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Kai Ting is the only American-born son of an aristocratic Mandarin family that fled China during World War Two to escape invasion and civil war. Growing up in a San Francisco ghetto, Kai is caught between two worldsembracing neither a Chinese nor an American way of life. After his motherís death, Kai is suddenly plunged onto the violent streets of his American neighborhood by his new stepmother, a Philadelphia society woman who is determined to erase every vestige of China from the household, even by physical force. This is the story of Kai Ting, torn violently between two worlds, but accepted in neither, and his ultimate fight for the peace in between as he discovers an enemy, a friend, and a set of mentors who have experienced far greater hazards than his own.
Gus Lee is the only American-born member of a Shanghai family. He grew up in San Francisco and attended West Point for three years until his failing performance in then-mandatory electrical engineering gave him the involuntary opportunity to become an enlisted man. After receiving his law degree from the University of California at Davis, he rejoined the army as Captain Lee and served as general counsel. He resumed civilian life to become a deputy district attorney in Sacramento, then served for some years as Director of Attorney Education for the State Bar of California. He is married and lives with his wife and two children in Colorado Springs. China Boy is his first novel.
From the author bio and the acknowledgments in this book, it is apparent that your life, at least superficially, is similar to Kaiís. How much of this novel is autobiographical? Where did you draw the line between novel and memoir?
The book began as a journal for Jena, our seven-year old daughter and for Eric, our five-year old son. Jena had asked me about her missing grandmother&151;my mah-meeand when I told her that I remembered nothing about her, I suddenly saw the moral need to learn and then tell her story to our children. I researched her story with my family. When I reached the point in the journal in which our mother died, I could have stopped writing. But I wanted my kids to know what it was like for me when I was their age and to understand that they came from a former culture, so I kept writing. I had no idea it would become a book. I just hoped our kids would be willing to read it someday!
When Diane, my spouse, urged me to submit the completed journal for possible publication, I changed our family name and altered material family facts in the manuscript to avoid offending my father.
All the characters in the story are real, from Sippy Suds (real name unknown) to Angelina in the Y cafeteria (real name, Lola.) Uncle Shim was Uncle Shen. My sisters are Elinor (also, Lily), Ying and Mary (also Ming) instead of Jennifer, Megan and Janie. Tony, Pinoy and Bobby Lewis were my real instructors. The Y was my true home. The most fictional element is Chapter 24, Wood, which I added upon my editorís suggestion. The events in that chapter never occurred.
What influenced your decision to make Kaiís attempt at assimilation so violent? Do you think it possible for the teachings of Chinese culture to reconcile with the violence of American culture?
I decided to tell the truth, and the truth is that violence is universal, human and thus far, inescapable. Will and Ariel Durant have written that humans will be violent as long as we disagree with each other in our homes, schools and workplaces. Individuals struggle to avoid competition, jealousy and anger; how much more difficult it is for nations to act in a harmonious manner.
The particular irony is that my family had fled a land and a continent torn by violence. They were refugees from the chaos of the Chinese Revolution, which began in 1911; the horror of the Japanese invasion, which began in 1931; and the violence of banditry and warlordism, which had begun in earnest by 1912. It is estimated that these conflicts took upwards of 15 million civilian deaths and perhaps 4 million military fatalities. My great-grandparents were refugees from the Taiping Rebellion, and my ancestors before that had undergone peasant revolts and centuries of conquests by Manchus, Mongols and Muslims.
By the time my parents arrived in America, a good portion of their age peers had been violently killed, murdered, executed or slaughtered while the vast majority of Chinese in America of that period survived. My mother and sisters bathed in the peacefulness of America. There were no bombings, no invasions, no bandits, no savaging of women, no abandonment of baby girls (boys were saved whenever possible), no totalitarian government and no bloody impressments of roped-together-farm boys for military, warlord service or factory slave work. My sisters could choose their own husbands. They could receive an excellent education. They could vote. They couldnít be sold and their daughters would be safe from abandonment or sale to cruel men in hard times.
My sisters walked to school and went to college without physical fear. I, on the other hand, got the snookers beat out of me by kids who struggled to believe that such a cowardly, sniveling, weeping, blind and physically inept kid could actually exist in the world. They kept testing me to make the boy in me come out. But it wasnít America that was violent Ė it was poverty. Had I been born into poor streets in Hong Kong, Canton or Shanghai, (or Mexico City, Paris, Frankfurt, Palermo, Rio or Moscow) I wouldíve been set upon by tougher street gangs and, given my vast physical gifts, probably killed.
I thought America was horribly violent. The adults in my family Ė who were actually responsible for the worst violence that I experienced as a kid Ė knew better. The truth was that my father and stepmother were violent people and cast me into the street without preparing me.
Can Chinese culture meld with American culture?
Millions of Chinese immigrants, and their children, are trying to do this as we speak. I admire Kong Fu-tzu, Confucius, but I wouldnít want to live in a Confucian society. I, as a male, would have enormous rights, but my spouse and daughter would not. I lived in Confucian East Asia for more than a year. It was difficult for me to eat with my male host while his wife and children sat, watched and served us; they would not until the men were finished. Sons got the best food, clothing and education. Daughters were taught to be obedient and silent. There was a great deal of corporal punishment for slight disappointments and dire consequences for disobedience. Confucian men can abandon their wives and children at whim, without shame.
I admire Washington and Lincoln, while living in witness to the gaps between the dream of America and those who cannot fully participate.
Ultimately, Chinese Confucian culture (which is 2500 years older than 50-year old Chinese Communism), is about male hegemony and family authority. My mah-mee detested that central aspect of Chinese culture, and fled it. Yet she never stopped mourning for the separation from her kind and gentle father.
Ultimately, I think, American culture is not about violence (Cao Cao, the Han and Tang emperors, Genghiz Khan, Hung Chiu-chuan, Li Hung-chang, Tseng Kuo-fan, Mao Zedong, Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese warlords were famous for the slaughtering of their enemies and were far more violent than our worst military and political leaders). Itís about freedom and choice. The challenge for Chinese culture is finding freedom. The challenge for American culture is finding responsibility.
I like to think that these two notions have merged quite wonderfully in our children.
This novel ends while Kai is still a boy and, although he has had a victory on the street, he still has a long way toward assimilation. Do you plan to continue Kaiís story in future novels?
Honor and Duty (Knopf 1994) follows Kai to West Point. Tigerís Tail (Knopf 1996) follows a Chinese-American army officer to the DMZ in Korea. No Physical Evidence (Ballantine 1998) describes the struggles of a California Chinese-American deputy district attorney in the most difficult trial of his life. Chasing Hepburn (Harmony 2002) is the real-life memoir of the Lee family, which was related to me by my 91-year old father before he passed away. The novels tell my story while the memoir focuses on the lives of my parents.
Iím considering a flashback, non-fictional retelling of China Boy. This is because Diane and I have taken guardianship of an at-risk 15-year old lad from a Korean immigrant family, and his struggles are haunting reminders of my own. Iím now seeking to be Coach Tony to him, but instead of visiting Tony in his hotel room, our long-neglected, underfed, uncared-for lad is living with us.
Were there other writings that inspired this novel? Are there other authors that particularly inspire you to write?
To Kill a Mockingbird was required reading in my first year at West Point. Harper Lee then came to the Academy to speak to us. Her appearance and her talk were inspirational, magical and chimerical. Inspirational because she wrote of moral courage possessed by the most common of people Ė the social subgroup with which I identified. Magical because she transformed a thousand hard-bitten and fatigued West Point Plebes into a group of young readers who suddenly loved novels with renewed depth and passion. Chimerical because her presence that night in 1965 changed something organic inside of me, preparing me for my own writing, many years later.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a non-fiction book on Courage. One of the wonderful things I can do is to speak and train and even seek to educate as an ethicist. Despite my early embrace of cowardice, Iím now an advocate for moral courage and the development of character. American business isnít intentionally adept at either, and this can be traced to the dramatic absence of the teaching of applied ethics in our colleges, universities, graduate and professional schools. We desperately require moral competence in our relationships, decision-making and family and institutional lives, which have increasingly become Hobbesian rather than Aristotelian or Mosaic.
My publisher said this is a major switch for me. In truth, Iíve been a practicing and struggling ethicist for more than twenty-five years, while Iíve only been a writer for sixteen. It was great fun to write this book, which provides guidelines for the behaviors of courage through the stories of courageous people Iíve known and worked with. Courage is an extension of China Boy and my other books, in which I tried to tell stories of people who boldly act for the right regardless of risk to self.
- Discuss the childrenís roles in Kaiís family before Mah-mee dies. What is the importance of birth order in the family? Why is Megan treated differently? Why is Kai protected and favored? In what ways does Mah-mee prepare or leave them unprepared for the realities of American life? In what ways are Kaiís sisters more prepared than he is?
- ďI think I know why my father became a soldier, a professional fighter, an iconoclast. My mother was not impressed with Fatherís career choiceĒ (p. 33). Why does Kaiís father become a soldier? Why does Kai sympathize with this decision? Why would Mah-mee not be impressed? In what ways are Kaiís parents fundamentally different? What does each bring to Kaiís life?
- Kaiís mother longs to return to China, but the family stays in San Francisco. Why? Why is Kaiís father so obsessed with America? How does this play out while Mah-mee is alive and then after she dies? In what ways is Kaiís father blinded by his desire to have an American family?
- Before she dies, Mah-meeís main source of company is Kai. She takes him with her everywhere and does not let him go outside to play with the neighborhood children. How does this keep Kai from adapting to American culture? How does this hurt him later? Do you think Mah-mee was wrong to keep Kai so close to her? Why or why not?
- Discuss Mah-meeís obsession with education and writing. How does Uncle Shim later maintain her traditions? Do you think it is important for Kai to remain in touch with his Chinese roots in this way? Do you think that it will ultimately help or hinder him?
- After Mah-mee dies, Edna throws Kai onto the San Francisco streets where he is beaten by other children. Why is Kai a target for these children? Why does Edna keep him out of the house? Why is Edna herself so violent toward Kai and Janie? Why doesnít their father intercede?
- Kai speaks often of the difference between meals before and after Edna. How are traditional Chinese meals different than meals with Edna? Why is Edna so opposed to them eating Chinese food? Ultimately, what is the importance of food to Kai? How does he learn to love food and those who feed him?
- Why does Edna send Kai to all the churches in the Panhandle? What does religion mean to the various people in his neighborhood? To the men at the Y? Do you think Kai ever really learns faith?
- How does Toussaintís friendship change Kai? What does he offer Kai? Why is he willing to take Kai on as a friend when no one else is?
- ďKids learned to make their own music, without radios. . . . Kids, even poor and unhappy ones, loved to sing, warbling the purity of expression, the unsullied and miraculous of a childís honestyĒ (p. 105). Were you surprised by this passage? Why does the author place this passage in the story? What other nonviolent expression exists in Kaiís world?
- Where does Kai find sanctuary? What do these sanctuaries come to mean to him? How, in the end, do they help him to survive?
- When Tony asks Kai his first name, why does he reply, ďChina BoyĒ (p. 220)? Why not tell his given name? How are names used and adapted in Chinese culture? In what ways does Kai relate more to the street name he is given by his enemies than to the name his mother gave him?
- Why does Uncle Shim take Kai to the chess club? Why is it important for Kai to go? What is Uncle Shim trying to show him?
- Kai considers the anger of boxers, and how they need this to be good and to win. Does Kai have this anger? Why? When he finally takes on Willie Mack, who and what else is he fighting for?
- How does Kaiís need for Uncle Shim conflict with the life heís created at the Y? In what ways are the men at the Y ďChinese unclesĒ to Kai? How does Kai finally rationalize using violence, even when Uncle Shim tells him not to? How does Kai learn to reconcile these two very different forces in his life?
- Why does Kai take on Willie? How is he proving himself to the other children in the Panhandle? What does he prove to himself? Do you think it was the right thing for Kai to do? Was there any way for Kai to end the violence toward him without resorting to violence himself?
- How does the Y change Kai? What do his coaches there give him that he canít get at home? Besides the ability to fight, what does Kai learn from the art of boxing?
- Have you known a Toussaint, a Mrs. LaRue, a Hector, an Angelina or a Tony in your life? What impact did they have on you? On your values? On your behaviors? On your selection of friends? Have you known an Edna, a Big Willie or a Devil? How did they impact your life? Have you ever been a Toussaint or a Tony? What would that mean for the person you helped? What would it mean for you?