Lisa See and Jean Kwok are both on my “READ EVERYTHING THEY PUBLISH” list. Obviously, both are Chinese American women telling Asian American stories. Those stories happen to be fun romances anchored in universal truths about family and heritage, so I’d read them anyway. But it’s particularly meaningful to see the cultural furniture of my mind on the page.
The first two books I read for the Year of Asian Reading Challenge were The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (Lisa See) and Mambo in Chinatown (Jean Kwok). I finished each one in less than 48 hours, if that tells you anything about how good they are. (I read Mambo in less than 20 hours but that’s partially because I was sick that weekend and refused to do anything except read and keep my offspring alive.)
To the undiscerning eye, these books may appear quite different. Tea Girl takes place mostly in southwestern China and talks a lot about tea. Mambo is set in the United States and talks a lot about dancing. But if you look more closely, both protagonists are outsiders. Li-yan (later Tina), the main character in Tea Girl, is Akha, an ethnic minority completely separate from what most Westerners imagine as “Chinese.” Charlie, the main character in Mambo, is working-class ABC (American born Chinese) living in Chinatown without much contact with the rest of Manhattan.
Both “Chinese” characters have experiences very different from my own. I grew up in neither China nor Chinatown but in the Midwest, among relatively educated Chinese immigrants. I’ve never worked in a field or restaurant. One thing I appreciate about See and Kwok is the honest, unflinching way they portray these lesser-seen and less glamorous versions of the Asian American experience.
[mild spoiler alert]
Li-yan and Charlie both buck the expectations of their families and cultures. Charlie gets a pretty unequivocally happy ending, which seems destined from the beginning of the book. (I’m not really upset about this because the end of Girl in Translation low-key destroyed me.) Li-yan finds happiness but also suffers greatly, which is a theme found throughout Lisa See’s work. Sometimes when I was reading See’s other novels, I had to stop and digest all the suffering in the pages, from the Taiping rebellion to the Qing conquest. Compared to See’s other heroines, who endure foot-binding or wind up as hungry ghosts, Li-yan actually makes out pretty well by the end of Tea Girl. (Again, not upset about this.)
[/end mild spoilers]
The theme of family runs throughout both stories, and permeates the full oeuvre of both authors, for that matter. See’s perennial theme of mother love gets a new twist as Tea Girl explores the issues surrounding transcultural and transnational adoption. I’m only now learning more about this topic myself, because it doesn’t get enough airtime within most Asian American communities. The search for a lost mother also echoes through Mambo, where the main character yearns to dance as a way to follow in her deceased mother’s literal footsteps.
Writing What You Know
It is clear that both authors are writing about what they know, though in slightly different ways. Mambo is based on Kwok’s lived experience, and that easy familiarity shows in the dance sequences and Chinatown scenes. Kwok gives enough detail to show the reader what she knows so well, but not so much that it feels overly explained. Tea Girl, on the other hand, is the product of intensive and extensive research. The rich detail never wavers throughout the long years of Li-yan’s story. But all the details seem balanced and refined like I imagine the complex flavors of pu’er tea would be. (I’ve never tried it but would love to now.)
I studied English literature in college and read copiously. I think the only Asian-authored book I read was Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. (Two tangential confessions about this. 1) I chose this book for a class assignment because I’d already bought a copy in Taiwan two summers before. 2) This was the ONE book I didn’t finish reading for a class assignment in my entire life. So it represents simultaneously the most Asian and least Asian thing I’ve ever done in school. But anyway.)
Ten years ago I didn’t know any Asian American writers existed besides Amy Tan. I never imagined that I’d know the works of two Asian American writers well enough to be able to write a comparative review. Jean Kwok and Lisa See provide not only delightful books to read but also inspiration for my own writing goals.
Both authors have new books coming out in 2019. The Island of Sea Women looks like a classic See novel about friendship, family, and a little-known subgroup of Asian women. Searching for Sylvie Lee, like Kwok’s other books, draws upon her personal experiences without being a memoir or autobiography. I can’t wait to read both!
If The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is the literary equivalent of a twelve-course banquet, Mambo in Chinatown is an egg cake from your favorite street food vendor. Both are completely satisfying in different ways. And you should definitely add both to your reading list!