Book Club Blog
check out this page for thoughtful opinions, reflections, and analyses from book club participants
Book Club Blog
check out this page for thoughtful opinions, reflections, and analyses from book club participants
By Alice Feng
“I guess [the airport is] the only place I didn’t
have to explain anything. Everyone was
— Eddie Huang, Fresh Off the Boat
In Fresh Off the Boat, Eddie Huang writes about his life and hardships as an Asian American who feels neither fully “Asian” nor fully “American.” Wandering around the airport, he feels a relief that he doesn’t have to explain himself to anyone, whether that “anyone” be from Taiwan or Florida. Huang's struggle affects Asian Americans, as well as anyone growing up with two cultures. As an Asian American, I too find myself relating to some of his challenges. As an Asian American who loves so many aspects of Chinese culture from music to clothing to food to TV series. As an Asian American who lives in a community mostly made up of Asians - especially Chinese - people where everywhere I turn is some Chinese restaurant or grocery store or school. Even though my life differs greatly from Huang’s life, who grew up in a predominantly Caucasian and African American community and who loves hip-hop and basketball, I still find myself asking the question of “where do I fit in society?”
Living between two cultures and his own personality forms the central conflict of Huang’s narrative. Early on, Huang is bullied for being Chinese, which might have made any child want to bury their Asian background. His schoolmates call him and his brothers “chinks” and various other slurs and announce that his Chinese food was “stinky,” an insult which I too have experienced. Many of his peers’ parents also display a lack of education about Asian culture, even using the outdated colonialist term “Oriental,” and ask where Eddie’s family was really “from.”
With new forms of racism such as the Fox Eye trend, the scapegoating of Asians for the coronavirus, and the ever-pervasive Model Minority Myth, the situation has failed to improve since when Eddie was a child. Eddie himself also doesn’t feel like he is fully American. Despite being a citizen and born and raised in America, he talks about how he’ll never “hold an American flag, own a USA bumper sticker, or rock a Dream Team jersey that doesn’t say Barkley.” Eddie also says,
“If they did try to see me as one of “them” it wasn’t in my true form; it was as a reformed, assimilated, apologetic version of myself that accepted the premise that my people were barbarians”Belonging for Huang comes at the cost of sacrificing and apologizing for his own identity and assimilating to the American culture.
While assimilation rings false to Huang, he also fails to identify with the Asian community. When arguing with his father over his wish to become an ESPN sportscaster, he realizes,
““not only was I not white, to many people I wasn’t Asian either.””
Evidently, in Huang’s case, this is because he is a “loud-mouthed, brash, broken Asian who had no respect for authority in any form.” However, this feeling of not fitting in with the Asian community applies to many Asian Americans who may not be as loud-mouthed, brash, or outspoken as he is. I, for instance, wouldn’t consider myself as vocal or as blunt as Eddie (in fact I usually pass as a stereotypical “well-mannered” Chinese girl at first glance), yet there are still many ways I’m unable to fully assimilate with societies in Asia. My observations come from a mixture of my parents’ story of China, Chinese media, American media on China, and my first-hand experience of going to China and visiting both my older and younger relatives there. Of course, the most direct barrier between me and my family and friends in China is language; despite speaking mostly Chinese at home, I lack experience with modern Chinese slang and traditional idiom usage, pop culture references, and speed of speech.
Photo obtained via: https://www.fabiaoqing.com/biaoqing/detail/id/572985.html
Then, there are the deeper fundamental differences that even studying the culture and history cannot change because of how I have grown up in the United States. Chinese (and perhaps this can be generalized to Asian) people have a centuries long tradition of a preference for collectivism over individualism. Chinese families tend to promote the idea of being like everyone else and for putting family and society over oneself. America, on the other hand, tends to promote being unique and individualistic.
This clash between collectivism and individualism has several implications. First, people in China are more likely than people in the United States to follow orders from the government which has no inherently positive or negative implication until we look at specific cases. For a more positive implication, we can look at the example of the Covid-19 pandemic. In China, the government ordered citizens to wear a mask and follow extremely strict contact tracing rules, and most people rigorously followed the rules. Now the pandemic has died down so much that large parties are once again happening in Wuhan with no drastically negative impact. In the United States, however, people will first debate about the implications of wearing a mask because the government ordered it. Perhaps they may reach the conclusion that wearing a mask limits their freedom, privacy, and comfort, and as a result, they end up not wearing one and spreading the coronavirus to others and maybe even dying themselves. It’s truly sad to regularly see examples on the news of someone infected with the coronavirus because they were not wearing PPE or were in an area with poor social distancing.
For a more negative implication, we can look at the idea of discussion. In Chinese schools, discussion is, for the most part, not encouraged, and neither is talking in class or questioning teachers and authorities. On the other hand, many American schools encourage debates, round table discussion, asking questions, and the like. This discouragement of discussion in China extends to outside of the classroom where discussion of many topics such as homosexual relationships, time travel (as to not disrespect history), ghosts/monsters, and subversive behavior are highly suppressed. People also criticize the government and talk about “controversial” topics much less openly in China than in the United States partly out of fear of consequences, partly because of what has been instilled in them by tradition and society. Now again, the reason I went into such detail on these differences between China and the United States is to show how fundamentally different these two places are, and as a result, the reason why it’s difficult for someone growing up in the United States to fit in in China (or Asia), and vice versa.
Of course Asian Americans need not fit in with either Asians or Americans; they have their own Asian American community. (Indeed, there never really is a need to fit in with any group, regardless of one’s background, but it may be more comforting to some to have a group of people who look like them, have the same interests as them, have grown up in the same situation as them, etc.) However, Huang makes the point that many Chinese Americans either resent their Chinese background or compete to be more “Chinese” (i.e. who has more love for Chinese food, more points on the SAT, more instruments they have mastered, more AP courses under their belt), both of which make it difficult to form a united community.
At the end of the day though, Huang and most children of American immigrants are proud of their ethnicity and wouldn’t choose to live as any other ethnicity. As Eddie says,
“What they didn’t understand is that after you have the money and degrees, you can’t buy your identity back. I wasn’t worried about degrees, but I cared about my roots.”
An identity is something that everyone values. Just like the airport is a world of in-between, so is living as an Asian American (or any other mix of cultures or races). As an Asian American, you grow up in between two cultures, each with its own language, food, pop culture, history, and people, and you are entitled to both cultures. You’re able to communicate with “twice” the number of people and can act almost as an ambassador between the two cultures, as you most likely have some understanding of both. By being an Asian American, you create your own unique identity, and this identity really demonstrates a redefinition of culture in the 21st century, a time of social activism and change -- especially by the younger generations. Asian Americans are also realizing that they can boldly define their own Asian American identity without necessarily undermining their Asian and American cultures. They are learning both that there is no shame in embracing their Asian heritage while also not being afraid to take on the American culture, a culture completely untouched by their ancestors. Today, as more and more Asians immigrate to the United States and the Asian American population, one of the fast-growing racial or ethnic groups in the United States, rises in numbers, the Asian American identity takes a shape clearer than ever before.
This is Eddie Huang, author of Fresh Off the Boat. Image courtesy of ABC/Image Group LA via Flickr, creative commons license.
Although Huang faces a variety of difficulties stemming from his Asian American identity, the story really is about him creating a place for himself in this world, something that many readers can personally relate to while reading his memoir.
about the author: Alice loves reading mystery, historical fiction, and dystopian stories as well as stories inspired by current events and issues that reveal a life different from that of the reader’s yet still takes place in the same world or maybe even same country. Other hobbies of Alice’s include figure skating, watching Chinese drama, and designing, creating, and selling unique handmade bracelets.
By: Claire Yang
Fresh Off the Boat is an autobiography by Eddie Huang, who narrates his life from being a bullied and abused child to becoming the owner of a restaurant in New York.
Oh, and he’s Chinese-American. And so am I. Here is my experience reading this book, encapsulated as a blog post:
First off, so many of Huang’s references to hip hop and pop culture soar right over my Gen-Z head. Much of the slang he uses is also completely unfamiliar to me. In short, I more than once felt as if I was reading Shakespeare again in ninth grade, except this text was far grittier and louder.
This is to be expected. After all, there is a generational divide between the author and me, as well as a complete difference in where we have lived and our overall life experiences. I cannot fully grasp his struggles and passions, nor the pop culture ingrained into him.
But there is one thing about his story that resonates with me: his Asian American identity and how he grapples and comes to terms with it.
From the Mandarin sprinkled throughout the text to references to various Chinese dishes, Huang explores and highlights this facet of his life in his autobiography. His ethnicity behaves like a double-edged sword, building up part of his identity as an individual while also leaving him vulnerable to stereotypes that would erase his very individuality. He connects and interacts with Chinese-Taiwanese culture, even setting up his restaurant to be “a voice for Asian Americans.”
I particularly want to focus on two aspects of being Asian American that Huang mentions:
2) In the book, Huang detailedly describes two separate trips to Taiwan, once as a child with his family and later as an adult attending college. In both occasions, he reconnects with and explores his Taiwanese background. On the first trip, he becomes awed and “want[s] to know more about Taiwan and what it mean[s] to be Taiwanese.” On the second trip, he “look[s] around and s[ees] [him]self everywhere he [goes].” He continues to poignantly describe: “Pieces of me scattered all over the country like I had lived, died, burned, and been spread throughout the country in a past life.”
Huang recognizes the struggle in maintaining both halves of an Asian American identity and the process of rejecting and reaching for certain aspects of each half. I know that many Asian Americans have trouble connecting with their Asian backgrounds. For me, one thing I can relate with Huang is that poignant moment where you discover you want to learn more about your own cultural background. Unfortunately, this moment comes hand-in-hand with the understanding that there might always be a disconnect between you and being “Asian.”
Could I say that being Asian American is both very interesting yet feels very typical? I might be able to summarize my reaction towards Huang’s book in a blog post, but I’m far from finished with my thoughts on being Asian American.
about the author: Claire really enjoys getting lost in books and stories. She mainly reads fantasy and fiction novels, but she currently is reading more books/memoirs about different perspectives in America. She also enjoys drawing and listening to music.
by Diwakar Basak
Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give revolves around the central theme of racial inequality and what one did to address that theme in her neighborhood. The main character is Starr Carter, a black teenager, who lives in a racially and economically segregated neighborhood in the Southern United States. She has to swap between her two lives: one in the poor, black suburbs, the other in the wealthy, primarily white school which she attends. Starr feels conflicted between her two lives, and this conflict prevents Starr from speaking up when white cops unjustly kill her black friend, Khalil in her neighborhood. One of the cops shot Khalil, assuming that he was part of a gang they were trying to arrest, when the young teenager pulled out what he thought to be a pistol. The police hide any evidence of the manner of Khalil’s death from the public. Afterwards, they call an ambulance and leave the scene. Only Starr, who was with Khalil at the time of death, knows what unfolded. She cannot bear Khalil’s death in the weeks after facing grief, sadness, anger, and hate. Starr feels afraid of speaking out because she thinks she has failed to live up to Maverick’s belief in black power. However, she eventually comes out of her shell when she realizes she must speak up in order to save the community she is part of and herself. Starr’s actions in The Hate U Give mirror the actions that the Black Lives Matter organization took to advocate for non-violent civil disobedience in protest against incidents of police brutality and all racially motivated violence against black people.
To analyze the story, we attempt to answer a few questions relating to the plot. The first question is why the police did not want to reveal to the public the manner of Khalil’s death. The answer is that the police were fearful of how the public, especially African Americans and other black activists, would react to the fact that one of their police had shot and killed a black teenager, unjustly. In the past and modern day, we see examples of civil unrest all over the globe in the form of riots breaking out whenever an abuse of power occurs. An abuse of power occurs when a civil government misuses their power. In The Hate U Give, the police abuse their power in two ways: first, they kill Khalil unjustly, second, they throw tear gas into the peaceful crowd of protesters, who are chanting Khalil’s name. Both of these are examples of police brutality, a fairly common, yet serious issue in modern day United States. Statistics show that police brutality affects minorities, people of color, at much higher rates than the white majority. Many believe that the reason for this is the discrimination that minorities face on account of white supremacy, the belief that white people are superior to those of other races and therefore should be dominant over them. It is an issue that plagues us in modern-day society. Because of it, black people are “dehumanized” and are the target of excessive violence by cops. A recent account of this is the Ferguson police shooting where the cops fatally shot a black man named Michael Brown.
If racism has damaging, lasting consequences, (can result in the unjust death of a marginalized demographic) people of color will fear the police more and will more likely flee/resist in a police confrontation. This will likely lead to more deaths as abuse of power will deem violence necessary to ease the situation, leading to a proliferation of the problem. Although one might argue that public safety tries to promote utilitarianism and is trained to handle violent situations, the abuse of power by representatives of public safety in our society remains unchecked and excused by the illusion of promoting additional training. In The Hate U Give, when the cop killed Khalil, his intentions may have been good - to promote the safety and well-being of the public - but his racist beliefs (moral judgement) may have clouded the way for reason and truth. The problem now that needs to be addressed is what must be changed. Is it how these cops are trained to handle situations like this? Or is it the underlying racist beliefs of cops? In the training regiment of cops, they have been trained to react appropriately in situations of danger. But for what cause? Do they let their personal beliefs/fears get in the way of logic and reasoning? This is obviously expected by any human being when confronted in fear, but that instinct can be trained and developed. For example, in the military, soldiers go through VR sessions in which they undergo battle scenes to reduce their fear instinct to prepare them for real battles, so that they are resistant to PTSD.
The second issue we need to focus on is how we can eliminate racism from affecting a cop’s mindset. To do that, we need to find a way to eliminate racist remarks from our conversations. We need public protest if we want to focus on responding to events of injustice. Public protest is necessary because it is an outlet for a fraction of the public to voice their fears and opinions, which thereby allows the issue to be transformed into a larger one, one that the larger public must confront. When the issue appears on the national headline, perchance, most people will be forced to examine the issue deeply and contemplate for themselves. Is there anything we can do to inspire people to change their views/beliefs? What do you think the members of the Book Club can do to combat racist remarks, pacifist convictions, and preconceived notions towards members of the Black community?
Clearly, we need to do something to fight off racism as it has already become a really big issue in our country. As demonstrated in The Hate U Give, racist views can lead to unintentional violence by the police in the community. These violent scenes only lead to more violence that further devastate the community creating more strife and protest, essentially destabilizing a nation.
about the author: Diwakar enjoys reading mystery, sci-fi, and fantasy in his free time, but also likes to read fiction stories based upon real events and experiences relating to a variety of topics. Aside from reading, Diwakar likes to sing Indian classical songs, code, and play chess for fun.
about the editor: Angela is an avid reader of mostly fantasy, dystopia, and sci-fi, but she is branching out to more non-fiction/realistic fiction novels to learn more about current issues and stories of different life experiences. Outside of reading, she enjoys coding, piano, and watercoloring.
by Brian Xu
Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans is pieced together through a series of vignettes, detailing the lives of over a dozen immigrants in a Delaware apartment complex. The variety of perspectives this novel encompasses are key to emphasizing a core message: each person has an “unknown” story, wonderfully distinct from any other’s. Each immigrant carries a passionate motive for coming to the United States, and each has also faced innumerable setbacks ranging from finding employment to enduring racial discrimination. The children of these immigrants carry equally important stories, bridging the culture embedded in their ancestry with the American customs they’ve grown up absorbing.
What is especially unique about the collection of rich characters within the novel is the complexity of their identities — though all of them can be placed under the umbrella of “immigrants” in the United States, the cast is diverse in gender, nationality, age, ability, and interests. It’s clear that racial tensions play a large role in many immigrant experiences in America, but Henriquez mirrors racial stereotypes and challenges in an unexpected way: through Maribel’s challenges facing judgment based on her disability.
Henriquez embeds a common thread through numerous types of misunderstanding and stereotyping: communication barriers, and ultimately, a lack of true listening. When Maribel’s family moves to the United States, they face a literal communication barrier, grappling with basic English phrases while seeking out those who can communicate in Spanish. Alma gets lost after riding a bus several stops past her destination, and is trapped in a panicked frenzy by her inability to communicate and ask for directions. Later on, she goes to a local police station to report Garrett for harassing Maribel, but is spurned — eventually, Garrett and his father are ultimately responsible for the death of Maribel’s father, Arturo.
While Maribel doesn’t face such obvious challenges due to her mental disability, Henriquez still highlights how she is overlooked by those around her. Most of Maribel’s acquaintances, and even her parents, often start conversations with her by asking how she feels, a question she “hates” for its implication that something is wrong. Each time a stranger is introduced to Maribel, they walk on eggshells around her disability and view her with pity. Only after Mayor invests time listening and getting to know Maribel does she feel connected to another person — ”I feel like you’re the only person who… sees… me,” she tells Mayor.
Yet, there is so much unique potential hidden among the misunderstood. Before moving to America, Arturo owned a construction business in Mexico, but American outsiders would likely view him as just another mushroom farm worker. Rafael Toro turned his life around from drinking and fighting to instead save up money and marry Celia, and his stubborn pride in supporting his family on his own is just a glimpse into his larger background. While Maribel has suffered a severe brain injury, she still displays incredible intelligence and is always listening, recording details she overhears in her notebook.
While the novel ends following the tragic death of Arturo, the ending carries an optimistic tone — through the injustice the Rivera’s face, they have built a true community. Though nothing can reverse Arturo’s fate, all of Rivera’s neighbors as well as many acquaintances and coworkers chip in to help bring Arturo’s body to Mexico, where he can rest peacefully in the presence of his family. In the Riveras’ final moments in America, Alma sees Maribel through a new lens — ”Suddenly, out of nowhere, there she was…. Not exactly the girl she was before the accident… but my Maribel, brave and impetuous and kind.” Beneath the layers of tragedy engulfing the Rivera’s, the family has become more visible: Arturo is recognized as a kind individual who navigated uncharted territory with extreme optimism, Alma is able to move past the burden of her guilt for Maribel’s accident, and Maribel is finally viewed for her individuality rather than her disability.
Though there are still countless unfinished stories throughout the novel, Henriquez presents a slice of life into communities that rarely receive the spotlight of mainstream media. She shows that through shared understanding and efforts to bridge diverse groups of people, we can view the “unknown” stories of those around us, allowing us to overcome trauma together and appreciate the beauty of different backgrounds.
about the writer & editor:
about the author: Brian loves to read realistic and historical fiction to gain more awareness of other lifestyles and perspectives. He finds it rewarding to read the viewpoints of those he doesn't get to interact with from day to day. When not reading, Brian enjoys journalism, programming and playing the piano.