The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Dai-li Ting, Kai’s “Mah-mee,” appears only in the beginning of the book. Yet her presence is an important one, for it is primarily through her that Kai has a sense of who he is, who his ancestors are. She speaks her native Songhai with Kai and his sisters and instills in them the value of family togetherness, of a cultural past that is now remote but that can nevertheless be reenacted in some semblance in their now-American lives. Dai-li Ting is vivacious, unpredictable, idiosyncratic, passionate, and she loves her only son fiercely. She is the anchor in Kai’s world, and her brief appearance in the novel only serves to underscore his loss when she dies of cancer. With her death, Kai is stripped not only of love and protection but also of the most palpable reminder of his ancestral roots.

Colonel Ting is Kai’s military-hero father, now a bank officer in civilian America. He abhors the degeneration in his homeland that led finally to civil war, and he is concerned primarily with becoming and being American. He is taciturn, rigid, and an iconoclast among the Chinese community in San Francisco because of his disavowal of most things Chinese. To his son, he is distant and unapproachable, and his presence does nothing to soften the blow of Mah-mee’s death. Colonel Ting is the typically uncommunicative father, and it seems that the best he can do for his son is to enroll him at the YMCA, thus giving Kai over to a group of surrogate fathers.


(The entire section is 559 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Kai Ting

Kai Ting, the seven-year-old son of a Nationalist Chinese Army officer, living in a predominantly African American and poor neighborhood in San Francisco. Kai, the youngest child and only son in his family, is short, skinny, and myopic. Kai leads a sheltered life. His stepmother, Edna, forces him to stay in the street most of the time. Kai’s fractured English, gentle manners, and inability to fight earn him the nickname “the China Boy” and make him the punching bag of all the neighborhood boys. He is particularly tormented by Big Willie Mack, a towering twelve-year-old who takes his shoes and his money. His constant battering does not soften the heart of his stepmother, who sends him right back to the street to face the bullies. At the suggestion of a neighbor, Hector Pueblo, Kai’s father sends him to the YMCA to learn boxing. His instructors feel sorry for the gentle little boy, who is starved physically and emotionally, and try their best to teach him the basics of self-defense. Kai is a slow learner and continues to be pounded in his neighborhood. After one particularly vicious beating by Big Willie, Kai’s instructor, Barney Lewis, realizes that the only way to end this constant terror is to force Kai to fight back. He devises a street attack plan for him. Kai is given step-by-step instructions to draw Big Willie into a confrontation. Kai fights with all of his might. He is beaten badly, but Big Willie, hurt himself, realizes that he cannot continue to pick on him. With the confidence gained by standing up to Big...

(The entire section is 635 words.)