China Boy Summary
by Gus Lee

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China Boy Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

China Boy is the story of Kai Ting, the American-born son of a refugee Shanghainese family. Ending an odyssey across both friendly and unfriendly terrain, the Ting family finally settles in San Francisco.

China Boy opens with Kai’s retelling of how his family—including his mother, father, and three elder sisters—fled the civil war in China, and how they came to be situated in San Francisco, specifically in the Panhandle, a tough, largely poor neighborhood. It is in this “concrete crucible” that Kai does his growing up.

The almost six-year-old Kai is his mother’s favorite child and only son, and she pins large hopes upon him. Kai’s sisters are all considerably older than he is, and he assumes the natural position of coddled youngest child. His world revolves around his mother, whose passion, charisma, and overabiding sense of family weave for young Kai a protective cocoon. In fact, until he starts school, Kai has little sense of the world outside the Tings’ home. He has even less sense of other children his age and what it will take to cross the boundary between the protection of family and the dangers of a world populated with hostile strangers.

Tragically for Kai, his mother dies. While he could previously rush home from the schoolyard and the streets of the Panhandle to the security of home, Kai is now robbed of the balance from that reality. To compound matters, his father marries Edna McGurk, who steps into her new role of stepmother with reluctance but nevertheless with draconian ideas about how to rear suddenly inherited children. From an almost idyllic existence of Chinese food, ancestral stories, the Shanghainese dialect—or “Songhai”—and the loving, doting presence of Mah-mee, Kai is propelled, within the space of months, into a subsistence that is circumscribed by a relentlessly cruel stepmother, a strictly enforced new tongue, and the still-new experience of the tough streets of the Panhandle.

As “China Boy” in his predominantly black neighborhood, Kai immediately becomes the easiest target of boyish aggression and plain meanness. His tiny frame does not help him, and neither do his nearsightedness and his inability to communicate in the language of the street. His stepmother locks him out of the house until dinnertime, and Kai has no recourse but to live his daylight hours among his street-seasoned peers. Kai is constantly beaten up, but he does manage to make two friends. One is Toussaint LaRue, and the other is Toussaint’s mother. Mrs. LaRue represents for Kai the mother and all the mothering that he has lost.

After a particularly vicious attack on Kai, his father decides to enroll him at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) with the hope that Kai will receive some instruction in self-defense. At the YMCA, Kai’s eyes are opened to yet another new world. It is a world of aggression-driven boys, but in this environment, there are also grown men who take the time to help channel the aggression toward worthwhile ends. Puny, scared, ill-treated, and starved, Kai learns to box. He also learns to trust, especially in his coaches. Over the months, their collective instruction and their belief in their smallest student begins to show results. Kai puts on weight; Tony Barraza, the boxing coach, sees to it that the starved Kai is fed in the YMCA cafeteria. Kai is soon able to step into the ring in his beginner’s class and last three rounds with an opponent. He is far from being able to beat the street bullies, but he is gaining a sense of self and what he can accomplish. He also makes friends, and his English improves.

Despite his blossoming at the YMCA, Kai is quickly brought down to earth in an encounter with the meanest neighborhood bully. Kai is once again badly beaten up. At the same time, his home situation does not improve. His father is invariably away on business, Edna is unbearably cruel, and his sisters can do little to help him. On top of that, he is stricken with the...

(The entire section is 1,199 words.)