Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Alphabet Soup Challenge: Jean Kwok - Mambo in Chinatown

Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.
But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.

Comment: I got interested in this book after seeing a wonderful review somewhere. I immediately added it up to my pile - if I remember correctly it was back in December or January - and later I got the book. This month I decided I would read it and it was also a handy pick for the alphabet challenge for the letter M.
This is the story of Charlie Wong, a young Chinese woman who was born in America after her parents emigrated. Charlie has never done well in school, has been fired from many jobs and now works as a dishwasher in the restaurant in Chinatown where her father works too. One day her younger sister Lisa, a very smart girl, shows her a flyer about a job as a receptionist in a dance studio. Charlie is willing to try but the girls don't say anything to their father because their mother used to be a dancer in Beijing but after coming to America she never danced the same again and eventually died.
At first Charlie tries her best in the reception but her undiagnosed dyslexia surely doesn't help and she makes a mistake. Being used to help an older wise lady from Chinatown to teach tai chi, Charlie offers to help a beginners class and her bosses and co workers realize how talented she can be if only she learns. From here on, Charlie's life changes, her attitude and confidence too, and she has to balance both her lives, the new exciting one and her old, familiar traditional one.
I liked this story. It was a nice surprise and in terms of genre, it wasn't heavily dramatic or exaggerated. In fact, it was a sweet self discovery story with a very rich content.
I liked knowing Charlie and realizing how poor her family is, how difficult people from other countries who have a special way of living have to battle their existence in a completely different country, with different values and rules. I think the author told all this without making this story a propaganda for or against anything. It's just the way things surely are.
Charlie has been a respectful traditional Chinese girl all her life, she misses her mother, she takes care of the house and her family but she's never done well in school. It wasn't a matter of studying, we realize Charlie is dyslexic and no one has ever helped her so she struggled a lot. Her sister Lisa is her opposite and the young girl is very clever and in the story she will apply to a school where only some can enter. This doesn't mean the sisters aren't getting on well, they are friends and share many things. Charlie's new life will put a brake on some of her sister time because of Charlie's schedules but rest assured, they never get apart.
I was impressed by how well the author would insert details from a Chinese house, traditions, beliefs, ways of thinking, everything that can be part of Chinese mentality and behavior into this story. I felt I was learning a lot about a new culture without it being a text book. Some things are so different from what we, in Western countries are used to, that it seems unbelievable but that is the interesting part of it all.
Charlie works in a dance studio, so the story also has a lot of dancing related subjects and hows and whys and it was quite interesting to learn those things too. How marvelous the author could teach so many things while still presenting characters the reader feels invested in and wants to see succeed.
I liked the obvious dichotomy between Chinese and American cultures but it wasn't a way to compare and choose a side, I think there's a balance in everything and Charlie never looses her balance even if it looks like it in one or two situations.
Another thing I liked a lot was how this ends well. Yes, there's a HEA at the end...while I was reading I kept thinking this had everything to end in tragedy but I was pleasantly surprised to see the author chose a better, brighter future for everyone. How uplifting and amazing.
There are always expectations about the books we read, I thought Charlie would end up with someone different (she gets a boyfriend at the end) although I recognize the suitability of her choice. I also think Lisa went through something that she, being so clever and close to her sister, could have shared sooner, but she's 11 so, a discount is made. I'm glad her problem wasn't as serious as we are led to believe in some scenes.
Some situations also seem to be told rather simplistic which I'm sure is mainly for plot reasons, but I can understand the author tactics and choices.
I could be picky and talk about some characters' actions and some details but overall, I'm quite pleased with this story and I hope everyone I recommended it too will like it as much as I did.
All in all, a great story in my opinion.
Grade: 8/10

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