Crystal Chan shares a story from China which had a special resonance for her growing up as a mixed-heritage child in the United States
Ai ya! That Chinese expression – which was often used by my dad – can denote confusion, amazement, discontent, irritation, surprise and even incredulity. The expression also features prominently in my favourite childhood folktale, The Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy. In the story, seven brothers use their seven different supernatural powers to defeat the emperor, who is determined to kill them. However, since the brothers look alike, talk alike and walk alike, they keep exchanging places with each other and using their individual powers to thwart the emperor’s plans. (My favourite brother was the one whose legs could grow as tall as the depth of the ocean and so could not be drowned.)
I grew up half Chinese, half White in a small town in the 1980s, and I didn’t have images of people who looked like me, not on TV or in movies or even on billboards. Back then, there weren’t many children’s stories featuring Chinese people (much less half-Chinese people!), and so as a child it was liberating to cry out Ai ya! with my parents as they read me the story and to have this small mirror reflecting back to me some aspect of my own Chinese heritage. Although, as much as I wished, I had to swim each time I went into the ocean.
Crystal Chan’s debut novel Bird is published by Tamarind on 30 January 2014.