Chinglish is a quirky coming-of-age story is written in the form of diary entries and doodles. Aimed at a teen audience, it has rightly been described as tragicomic. The ‘almost entirely true story’ is based on the author’s teenage years growing up in Coventry in the 1980s.
The story is packed full of humorous vignettes of family life as well as life at school. Often involving unusual food and potential pets – a thread that continues throughout the story: ‘I’ve just fed boiled intestines to the local stray dog, as instructed by Dad’. Throughout I was very much reminded of the irreverent humour of Sue Townsend’s classic The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4, also set in the 1980s.
Narrator Jo Kwan has all the usual teenage worries about looks, friendships, school life, and hiding her embarrassing family; however, her overriding concern is trying to fit in. When her best friend apologises for her mum asking Jo lots of questions about where she’s from, Jo says: ‘It’s a bit weird though, cos I always feel Chinese when I’m with English people and English when I’m with Chinese people. It’s never one or the other. It’s a bit crap’
Comic episodes arise from the communication breakdown in her ‘dysfunctional’ family often due to relatives speaking either hardly any Chinese or no English. In addition, Jo feels the pressure of her relatives the ‘Poshos’ who seem to have assimilated so well: ‘Me and Bonny had Victoria Sponge at Poshos’ while Uncle read the Daily Mail and Auntie potted parsley. They are more English than most English people!’
Where does this novel fit in school? It is very much a secondary text as later on in the story, the issues of truancy, depression and physical abuse come into play. I would probably use it in a small book group so that discussions could be possible. In terms of exploring racism, the narrator defuses incidents with humour such at harvest festival: ‘After assembly, a teacher asked me to take the (catering-sized tin of) bamboo shoots back, as it wasn’t practical. When I got home, Mum went spare cos she uses the tin for standing on when she can’t reach the top shelves. So the teacher was wrong. It is VERY practical – ha!’ Although light-touch there would also be plenty of scope to unpack these incidents which happen quite a lot.
Sue Cheung has written an endearing story in Chinglish with a truly likeable narrator who many readers will warm to straight away for her understandable teenage worries together with her particular anxieties when trying to find her place in two different cultures.
A podcast with Sue Cheung is available here.
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