose it, she becomes upset because she thinks her own choice of career is devalued. She worries further when they explain that they “don’t want him to choose the cold door” (YOR 30). But the Pacy books carefully describe a career in the arts as a difficult choice rather than an undesirable one. Pacy’s cousin explains, “a lot of people think if you choose to become an artist, you are choosing a harder life” (30). The problem of the “cold door” is one that is solvable through determination and perseverance; it allows Pacy to conclude that hers is the choice that takes more courage. While the necessity for bravery and hard work will resonate among American children taught to identify with Horatio Alger-type stories, the novels also frame diverse interests in terms of Taiwanese cultural values. To assuage her fears about the “cold door,” Pacy’s father tells a story in which two philosophers are walking across a bridge. One philosopher comments to another philosopher that the fish in the pond are happy; the second philosopher asks, “How do you know? … You’re not a fish,” to which the first replies, “How do you know that I don’t know that the fish are happy? … You are not me.” Pacy’s father concludes, “So, you see … only you really know yourself and only you can really make your decisions” (YOR 157). In Lin’s novels, no Asian American child is exactly the same as another. Family origin is an important, but not an exclusively defining, characteristic, and each child is valued for the different “special talent” that she brings to the world.
Beyond the Tiger Cub: Redefining Asian America
The Pacy books also directly address recent forms of “Asian panic” that focus on Asian American children in global competition. Literary scholar Colleen Lye has shown that over the past 150 years the domestic signification of Asian Americans in the United States has reflected the role of Asia on the global stage (2). Although the public generally associates the image of the “yellow peril” with early twentieth-century, anti-Asian sensationalism and the model minority stereotype with later discourses, Lye demonstrates that these representations are in fact “aspects of the same, long-running racial form, a form whose most salient feature, whether it has been made the basis for exclusion or assimilation, is the trope of economic efficiency” (5). Historically, Asian Americans have been feared as low-wage immigrants taking jobs away from white Americans, or they have been praised for their supposed willingness to accept low wages and to work without agitating for societal reform. Amy Chua’s memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother set off a national controversy by proudly claiming the trope of economic efficiency [End Page 114] and answering the (presumptive) question of “how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids” with a racial how-to guide, a prescription to success based on “Chinese” parenting practices (1). This memoir placed the idea of “Chinese” parents and children in the national spotlight in way that saw Chua named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, but also resulted in death threats to her family. For this reason, scholar erin Khuê Ninh describes Chua’s book as a text that exceeds its covers, suggesting that we read the whole flurry of press reports, letters, and media interviews about the book as an expression of public concern in “an era of mass anxiety around helicopter parenting, failures of the U.S. educational system, and the specter of a Chinese economic juggernaut.” If the domestic signification of Asian Americans has historically reflected global relations between Asia and the United States, then we are entering a new age of the yellow peril stereotype, in which national fears of the economic replacement of the United States by China are manifested in domestic fears of the economic replacement of white Americans by Asian Americans, particularly Asian American children.
As Lye notes, scholars’ attempts to provide empirical rebuttals to the model minority/yellow peril stereotype have been largely ineffective, not because of a lack of evidence, but because of the way that representation works (4). Certainly, the publication of Chua’s memoir produced a number of such empirical rebuttals, such as Mitchell J. Chang’s summary of studies showing that 40 percent of all Asian Americans in college are at community colleges, not in the Ivy League, and that Asian American achievement in higher education does not necessarily lead to dominance in the workplace. Grace Wang has also traced the way Chua’s lack of identification with Asian immigrant parents betrays how much of Chua’s parenting “success” is due to her own economic and institutional privileges as a Yale Law School professor, an argument that undercuts Chua’s “empty, essentialist claims of Chinese superiority based purely on cultural traits” (Wang). Yet, although empirical rebuttals are valuable contributions to academic discourse about Asian Americans, for the general public the term “tiger mother” and “tiger cub” have entered the popular lexicon to refer to an (Asian American) hypercompetitive parent and her child. It is in this sphere that counter-representations of Asian American families can be crucial, especially for children whose racial attitudes may be fixed as early as nine years of age unless specifically altered through education or a life-changing event (Derman-Sparks 8).
The Pacy books allow children a space to consider and reject the idea of “Chinese” children embodying this trope of economic efficiency. Specifically, the third book in the series features a “tiger cub” named Audrey Chiang, Pacy’s rival in a summer painting class for Taiwanese American children. Audrey perfectly reflects Chua’s values within the context of global competition for [End Page 115] scarce economic resources. For Audrey, painting doesn’t really “count”; she is more concerned with her summer math and science classes, her academic “record,” and the necessity of staying “best in [her] class” (DD 69). Still, Audrey and Pacy become locked in a battle to produce the best painting in the class—Pacy, out of insecurity that being less than the best will mean that art is not her “special talent,” and Audrey simply for the sake of winning. In part, Audrey figures as a caricature of new American priorities that focus on training children in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines and that insist on comparing children’s test scores as indicators of national competitiveness.6 Audrey may also have been crafted as a deliberate response to Chua’s memoir, although given the close publication dates of the two books, it is more likely that both texts reflect dominant tropes about Asian American children that were already in circulation by 2011. However, there is no doubt that Audrey is the product of Chua’s idea of “Chinese” parenting, as described in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother:
Unlike your typical Western overscheduling soccer mom, the Chinese mother believes that (1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you must never compliment your children in public; (5) if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or a coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold.(Chua 2)
These criteria exactly fit Lin’s character Audrey Chiang. Audrey believes that schoolwork is more important than painting, especially getting A’s during the school year (DD 69). She takes summer geometry classes in elementary school, and, for her, the goal of the painting class is to win the top prize for having the “best” painting. Although Pacy’s parents compliment their children’s paintings in public—“This one is yours? … Very good!” (217)—Audrey’s mother does not, prompting her daughter instead to ask the teacher to ask how she could have improved her performance (225). Whether Lin wrote Dumpling Days as an immediate response to Chua’s memoir, or whether both texts were written in dialogue with the same cultural trope, they resonate with each other and with dominant stereotypes about Asian Americans.
By allowing children to view the character of Audrey through Pacy’s eyes, Lin demonstrates the irrationality of Audrey’s behavior; although Pacy can see that taking summer classes would ensure A’s in school, she does not see the need for all A’s, so she deems the idea “kind of weird” (DD 69). For Pacy and her family, grades are a reflection of a child’s strengths and weaknesses. When Audrey expresses shock that Pacy does not take summer math classes, she asks, “How do you make sure you stay the best in your class, then?” Pacy simply replies: “I’m not” (DD 69). An illustration of Melody’s report [End Page 116] card in Year of the Rat shows that Melody’s grades, too, are a range of B- to A+ (YOR 35). When Pacy gets a C on a school project, she gets in trouble not because it is not the best in the class, but because she did not actively engage with the project. “It’s not about the grade,” her mother explains. “I don’t care about the grade” (96–97). Instead, her mother explains that school is important because “learning things is the key to any door you want to open in the future” (97). This philosophy is quite different from Audrey’s strategy of taking summer math classes to ensure easy A’s during the school year, when the grades will go on her academic record. In the end, neither Audrey nor Pacy win the painting contest; instead, it is won by a girl named Eva who simply enjoys learning. Pacy rejects Audrey’s competitive streak in favor of Eva’s attitude: “Why had I wasted all those days of class, making myself unhappy, trying to beat Audrey? Instead, I could’ve become friends with Eva, and it would’ve been fun” (228). In the Pacy books, being a “tiger cub” is more than a way of making oneself miserable; it is a waste of precious time.
The Pacy books also counter the idea that Audrey’s competitive nature is rooted in any kind of “authentic” Asian or Asian American culture. One of the most objectionable aspects of Chua’s memoir is her essentialized depiction of parenting bent on raising “stereotypically successful children” as “Chinese.” Because Pacy’s painting class takes place in Taiwan, as a summer enrichment course for visiting Taiwanese American children, the narrative is able to demonstrate that Audrey does not represent typical or even desirable Asian or Asian American behavior. Pacy’s Taiwanese aunt and uncle discuss Audrey’s need to be the best as a personal idiosyncracy. Her uncle says, “I know people like that. Some people are only happy when they are first or the best. … But for me, that’s no fun,” implying that Audrey’s competitive nature is a character flaw rather than a desirable trait (225). Pacy’s Taiwanese grandmother insists on taking a picture of Pacy with her painting, brushing aside the fact that she did not win the competition and maintaining that she still “love[s] it” (226). Meanwhile, Pacy’s Asian American older sister remarks, “That girl is weird” (225). If Audrey is the product of a particular kind of parenting, in these novels it is not inspired by essentialized Asian traditional values as Chua and others claim.
Indeed, the character of Audrey fits a larger pattern in Lin’s books of allowing space for young Asian American readers to explore various responses to globalized racial tropes. When Pacy’s sister gets glamorous photos taken in Taiwan, the make-up artists tape her eyelids to make her eyes appear larger. Pacy understands the impulse, because her own eyelids draw attention to her in the United States; she describes how “the boys at school used to pull the corners of their eyes to make fun of me for being Asian” (95). Yet ultimately Pacy decides that her sister looks “a lot better in real life”—that “just being [End Page 117] herself” was the most important thing of all (177). Just as Western racial attitudes toward eyes have created a globalized standard of beauty, Asian/ American response to global economic competition has created Audrey Chiang, a response to national anxieties about the future. Significantly, Pacy rejects both pressures to conform to racialized standards. As the narrative dismisses glamour shots and Audrey, it returns to food to define Pacy as Asian American. Leaving Taiwan and Audrey behind, Pacy again describes her family as “mixed up,” because they are culturally and emotionally torn between Taiwan and the United States; she asks herself: “Would I want to live in New Hartford and not know that peaches meant long life or the taste of a soup dumpling? Or to live in Taiwan and not know about Thanksgiving turkeys or what a real McDonald’s hamburger was like?” (257) Concluding that she is “happy this way” (257), Pacy re-centers her ethnic identity on food rather than on global competition.
Pacy’s rivalry with Audrey, along with her own negotiation of ethnicity and the ongoing process of identity formation, challenge stereotypical depictions of Asian American children. They deconstruct the monolithic idea of “Chinese parenting” portrayed by Chua and others by denaturalizing Audrey’s cultural affiliations; rather than simply Chinese or Taiwanese, Audrey is characterized as one particular negotiation of Asian American identity, one that Pacy ultimately rejects. In placing Pacy rather than Audrey at the center of the narrative, the text functions as a cultural critique of the dominant construction of the Asian American child as a site of global economic struggle. It also serves as a source of empowerment to young readers to resist categorizations as either the “model minority” or a “tiger cub.”
Dedicated to You: Children’s Literature and Audience
According to Katherine Capshaw Smith, ethnic children’s literature is distinguished from adult literature by its multifaceted audience; not only does it have to cross adult mediators such as publishers, librarians, teachers, parents, and awards panels, but it also targets children in both “insider and outsider groups” (4). For children who identify with the ethnicity depicted in the text, ethnic children’s literature can encourage resistance to damaging representations and categorizations by providing positive images or models in their place. For children in outsider groups, these texts can “encourage cross-cultural amity and understanding as a means to dispel prejudice” (4). Ethnic children’s literature has higher stakes than adult literature, as the texts may take part in actively educating children before their racial attitudes have solidified. Smith uses a statement from Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro—“there would be no lynching if it did not start in [End Page 118] the schoolroom” (qtd. in Smith 3)—to express the hope that by differently educating a child, ethnic American children’s literature can prevent racist attitudes and actually spark social change.
Children’s literature like Lin’s Pacy books can serve several important functions for young readers. The Pacy books gently highlight the cruelty of unconscious racism against Asian Americans, articulating the experiences of many Asian American children and serving as a valuable educational tool for non-Asian Americans of all ages. They assert the “importance” of Asian Americans by filling an absence, by claiming the ordinary world of school, home, and neighborhood, formerly inhabited by white protagonists, for Asian Americans. For Asian American children, who like Pacy may wonder why there are no “real Chinese people” in books or movies, Lin provides a series of books in which Asian Americans are not only included, but are featured in a way that moves beyond popular culture’s usual relegation of Asian American characters to marginal or peripheral roles. In the Pacy novels, an Asian American child is the central figure: she is realistic, normalized, and above all, “important.” By adding Pacy to the everyday world inhabited by Carolyn Haywood’s Betsy and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona, Lin empowers young Asian American readers. She also exposes outsider groups—that is, children who are not Asian American—to a more meaningful education in ethnic diversity than the “tourist-multicultural” approach so often employed by well-meaning adults.
As part of this education, the Pacy books dismantle popular stereotypes of Asian American children. They replace dominant images of Asian American “tiger cubs” with complicated, realistic accounts, denaturalizing ideas about Asian culture and tradition. For today’s children, raised in an environment where many are witness to discussions (or enactments) of “helicopter parenting,” hypercompetitive classmates, and admissions pressure from preschool to college, it is vital to break through essentialized representations of Asia and Asian Americans. The signification of Asian American children in popular culture, reflecting changing demographics in the United States and anxieties about global competition from Asia, is damaging to both Asian American and non-Asian American children. The Pacy books counter essentialization and offer alternatives to children interested in non-STEM careers; they also show the heterogeneity of Asian and Asian American families, emphasizing that no two families are exactly alike. In the Pacy books, tradition is flexible and subject to hybridization, much like the food Pacy eats. When Pacy’s father tells her, “We can make up our own traditions” (YOR 9), they celebrate by creatively combining Chinese candy and M&Ms and by eating Chinese food with their Thanksgiving turkey. Pacy’s family centers their own ethnic identity on food rather than global competition, and their traditions are constantly changing and adapting to new circumstances. [End Page 119]
Ultimately, Lin’s Pacy books offer elementary-and middle-school aged Asian American children the encouragement to find their own “special talents” in defiance of dominant American constructions, fears, and economic anxieties. Besides empowering Asian American children by featuring an Asian American protagonist, they deconstruct the model minority stereotype for adults and children of all ethnic or racial backgrounds. The dedication to The Year of the Rat states, “If you are reading this book, it is dedicated to you.” Asian American children’s literature like the Pacy books avoids a tourist-multicultural approach to ethnicity; Lin’s novels depict the lives of “real” Asian Americans and, by doing so, fill a crucial gap in representations of Asian American children in the twenty-first century.
Susan Thananopavarn is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her dissertation, “Latin Asian Nation: Re-Imagining U.S. History through Contemporary Asian American and Latino/a Literature,” examines how Asian American and Latino literary texts can rewrite historical narratives to transform dominant ideas of what it means to be American. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and three children.
1. For other recent discussions of the model minority stereotype, see Model-Minority Imperialism (2006), by Victor Bascara, and Modeling Citizenship: Jewish and Asian American Writing (2011), by Cathy Schlund-Vials.
2. A companion book to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, titled Starry River of the Sky, was published in October 2012.
3. In this essay, I use the abbreviations YOD, YOR, and DD to refer to The Year of the Dog, The Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days, respectively.
4. Although the text of the novel identifies the library book as The Seven Chinese Brothers, a version of the tale most recently published by Margaret Mahy in 1992, the accompanying illustration (also by Lin) titles it The Five Chinese Brothers and reproduces the cover of the 1938 book by Bishop and Wiese.
5. Lin also illustrated Kathy Tucker’s retelling of this folk tale titled The Seven Chinese Sisters (2003), which emphasizes teamwork and the complementary talents of the sisters rather than their deception. In Lin’s cover, the seven sisters are easily distinguishable by size and hair style. [End Page 120]
6. The U.S. President’s Council on Advisors on Science and Technology released a report in February 2012, stating the need to graduate one million additional STEM professionals over the course of the next decade if the United States is to maintain “economic and societal well-being” (1).