Fifth Chinese Daughter - Jade Snow Wong

A Goodreads reviewer called this book "propaganda", and I can see what led to that opinion. It certainly has the air of an old-fashioned Social Studies text, whose theme might be "The Happy Immigrant Jade Snow Discovers the Wonders of the American Way", combined with "Everything You Need to Know About Chinese Culture in Four Easy Lessons"; Jade Snow Wong puts some lectures in the mouth of her parents that no human being would ever actually speak. But let’s consider why she might have chosen to write it that way. She published it in 1945, after spending the war years working in the administrative offices of a naval shipyard, where her most important job was researching what might improve productivity, and she was particularly proud of a paper she wrote about reducing absenteeism by "labor and management... set[ting] aside their differences... getting together and solving the basic problem of mass morale." It’s no wonder she absorbed a boosterish atmosphere. But the roots of her writing style go back farther. She wanted to "bring better understanding of the Chinese people, so that in the Western world they would be recognized for their achievements", and she intended her book to be read by white American children. Her own education formed her ideas about how one should write for children. In her Chinese evening school, the only thing the students wrote were edifying compositions on such themes as "The Value of Learning" or "The Necessity of Good Habits", and although Jade Snow found them rather mind-numbing, she certainly believed in their values. I don’t know what they wrote in the American school (she assumes her readers know this, and so doesn’t specify) but I bet there were a few such topics there too.

If I’ve made this book sound stupefyingly dull, that’s wrong, it certainly isn’t! (Most of the time, anyway.) Wong had a keen instinct for what her readers would find interesting; she knew that they’d be unfamiliar with the minutiae of her daily life in Chinatown, and includes such things as a well-written description of the proper method of washing and cooking rice. And in spite of her educational purpose and her commitment to mostly focusing on positive things when talking about other people (evidently part of her ideas about proper human relations), something very personal comes through at times. The main character is not just a vehicle for discovering ideas and the world, she’s an idiosyncratic girl, for instance in her stubborn refusal to adopt the universal fashion of curling her hair with hot irons. Above all, her depiction of her relationship with her parents, especially her father (a complex, sometimes contradictory man), is vividly human. Jade Snow’s parents were very often harsh toward her, and showing affection was just not something they were capable of, so it was a difficult process for her to come to love them as individuals. She rejected those parts of their values that she found most oppressive, while keeping some positive things that she felt were Chinese rather than American, such as a commitment to community involvement and a sense of having a place in a web of family relationships. Her family could come close to crushing her, true, especially when she ranked very low in its hierarchy, but once she had won respect, she found it was supportive too. Therefore, the triumphant ending to the book is not her leaving home for the wide world, but rather her parents saying with newfound warmth, "It is good to have you home again!"