Reading Asian American Literature 唐人寫書

Currently reading: Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog

Another thanks to Asian American Literature Fans whose Asian American Children’s Literature Mega-Post introduced me to author and illustrator Grace Lin and her Pacy Lin series. The series starts with The Year of the Dog during which little Pacy/Grace Lin turns eight years old.

The book begins on the eve of Chinese/Lunar New Year and Pacy learns that the year of a dog is a lucky one for a person born in the year of the tiger like herself. If everything would come true, during the Year of the Dog, she would find her best friend and find herself, including what she would do in life, a lofty goal for someone twice her age, nevermind an eight year old, but her parents want to teach her the folklore and she sets about it with some determination. She needs to find her talent and to find it, it would help to win a prize at something!

The Lins are an upper-middle class family living in upstate New York. The parents are immigrants from Taiwan and Pacy has two sisters, Lissy who is just about to be a teenager and adorable little Ki-Ki. This mirrors the real-life family of author Grace Lin and at her website, you can learn about the real-life fate of her siblings despite the Lissy claiming at age 12 she wanted to be a doctor like her father and grandfather.

The novel follows the second half of Pacy’s school year when she meets a new student, Melody, the only other Chinese student in her grade. They become best friends and Pacy goes through school life, a school play, science fair and a book writing and illustration competition. At times, Pacy worries that she is not as lucky as her zodiac forecasted and she’s not finding her direction in life. Every couple of chapters, in the midst of the narrative, there is occasion for the mother to tell a story that also imparts a lesson, like how Pacy’s grandfather achieved a patient base by performing an emergency service for free. The story-telling tone is gentle and Pacy and her sisters and Melody listen in rapture of the funny and touching anecdotes about the past.

The author makes no disguise of speaking through her character, named after herself. Pacy experiences some confusion about being American and Chinese and Taiwanese. And it’s adorable to read how an eight-year-old tries to explain to someone else why she has two names: Pacy is what she is called at home but at school, she is known as Grace, but she doesn’t exactly know why. As the reader, I came to knows her more as a Pacy than a Grace. Pacy observes with some bewilderment that there is a lack of presence in the media and books of faces that look like her own.

It’s so refreshing after Under the Hawthorn Tree that was so much in Jingqiu’s head and the brassy and modern The Republic of People’s Desire to read a simple (children’s) novel and remember how innocent children can be and how they see the world. The people of Pacy’s world are kind to her and treat her fairly and it was a little sad when she does encounter mean people and incidentally they were fellow Taiwanese kids.

The book was printed with a fun handwriting font and illustrations in each chapter. Lin uses imagery that helps young readers relate to and imagine what Pacy sees and it comes off as innocent while with a Chinese slant. For example, when Pacy woke up her “eyelids felt as heavy as sacks of rice”, on a hot day “the sun was like an egg yolk frying in the sky” and, my favourite, at a red egg party where everyone was decked out in cheungsam, “they were all wearing their special silk clothes, and in the moonlight we shimmered like a stained-glass window. Grandma’s dress was a silky, silver gray. She glowed like a pearl ring.” Can you imagine children, Chinese and not, reading these kind of comparisons and being inspired to see the world in an extended context?

Since they are such short stories, and easily available at my library branch, I will read the next two books, The Year of the Rat and Dumpling Days just to see how Pacy Lin does!

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