author: Joyce Lee Wong
date: Amulet Books, 2005
main character: Emily Wu
Sixteen year old Emily is trying to make her place in the world, but first she has to figure out who she is as a person. She has wonderful skills as an artist, which have been nurtured by her mother who is also an artist. On weekends, she works in her family’s Chinese restaurant and at school she seems quite respected by her teachers and she has two close friends. Emily is the only Chinese student in her school until Alex Huang appears and they’re assigned to work on a school mural together because they are both so talented. After having been the only Chinese student in her school, Emily is unsure how to accept Alex into her world. Besides that, there’s Nick, a hot White guy that she’s attracted to and who happens to like her as well. Emily doesn’t realize his attraction is based solely upon his quest for the exotic until she has a very awkward dinner with his parents. Wong provides realistic insights into Emily’s life as an ABC (American Born Chinese) who doesn’t feel that she fits in in the US or in Taiwan. Emily pushes limits to question and shape her identity and when her parents sense her flailing, they send her to Taiwan under the guise of learning Chinese.
Seeing Emily is told in free verse. I typically have issues with this format, however in this scene in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, you can actually feel Emily shrinking as she becomes aware of the errors of her ways.
Hearing the sincerity in his voice,
I thought of the resentment,
even anger I’d been feeling
toward my parents
before I left for Taipei
and I felt a twinge
of regret, perhaps
or even guilt.
Through Emily and Alex, Wong relates the heavy expectations placed on immigrant children, not only for cultural reasons but to fulfill the dreams of parents who left their homeland so that their children could have a better life. Emily grew up speaking Chinese in her home and she learned English herself when she began school. I had never really considered the skills it would take for a child to be able to make the connections to be able to maneuver between two different languages. Wong didn’t point this out, it was just an ‘aha moment’.
Impulsively, I say, “Tell me in Chinese.”
Alex looked surprised.
“I didn’t know you knew Chinese.”
“I don’t know it very well,” I said.
“But I’m trying to improve.”
“Mei ban fa. Wang ze cheng long.” he said.
“Did you understand that?”
“Your mother said, ‘There’s no help for it.’
But what does ‘wang zi cheng long’ mean?”
“That’s the part I was trying to translate.
It’s a saying that expresses the hope
of Chinese parents
that their sons will one day
and that their daughters will become
phoenixes. This means
they want their children to grow up
to achieve their fullest potential.”
As I considered this,
I understood Alex’s mother was saying
that she accepted the inevitable yet wished for the best,
every imaginable blessing
for her son.
To Alex, I said, smiling
“Your mother hopes
you’ll become a dragon.”
In Seeing Emily, we find a talented author who takes us inside Taiwanese culture, who paints events with vivid accuracy and creates a character for whom we can’t help but like. Seeing Emily was an International Reading Association Notable Book and was widely reviewed. At this time, it is Wong’s only book.