Charlie is 22 years old and has been working as a dishwasher in the same restaurant as her father for years. Beyond leaving scars and burns on her hands, it’s the kind of job she doesn’t want and knows won’t fulfill her. At the same time, she recognizes that what she’s doing matters in some ways because it’s an honorable thing to be doing alongside her father.
But when her friend tells her about a job opening as a receptionist at a dance studio, Charlie jumps at the chance. She knows it means telling a lot of lies to her father, and she knows that she wouldn’t necessarily be good at the job. It’s an important opportunity, though, to get out of the kitchen and more, it’s an opportunity to connect with the passion for dance her mother had before she died, even if she herself won’t be dancing.
Mambo in Chinatown is Jean Kwok’s sophomore novel, and it’s excellent. I read her debut Girl in Translation as part of the Outstanding Books for the College Bound (which I’ve yet to talk about in my posts about this) and when I heard her second book was coming, I knew I was in for a treat.
This is a story about an American born Chinese girl who takes a shot at a new job knowing she won’t be good at it and knowing that all of the lies she needs to construct could get her into huge trouble with her father and with the Chinatown community (it’s a very small community, she tells us, which means that any misdeeds or any movement outside of acceptable traditions and honors causes a lot of gossip). Charlie chooses to pursue the opportunity, though, and it’s not long before the people at the studio notice she’s not good at the work. It’s not for lack of trying. It’s simply that Charlie has trouble with reading and with memory, and so she’s not well-suited to keeping agendas and schedules.
Fortunately for her, a mishap also means that she’s been asked to teach a beginner dance class. Sure, her mother was a dancer — that’s part of why this job was so appealing to Charlie — but she herself has no skills whatsoever. She tells us again and again she’s the opposite of the dancers and instructors in the studio: where they are sleek, shiny, and float, she is dowdy, wearing worn-out hand-me-downs, and she’s the opposite of light on her feet. Those around her notice this, but they also see something more, which is why she’s called to teach. They believe that even with no skills or experience, she can learn enough in a couple of days to teach the basics to students who know nothing.
So she takes the chance.
Meanwhile, she’s told her father that she’s been working “with computers.” It’s a way of building an honorable lie, one which makes her look like she’s doing something that’s meaningful and good, progressing her future, but it’s not one that makes her look like she’s trying to escape or “do better than” him or others in her community.
A big component of the story is that of Charlie’s relationship with her 11-year-old sister Lisa, who is exceptionally bright and intelligent. Charlie and Lisa are very close, and when Lisa’s afforded the opportunity to test into an advanced high school, Charlie steps up to argue on Lisa’s behalf to her father, who thinks that were she to be accepted, it would be a mistake. That it would cause the family more problems than it would be worth. But as the test date gets closer, Lisa becomes more and more ill. It began with wetting the bed, then progressed to times when she’d lose all feeling in her legs. When she’d be unable to work at her Uncle’s medical practice because she was simply too sick (you did read that right — Lisa, 11, worked for her Uncle because that’s how this family needs to make ends meet and it’s a way to help a family member). Charlie’s concerned about the turn in Lisa’s health, and while her father sees no reason to move beyond Eastern medical practices for healing — led by a woman who Charlie dubs the Vision — Charlie believes Lisa needs to see a Western medical practitioner. Knowing the experience the family had with Western medicine when their mom took ill, including huge medical expenses, Charlie’s not convinced her father will listen.
And he doesn’t.
Charlie’s singular teaching experience comes with the notice that she’s losing her job. That she’s a terrible receptionist and that she can’t stay at the studio. The bright side, though, is that she’s offered more teaching opportunities because, despite her inexperience, she’s got something in her that shows maybe she’s a natural. That maybe dance is something she can get good at. Charlie’s excited and nervous — does she have the clothes? Can she get good? Why do they trust her with this when she’s proven she can’t even keep a date book right? More, how does she keep up the lies she’s told her family?
But things fall into place. She’s helped along the way by people at the studio (which, don’t think there aren’t detractors, because there certainly are) and by her own raw determination to succeed.
Mambo in Chinatown is about how to balance the past with the present and how to honor sacred, important cultural traditions with one’s interests and passions in building and establishing a new identity and new roles in a new culture. Charlie’s forced to consider what it means to seek out her interest in dance with what it means to remain humble and remain invested in the traditions of her family and the larger Chinatown community. Kwok does an exceptional job of rendering this lesser-visited part of America in a way that’s reverent toward both sides of the story. We want to see Charlie succeed in dance, but we also see why it’s so important for her to listen to her father and why it’s so important for her to keep some of those traditions and customs as part of her life now. There’s great honor in both, and it’s about how Charlie chooses to balance both of those worlds.
One of the best lines in the book comes when she’s put in the position to attend a competition. Where she’d otherwise step back, hide from the limelight, she decides that she’s ready to go on, even when she knows it means a lot more than simply having to work hard to do well. She notes, “All my life, I’d been trying to fulfill other people’s ideas of who I was supposed to be and failing, and this was my chance to try to become who I was meant to be.”
Dance and the dance culture do an excellent job of paralleling this, too — while what we get to see in Charlie’s world appears to be cut and dry, even romanticized, she’s warned that the bigger world of dance is far from it. That competitions and the world beyond this particular studio are can be filled with one-night stands, with drugs, with drinking, and with partying in exceptionally unsafe ways. It’s not until she’s put into a position to be at a competition with a partner that she sees it. And when she does, it rattles her a bit; she’s able, though, to pull from her own personal convictions and morals to understand that while other people partake in those activities, she doesn’t have to if she doesn’t want to.
There is a romance in the novel between Charlie and the student she’s paired with. While she knows it’s forbidden to be in a relationship with a student by the rules of the studio and punishable by job termination, she avoids pursuing those feelings. Fortunately, a few technicalities that work out later allow her to see where this romance could lead, and it’s a really nice and rewarding part of the read. Yes, she falls in love and yes, it’s with someone who has the same kind of feelings towards her. It’s another smart parallel to the idea of balancing the old world of tradition with the new world of opportunity.
But my favorite part of Kwok’s novel is the relationship between Charlie and her sister Lisa. The huge age difference here is crucial, as is the fact these girls don’t have a mother in their life. There are strong women who interact with them and who guide them — particularly Charlie — but it’s their reliance and love for one another that shines through. When Lisa becomes sicker and sicker, it weighs so heavily on Charlie’s mind that she does everything she can to learn as much as possible about how to help her sister. She becomes as well-versed in navigating the American medical system as possible, and the confusion, frustration, and angst it gives her is realistic. While she listens to her father’s determined stance against it and belief that only Eastern healing will work, Charlie knows that a balance of the two is what’s really needed. So when Lisa reveals something that happened to her, something that caused her to lose control of her body in really awful, hard-to-read ways, Charlie knows she has to step in and take charge of the situation, even if it means making her father angry. It’s then, of course, much more of the story unravels and Charlie’s father learns more about the true nature of his daughter’s new job…and the incredible nature of his daughter/s.
Mambo in Chinatown is an adult book but it has loads of teen appeal. Readers who love stories set in urban metropolises that aren’t about smart, rich, elite people will eat this up, as it offers a glimpse into the labor class life of Chinatown. More, readers who love stories about dance and pursuing one’s dream will find so much to appreciate in Charlie’s story. It’s a well-paced, consuming read with well-written, dynamic characters who never once feel anything less than real.
Mambo in Chinatown is available today. Review copy picked up at ALA Midwinter.