The book China Dolls, by Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan, is a Sex in the City -esque story that follows three friends on their journey of exploring what it means to be a Chinese American woman. The three women, M.J. , Alex, and Lin, have to struggle with the expectations set for them by their heritage, and at the same time, follow their dreams and deal with the pressure of being viewed differently in worlds dominated by men.
Yu and Kan make it a point to repeat the theme of dealing with cultural identity throughout the entire book. The book is sub-divided into 3 sections, each written in the perspective of one of the girls as they all experience 1 year together. M.J., a sportswriter belongs to the first section of the book. Her occupation places her in the midst of older white male counterparts, vying for the same interviews and sports stories. Marked by her race and gender, she has to work twice as hard as her colleagues to prove herself. At the same time her family and other friends constantly remind her that she is Chinese and should find a good Chinese man to settle down with, many of whom also have the traditional notion that Chinese woman should be the homemakers. Alex shares the same set of problems as she is a high-powered attorney where being a woman and Asian is a rarity. Lastly Lin follows suit as she is a stockbroker at Merrill Lynch. The book also explores other themes such as finding love, and letting go of the past.
The men come in two flavors in this story, Caucasian or Chinese. The authors don’t discriminate one race over the other; instead they portray the value and vices of both kinds of men. For example two main Chinese male characters in the story are Ming and Stephen. They each embody two sides of the spectrum; Ming is far more traditional than Stephen. Ming is characterized as the brotherly figure that looks out for the girls. Throughout the story he constantly warns the girls about white men, telling the girls that they will leave them heartbroken and that their parents would never accept them. On the other hand Stephen is characterized as almost the perfect Chinese husband. He has a good job, comes from a good family, he is adoring, and offers a stable relationship. Indeed other minor characters shape the portrayal of Chinese men in the book as well. One character Grant embodies the negative stereotype; he expects Chinese women to take care of their men, stay at home and raise children, and forget about having careers. Grant is portrayed as a close minded traditionalist.
Caucasian men are portrayed differently in the book. The main characters are generally charming, outgoing and more appealing than their Chinese counterparts. Indeed Alex and M.J. both end up with white boyfriends by the end of the book. Jagger is M.J.’s guy and he is portrayed as an outgoing jokester with a unique sense of style. Dressed in jeans and wacky t-shirts he is far from the clean cut figure that girls or even Chinese families would possibly accept. Brady, Alex’s man, is an assertive, charming lawyer. He is protective of Alex and is there for her. Although the Caucasian men may seem generally better they do have their flaws as well. Many of the minor characters like to flaunt their money around and some are intimidated by successful women. Kevin, M.J.’s former love interest is incapable of committing to her. Hailing from a posh family he broke up with her in high school yet met her again. He prefers to keep is options open rather than be tied down. Drew, a ladies man goes out with Lin however do to his spiteful nature and lack of trust inevitably explodes at Lin when their interoffice relationship is discovered. In the end Lin, goes back to her former ex Stephen. She misses the stability and care that he offered, showing that she still values what an idealized Chinese man can offer.
Although these men work with the women on a daily basis, the reason I believe that they chose to involve themselves with these men is because they offered risk, excitement, and even a chance to rebel against their cultural norm of being with Chinese men. As 2nd generation Chinese-Americans I believe Yu and Kan are trying to send the message that as the Chinese and American culture mix, it is time to break away from being overly traditional and embrace the idea of the strong, independent woman shared by feminists.
I found this book a good read and found that the story and culture is something that many Asian Americans can relate to. The book does a great job of balancing the positives of the culture such as the close knit family, holidays and traditions, and emphasis of Chinese virtues with the negatives that come along with it such as the expectations, lectures, and over protectiveness. The book is about trying to balance the pressures of Chinese culture and American culture, and in the end, it suggests that it is the heterogeneous mix of cultures and values that make us who we are.