China Challenge: Embracing Roots

My grandfather from my dad’s side came to Indonesia from China by boat in his youth carrying a single suitcase. Only in recent years that I knew at that time he also left a wife and two children. He later married my grandmother and never went back to his birth country. He’s my closest link to China, as though my other grandparents were also Chinese descendants, they were all born and raised in Indonesia and probably even my great grandparents.

My grandfather died when I was in third grade. What I remember of him now is an old figure sitting in his chair down the hall, drinking whiskey like water, but was never drunk. My dad was his favorite son and my mom his favorite daughter in law, which naturally made me his favorite granddaughter. We visited my grandparents’ house every other week. Whenever we came over, there would be fried noodle bought from a famous street vendor nearby — reserved for his favorite family, and a bunch of longan — reserved especially for me.

What I know about China is mostly stories from my dad — a man who is very fond of the country he always considers as second home, though he only visited it a few times in his life for work. He always tries to transfer his pride of being Chinese to his kids, though I always think of it as cultural and ethnic baggage that follows me everywhere when what I want is just to belong.

I’ve never been to China and I don’t speak its language. But I think I should start embracing my roots and know more about this mysterious country where all began, many generations before me.

Then came the China challenge..

china challenge

1 September 2009 – 1 September 2010

Jennie @ Biblio File is hosting China Challenge! I can’t think of a better host, since she has read a wide range of China theme books.

I have read a few books about Chinese immigrants (most of them by Amy Tan), because it’s something I can relate to, but I probably have read very few books set in China by Chinese authors. Something I need to rectify. And apparently in this challenge, Chinese immigrants story don’t count. The majority of the setting must be in China (including Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet, and Taiwan). Check out books I’ve read on China/Chinese.

Ideally I’m aiming for Fast Train to Shanghai which requires us to read 5 books about China (1 should be by Chinese author and 1 nonfiction). Okay, ideally I’d be able to go for Hiking the Great Wall (read 10 books), but let’s be reasonable and aim low first.

I already have quite a few books sitting on my shelf, and they are:

  1. Waiting by Ha Jin (1999 PEN/Faulkner and National Book Award)
  2. The Crazed by Ha Jin
  3. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
  4. Mr. Muo’s Traveling Couch by Dai Sijie
  5. Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong
  6. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
  7. Wild Swans by Jung Chang (memoir)
  8. The Good Women of China by Xinran (memoir)
  9. Bound Feet & Western Dress by Pang-Mei Chang (memoir)
  10. The Cave of the Yellow Dog by Byambasuren Davaa (set in Tibet)

And I’d like to finish The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. I didn’t finish it the last time because it got too depressing. I got to the point where the wife just gave birth and had to eat a few beans to survive (my gosh, talking about depressing). Now that I think about it, is there any China-theme books that is upbeat and happy?

My mom and one of my dearest auntie like to watch Chinese dramas and the characters always cry buckets. The one I remember the most was this one drama I also watched with mom when I was younger (around primary school). It’s about a young beautiful widow who falls in love with a man. At that time a widow in China is expected to never marry again until she dies, to be loyal and faithful forever to the dead husband so to speak. But the woman perseveres to be united with her lover. Somehow in order to do that she needs to pass through 9 gates which along the way was filled with condemning people from the village, ready to throw stones and do other cruel things to the supposedly unfaithful widow. This was required by the family of the deceased husband because otherwise they would lose face. The 9 gates represent 9 generations of her husband’s ancestors that she needs to ask forgiveness from. If she survives, they’d let her go.

Going back to books before it gets too long, do you have any China-theme books to recommend? I’d love to hear suggestions!

Books I read so far

  1. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (finished 10/09, rating 4/5)
  2. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (finished 12/09, rating 4.5/5)
  3. Waiting by Ha Jin (finished 01/10, rating 5/5)
  4. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (finished 03/10, rating 4.5/5)
  5. Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang (finished 06/10, rating 4.5/5)
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22 thoughts on “China Challenge: Embracing Roots”

  1. Nice list! I’ve also been planning on reading “Binu and the Great Wall” for the longest time now, and another book by Ha Jin (“Waiting”) since it’s soon to be made a movie.

    Wow, it’s amazing how you opened this post, cause I was also thinking of the same thing. I heard of this challenge too and I’ll be joining as soon as I compile my list. I too have a bit of Chinese heritage on me :) My dad’s grandfather was Chinese, but both me and my dad weren’t raised in any Chinese tradition and sadly I don’t speak the language either.

    Anyway, I’ve chosen you as one of my recipients for a blogger award. I hope you pick it up from my site:

  2. Ha Jin’s “Waiting” is excellent, and “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” is memorable work.

    Look forward to your reviews…has always thought of reading something by Su Tong…

    Can I recommend Yu Hua’s “To Live” and Yiyun Li’s “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers”?:P Though both are depressing (and made into films:P), every cloud has a silver lining.

  3. Hi! I am here from Mark David’s blog, and I know that I will be coming back. I’ve seen this challenge written up on other blogs; it is very very tempting (especially as there is a whole year in which to complete it!). But I loved the story you told with this post. Thank you.

  4. Jee Mee, that’s good of you! I guess I cannot really handle another challenge but if you come across any Indonesian Lit Challenge… I have my own lot to deal with ;)

    Have you already read Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama? That immediately came to mind but I’ll try to think of some more good China books. Good luck with the challenge!

    Btw I didn’t like Wild Swans at all… Stopped reading and gave it away. If I remember correctly I found it boring. But that is 10 or 15 yrs ago!

  5. Mark David: Oh didn’t know that Waiting is gonna be made a movie. All the more reason to start reading it. Thanks for the award! I’m honored ;)

    mrdes: I like ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ :). I haven’t heard of To Live, might check that out.

    Jackie: The more the merrier! Especially you, since you read books so fast!

    ds: Thanks ds. I look forward to seeing you again.

    Gnoe: Do you have many Indonesian Lits? That’s surprising. I don’t think I’ve come across many in English. What are they for example? Could you share?

    I haven’t read Women of the Silk but I’ve read her other book (Dreaming Water) and wasn’t impressed. It’s probably not her best book. I don’t mind trying another one though. Women of the Silk sounds good. On the other hand, I have only read raving reviews for Wild Swan until you. I hope I’d enjoy it!

  6. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a great book. I felt as if I learned a lot about Chinese culture, about “old sames” and the torture of foot-binding. I’d also like to read Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls. #3 on your list is also on my list.

  7. Suko: Snow Flower is definitely very high near the top of my tbr pile. Almost. Just. :)

    Mark David: I’m ready to pick The Good Earth again. Would love to read your thoughts about it too.

  8. I just finished my first book for the Challenge-“The Uninvited” by Geling Yang-I really enjoyed it-it is a very funny satire of contemporary China, among a lot else. I will be posting on it soon-

  9. Thanks for the Chinese historical fiction book recommendations. I’m putting a few on my TBR list as I find them fascinating. I’ve started reading a book based on a real love story that took place in China during the nineteenth century. It’s called My Splendid Concubine by Lloyd Lofthouse. It’s a dramatic, romantic adventure and a love story. It takes place in China during the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion. It seems to explore/explain the clash between different cultures. I’m really enjoying it.

    1. Hi Betty, to be honest the website and the recommendations at Amazon’s site look a bit dodgy (many many 5 stars – looks a lot like self promotion to me), but I leave your comment here for everyone to decide for themselves if they wanna pick up the book or not. It could be a very good book!

      1. I’m certainly not promoting myself because I am not the author, but thank you for leaving my comment, because I really loved that book.

  10. Wow-thanks for sharing the story about your family. I joined this challenge too! I will say I disliked both Ha Jin and Dai Sijie-they both felt pretty anti-women to me (I read Waiting, Balzac & the Little Chinese Seamstress, and about 150 pgs of Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch). Wild Swans is INCREDIBLE: I wrote a ridiculously long review of it because it was so good (! And I enjoyed Snow Flower and the Secret Fan-though I enjoyed Peony in Love even more. :) I have Xinran in my pool too! I annotated my list, if you want to get suggestions from it. :) (

    1. Yea I read your review on Mr. Muo and I remember you disliked it, but I do have to try Dai Sijie and Ha Jin, you’d understand, would you? :) Lol your post of Wild Swans IS long. Forgive me for not reading it now (I did read the first couple of paragraphs), because the book sounds like something I wanna read with as little information as possible. I’m glad to hear that you loved both Snow Flower and Peony in Love. I read not so great reviews for Peony (in comparison to Snow Flower), so I’m so glad that there’s another opinion that says it’s better. Great list you have there! I will come back a few more times to check it out for sure!

  11. Didn’t know you signed up for the China Challenge! There weren’t many sharing of reviews over at Jennie’s blog. I seem to be the only one, and at first I was a bit worried. Out of your list I would like to read:
    1.Waiting by Ha Jin (1999 PEN/Faulkner and National Book Award)
    5.Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong
    6.Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
    7.Wild Swans by Jung Chang (memoir) – Read 10 years ago, my hubby is reading it now.
    8.The Good Women of China by Xinran (memoir)

    I was about to wrap up the China Challenge. Given the time frame looks like I can’t go for 10 books now. Interesting list!

    1. JoV, the same here, I don’t know many people who are doing the challenge. I guess it’s not a very active challenge. Next year I think I won’t be joining any challenge that is longer than a few months. The excitement often dies down pretty quickly and we never hear much from the host or from the other participants again!

      My goal for the challenge is 5 books and I’ve completed it, so I’m going to wrap up pretty soon too. Of course I still intend to read more books from the list.

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