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Written by Timothy Sexton
The overriding theme of the novel is the difficulties related to an immigrant culture assimilating into another. The grandmother represents the desire to hold onto the ancient traditions of China while the children who narrate the novel represent the willingness to embrace western cultures even at the expense of losing those traditions most cherished by their grandmother. The parents, of course, are the where the meeting of the past and the future coincide.
Ancient versus Modern
The conflict among the family is not situated specifically to the collusion of two different national identities. The grandmother clings to her belief in the presence of ghosts existing around us at all times as a symbol of the enduring legacy of Chinese history. The children are also invested in spectral images of a modern type: flickering pictures projected onto a screen. The opposition between the ghosts which can’t be seen but are assumed to be real and the movie scenes of Tarzan, John Wayne and Shirley Temple which can be seen, but aren’t real becomes the centerpiece of the novel’s thematic pitting of tradition versus progression. The world is changing fast in the early parts of the 20th century and the modern world is making many of the ancient traditions in a way never experienced before.
The value of family and even the question of what makes a family is also a vital theme of the novel. The emotional foundation of the novel and the family is the grandmother and it is through her that the child narrators connect to their Chinese heritage. She values the cultural DNA in the family like no one else and becomes the personification of the dilution of that DNA through exile from the homeland and the impact and effects of assimilating into western culture. The assimilation is a necessary byproduct of immigration, of course, if only for the purpose of reducing the impact of racism. The impact of racism raises the novel’s thematic focus on family to a more figurative level: in order to fit in and assimilate, Chinese immigrants must be willing to become adopted into the Canadian family in much the same way that Jung-Sum must sacrifice part of his cultural DNA when adopted by the Chen family.
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The problem for the rest of the family was in the fact that Grandmama looked for these treasures wandering the back alleys of Keefer and Pender Streets, peering into our neighbors’ garbage cans, chasing away hungry, nervous cats and...