A few months back, my husband got a flyer in the mail from some travel company or another (among his other pursuits, he also writes a blog focusing on disabled travel). This particular brochure had a page advertising trips to China, which featured a picture of the terracotta warriors. Since China isn't in the travel plans just now, Jake put the brochure in the recycle bin, where Sprout promptly found and rescued it. For several weeks, he packed that picture of the terracotta warriors around, asking all about it. Those are in China, we said, and maybe one day we'll see them.
End of conversation, or so we thought.
Then Sprout was watching Thomas and saw an episode featuring a Chinese dragon. He's seen it before, so no big deal, right? But for some reason this time it stuck with him. "That from China, Mom?" he asked, and so we talked about how the dragon is a feature in Chinese culture. And then he remembered that they'd talked about Chinese New Year at his daycare. And then he saw me reading Grace Lin's The Year of the Rat, and so that prompted more talk about China. Honestly, I think the boy was getting a little obsessed.
So when we ran into the book Crouching Tiger by Ying Chang Compestine during a trip to the library, I was pretty sure he'd be interested. And sure enough, he was very excited to hear that the book was about a young boy, Vinson, whose grandfather visits from China. Surprisingly, though the book is a little long for his age, Sprout stuck with it, and has enjoyed looking over Yan Nascimbene's finely drawn illustrations on his own as well.
Crouching Tiger is a story about culture, family and identity; not only is it beautifully illustrated, it is sensitively and thoughtfully told to boot. In the book, Vinson doesn't know his grandfather very well, but he's impressed to see Grandpa practicing what he thinks is a martial art. Tai chi is not like kung fu, though, and Vinson quickly loses patience with the methodical movements Grandpa teaches him. In fact, everything about Grandpa seems frustratingly foreign: the way he always speaks Chinese, and how he insists on using Vinson's Chinese name, Ming Da. In fact, Vinson starts trying to avoid Grandpa - until an incident on the street gives Vinson a new appreciation for his grandfather's skills. Soon he begins to understand that while Grandpa's ways are different than his American friends' habits, they are still pretty amazing. And a Chinese New Year festival gives Vinson a whole new perspective on his ancestry and his grandfather both.
The dilemma that Vinson faces in Crouching Tiger is one familiar to many who grow up with a foot in two worlds. There's the pull of the new life, shiny and modern with its sense of excitement. And then there is the quiet steadiness of one's heritage, a part of identity that can seem dull in comparison but which forms the basis of who we are. Vinson learns that he is two things, both Chinese and American, and that there is value in each, a lesson that I hope we can give Sprout as he reconciles his Ethiopian ancestry with his life in America. If nothing else, I want him to see that there is beauty in tradition, just as Vinson does, and that he should never be ashamed of who he is.
And I guess we'd better start saving up to visit China too.
Crouching Tiger by Ying Chang Compestine, published by Candlewick
Sample: "On New Year's Eve, we cleaned the whole house. Dad cut my hair, and Mom cooked a big traditional meal. Grandpa handed me a red silk jacket embroidered with dragons. 'Ming Da, wear this for the parade tomorrow.' My heart sank. All my friends would be there and see me in this silly jacket. I excused myself and left the table."