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Choosing Identity – ”China Boy” by Gus Lee

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The novel China Boyis the story of a timid and sheltered Chinese boy named Kai adapting the harsh, rugged life in the fifties’ San Francisco Panhandle following his protective mother’s death. Once he is so abruptly thrown into the reality of his environment, Kai struggles to find a new place in the strange world around him. Kai’s father becomes the voice of this dilemma when he tells Kai the following: “‘So. Pick one. Be American. Or Chinese. And never change your mind.’” (212). Although a boy of seven is probably not capable of comprehending the full meaning identity or culture, Kai understands the choice his father is putting before him perfectly. Kai chooses the YMCA. He instinctively knew it was the right choice for him, he didn’t even contemplate the others. Even though the impression created by what Kai’s father said is that there is in fact a choice between the identities, that is not true for Kai. The American and Chinese identities are simply illogical options, Kai solely recognizes the only logical option for himself in the context his father was presenting, the YMCA identity.

Even though Kai holds some Chinese ideologies such as Karma and familial obligation close to his heart, the reality is that the majority of the factors in his life are highly discouraging of the the Chinese identity. It has hardly anything in common with most aspects of his life, so much that becoming Chinese would threaten his safety. Edna would be even harsher to him if he were to choose the Chinese identity, since she is trying to erase all traces of Chinese culture from the house. It has been demonstrated in the novel multiple times that she will not hesitate to attempt to get Kai to behave by her standards by using violence on him. Those exact traits of her’s are portrayed in this passage, which followed the description of the first time Kai has been hit by Edna because of a failure to follow her rules: “Megan hinted that slapping children in the face was not Chinese. ‘We are not in China, Megan,’ Edna would say through her teeth.

’That is precisely the point I am striving to make.’” (72). Clearly, her blatant intolerance and disrespect towards the Chinese culture would be a big obstacle for Kai if he were to decide to be Chinese. His experiences on the streets certainly do not encourage Kai to adopt the Chinese culture either, he would stand out even more for his clothing and practices and would get beat up and picked on even more than he already does. The book begins with a depiction of Kai getting beat to the ground by another boy, following which the boy says to him: “‘China Boy,’… ‘Gimme yo’ lunch money, ratface’” (1). Again, by choosing the Chinese identity Kai would risk getting beat to the ground daily. Although Chinese culture has been enrooted in him by his mother and Uncle Shim, Kai is not so deeply connected to them that he is willing to risk falling behind all other aspects of his life to be fully Chinese. As demonstrated previously, the era the novel China Boy took place in was not very accepting of the Chinese at all. People of Chinese heritage were also not seen as Americans in the slightest, even if they have lived in the United States for their entire lives.

For example, in the documentary Becoming American: The Chinese Experience, the story of an American Born Chinese man named Shawn Wong is told. Shawn claims he has always thought of himself as completely American, but once when he attempted to board a school bus, he was told by the children there that no Chinese are allowed on the bus. He said this confused him greatly at the time, since he didn’t even think of himself as Chinese. Kai, like Shawn, was born and raised in America during the fifties. He is also not thought of as an American in the least by many people around him. For instance, at the beginning of the novel Kai tells of an eatery he liked to go to. Upon ordering fries with a heavy Songhai accent, a cook responds to him: “‘Fries! Crap! Boy, how long you bin in dis country? You bettah learn how ta talk, and don be usin no oriental mo-jo on me. Don job me outa nothin!’”(2). The cook is presuming Kai is going to try to trick him out of his money in some way, based on his appearance. Although there are not too many incidents such as this one described in the book, it is nonetheless safe to assume that Kai was a constant subject of those kinds of baseless preconceptions. At the time and place China Boy is narrated in, Kai’s appearance and accent are more than enough to make him be seen that way.

Even if Kai wanted to be American, he would be faced with intolerance and rejection. It is the irrationality of being Chinese in the Panhandle paired with the lack of choice to be American that lead Kai to deciding on the YMCA as him identity. It is true that Kai does not particularly enjoy going to the YMCA at first, but he comes to relate to his teachers and friends there greatly. The more time he spends in the YMCA, the healthier and happier he becomes. Kai comes to have passion for boxing, and love for his mentors. This is the first time in his life Kai finds himself in a growth encouraging environment, which leads to a growth in his character. If he would not have gone to the YMCA he wouldn’t have ever fought Big Willie, and he would not get up after being nearly being kicked to death by him either. Kai especially would not dare stand up to Edna if it was not for the YMCA. These bold decisions Kai makes towards the end of the novel might confusedly be interpreted as proof of his choice of the YMCA identity over the others, when in fact they are not.

They are plainly a part of the YMCA identity he has adopted long ago. Ultimately, it is evident that Kai never made a choice between the American identity, the Chinese identity, and the YMCA. That choice was never present since the first two are barely options. But ironically, even though Kai did not even think of selecting the American identity, nor could he ever be Chinese, His father’s statement was right in a sense. His father understands how much completeness and happiness a full immersion into a culture and confidence in one’s identity would bring, precisely because he doesn’t have any of those. Kai ended up following the exact instructions his father gave him, just with the YMCA instead of the American or Chinese cultures.

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