title: Chenxi and the foreigner
date: 2009, Annick Press
main character: Anna White
Given the title, you would think Chenxi would be the main character of this book. And given that the first chapter is his, you would expect to get to know him in this story and watch him develop. Throughout the book, however, Chenxi remains as much a mystery to us as he does to Anna. Chenxi is a young man who seems extremely intelligent, who likes to try to outsmart people and is caught up in the world of foreigners in Shanghai and we only learn more on a need to know basis. Probably because his English is so good, he is requested to chaperone Anna while she visits with her dad, Mr. White. Mr. White’s world is well,…white. He avoids mingling with Chinese culture while he lives and works there. Anna will be studying art at a nearby university, where he skills are quickly seen to be superior to the local students who are taught to paint with precision, void of emotion or individual interpretation. The art classes result from the author’s 3 years in China taking art lessons. (see author interview
“Anna strained to see who was calling, but a hundred identical faces stared at her.” I read this line, The Ultimate Racial Slur, and wanted to stop reading. I couldn’t tell if this was the author’s voice bleeding through or if this was the character’s stupidity. It was the character and she was stupid!
This story takes place in China in the 1980s and the reviews I’ve read felt that the author accurately captured Shanghai at that time. The tight government controls and fear of strangers still exists, but not nearly as much as then. The economy is much more developed and people are moving away from the then ever present bicycles. Young Americans are probably just as naive, expecting cultural expressions and political systems to be the same as in the US.
“What’s that?” Anna said, pleased that she had already picked up a term of endearment for herself.
“It mean “small Fat Fat,'” Chenxi said, laughing.
Anna was mortified. “What?” she spluttered. “I’m not fat!”
“Yes you are!” said Chenxi. “In China to be fat is lucky. Lao Li think fat is beautiful.”
despite her liberal upbringing, Anna found it hard to take fat as a compliment! How different from her own culture’s idea of beauty. even she, despite being an average size, had succumbed to fetishes of dieting and starvation as a young teenager, like most of her friends at school.
She glanced at Chenxi slyly. “What about you? do you like fat girls?”
“I like all girls,” he boasted, and Anna felt a tiny thread tighten inside her.
Anna’s crush began!
Anna had a very poor relationship with her father. She knew he had no respect for Chinese culture and she could not turn to him for reliable information. Chenxi admired foreigners from a distance, but up close, he could not trust them and he would not educate Anna about life in Shanghai. When Anna finally met Laurent, a sophisticated French student, she was too far along to trust him, thinking she had things figured out on her own. She thought the government was something to be ignored, that she could safely fall in love in Chenxi and that her comings and goings really didn’t matter.
I think my favorite part of the book is when Anna goes with Chenxi to visit his relatives in a small town. Anna is not allowed to go with the art class on a a field trip and since Chenxi is expected to babysit Anna, he can’t go either. On the visit, Anna is able to explore a bit more than she could in the larger city. Here, she learns more about Chenxi and his past that she learns anywhere else. And again, because of her reluctance to listen to others she gets sick and has to be cared for, thus causing problems for Chenxi’s family. Anna refuses to realize that in this communal society her actions have a direct impact with others.
My least favorite part of the book? Well obviously, I did not like the character! She arrived in her own little world and never grew outside it. Typically in books where you don’t like the main character, you don’t like the book but I can say I did like this book. I like the skillful way Rippin painted a picture of the ugly American. I was impressed with the way the consequences flowed from the actions and our girl Anna just kept on going, thinking that she, wonderful White American could conquer it all. Rippin used very real, intense situations to create a lasting impression on cultural and societal differences. I have to mention that my least favorite scene was when Anna seduced Chenxi. They’re kissing. It’s their first makout scene and Anna says, after a few kisses she decided to do what she knew came next and she proceeded to undress. Have things changed that much that the first make out session proceeds quite that fast???
Every library that services young adults should have this book. Reading it will give young people an authentic sense of how different places can be and they can see how Americans look who think every place is just like America.
Disclosure: This book is from my school media center.