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Beijing Bastard: Into the Wilds of a…

Beijing Bastard: Into the Wilds of a Changing China

by Val Wang

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I have to admit, I love the idea of finding yourself by going back to the place that your parents fled. While that may not have been the actual reason for Wang to go back to China, it certainly seemed to be what she got out of it. I listened to the audiobook, read by Emily Woo Zeller, who's voice was familiar from when I listened to The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness last year.

There's actually a lot to love in this book. As with Najla Said in Looking for Palestine, Wang grows up stuck between the culture she is growing up in and the culture her parents are pushing upon her. She is dragged to Chinese school, told what Chinese do, and doesn't seem to ever quite feel Chinese. She's Chinese-American, which seems to become an ever greater distinction as other try to force her identity onto her rather than let her identify herself.

I've been through a little of that too as people have tried to tell me just how Hispanic I am and what I should or shouldn't do on account of it. I've tried to gently remind them that there is this whole other half of me and that perhaps Hispanics are more nuanced they are giving themselves credit for (the person, not all Hispanics because this only seems to happen with people who think we should all be some monolithic group that all dance perfectly, among other things). Nevertheless, I have never gone back to Cuba, where my mother is from, but I would only hope for a similar kind of experience.

While in China, for reasons that are more a gut feeling than rational, Wang realizes quite a bit about her family, where they came from, what they ran from, and why they are the way they are. She seems to get there just in time as China begins to capitalize and modernize. While the exact China of her parents' past was already gone, trampled under 50 years of communist regime, she gets to look in and see a part of what made their culture and lifestyle so different from life in the US and a little of why they worked so hard to preserve it.

My favorite part about stories like this, that start in the US and involve traveling to parental homes abroad, is that it tends to have the same feel of a hero's journey into an unknown world in science fiction or fantasy. The lone hero embarks upon an adventure of discovery into a culture that is new to their lived experience, maybe they've learned something about them, maybe not. Either way, the lived experience is entirely different and the awkward moments of figuring out what's normal and who's taking advantage of you and what isn't normal is all fun to read about.

I loved the way her views on her parents and China and Chinese culture and different kinds of attachments evolve throughout the book. At my age now, and reading through books like this, I have to wonder if we all cringe at the thought of what our 20 year old selves thought and did and thought our lives were going to be like. Big ideas and no idea how to get there.

For me, the most poignant moment can be summed up in a line she quotes from an interview:

His history, after all, is mine too.
I suppose that's true for us all. Our parents are a part of our history, and what they went through is a part of how they raised us. ( )
  Calavari | Apr 5, 2018 |
I received a free copy of Beijing Bastard through Goodreads First Reads.

Initial Review:
Beijing Bastard is just not a good match for me. It was not at all like I thought it would be after reading the description. Reading it was almost painful. After struggling through the first part, I took my time before picking this book up again. (Jumping back and forth in time and going off on tangents is best done in moderation.) But, I was determined to give it a fair chance and a decent review--one that came from having read the whole book.

I couldn't help finding some parts very offensive. But, I assume that's what Wang was going for--especially after describing herself as some sort of rebellious youth which, unfortunately, came across as very clichéd. Her story feels like a bunches of unnecessarily detailed descriptions of the commonplace without really saying much (like her attempts at onomatopoeia which seem randomly placed and painfully mismatched with their sources). Things like this give the impression that Wang is trying hard to make an uninteresting story seem interesting.

Amidst many ramblings, Wang compares the new and old eras of China a number of times, but I'm not sure which she prefers or if she even has an opinion. She talks about missing the old courtyard houses and being disappointed when they're destroyed to make way for new buildings, and enjoying the documentary about the old men and their slow life, among other things. She even expresses some interest in traditional Chinese Opera. Yet, she doesn't really seem to connect with the elderly Chinese she meets or knows, or China's former culture. It's almost as if her regard for old China is superficial, like nostalgia over some glossy version of history that you don't really connect with.

So far, I feel like this book would improve tremendously if Wang would trim the unnecessary "fat".

Final review:
...Well, the second half of the book was much better than the first half. It was more along the lines of what I expected after reading the book's description. Less back and forth, sudden leaps in time (and over and over again), and better story telling. (Basically, I could follow Wang's story, her experiences and thoughts, a lot better and could relate to her more.) Too bad the first half isn't more like the second. If it had been, I'd probably have rated it with three out of five stars (maybe 3.5 to 4 out of 5 if it was more PG-13...maybe). ( )
  Trisarey | Aug 7, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I must admit I struggled to finish this. The story, about the author moving to China after college in 1998 and staying for four or five years, seemed overlong and failed to attract my interest. As a character in the book observed, Val seemed to just drift into China and drift through her journalism career. Throughout the book she has this dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker, a dream that never came to fruition, as she just gave up on the idea when she came across a problem.

You might say that both Val and Beijing -- which was undergoing a massive urban development project towards the end of the book -- were both experiencing growing pains. But not every coming of age story needs to be written, and I think unless you're super obsessed with China and Beijing in particular, this book just doesn't have a lot to offer. ( )
  meggyweg | Jul 24, 2017 |
A not particularly involving book. Ms. Wang's story is that of one searching for her identity, as a woman, and as one torn between her identity as a modern, educated, liberated woman, and one confused as to what her Chinese heritage actually means. The portraits she paints of the people she meets in China aren't very interesting as the author fails to link their stories to the larger changes the country is experiencing. Perhaps it's unfair to expect her individual character sketches to coalesce into something more meaningful. Absent that, her book just becomes pedestrian quality writing in search of a theme. ( )
1 vote jcy500 | Aug 4, 2015 |
An interesting change from the other books *about* China that I've been reading. This isn't about China, it's about going to China -- or it's about going to the place you're supposedly from,and what happens. Pretty funny.
  revliz | Jul 20, 2015 |
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"A humorous and moving coming-of-age story that brings a unique, not-quite-outsider's perspective to China's shift from ancient empire to modern superpower. Raised in a strict Chinese-American household in the suburbs, Val Wang dutifully got good grades, took piano lessons, and performed in a Chinese dance troupe--until she shaved her head and became a leftist, the stuff of many teenage rebellions. But Val's true mutiny was when she moved to China, the land her parents had fled before the Communist takeover in 1949. Val arrives in Beijing in 1998 expecting to find freedom but instead lives in the old city with her traditional relatives, who wake her at dawn with the sound of a state-run television program playing next to her cot, make a running joke of how much she eats, and monitor her every move. But outside, she soon discovers a city rebelling against its roots just as she is, struggling too to find a new, modern identity. Rickshaws make way for taxicabs, skyscrapers replace hutong courtyard houses, and Beijing prepares to make its debut on the world stage with the 2008 Olympics. And in the gritty outskirts of the city where she moves, a thriving avant-garde subculture is making art out of the chaos. Val plunges into the city's dizzying culture and nightlife and begins shooting a documentary, about a Peking Opera family who is witnessing the death of their traditional art. Brilliantly observed and winningly told, Beijing Bastard is a compelling story of a young woman finding her place in the world and of China, as its ancient past gives way to a dazzling but uncertain future"--… (more)

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