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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #25 (June 19, 2007), page 15.
The joys (and trials) of being hapa
Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies)
By Justina Chen Headley
Little, Brown and Company, 2006
Hardcover, 241 pages, $16.99
By Maileen Hamto
Who would’ve thought that math camp could offer an opportunity for an awkward, gawky girl to get in touch with her Asian-ness and discover the joys of being hapa?
Patty Ho never quite fit in, especially with her upbringing in a strict Taiwanese home in the setting of a white-bread town. Patty endures the tirades of a school bully who gives her grief over her Asian half. At her mother’s Potluck Club, Patty doesn’t feel Asian enough to compete with the perfect and full-bred China Dolls. At times, Patty doesn’t even feel that she fits in her own family; even Harvard-bound older brother Abe looks unmistakably Asian.
Tasked to write her Truth Statement, "half-and-half" Patty struggles with content, because she feels alien, insecure, and uncomfortable in her own skin. Although undoubtedly a math whiz, she wrestles with her fate to spend the summer at SUMaC, Stanford University’s prestigious math camp. Little does she know that the summer bridging eighth grade and the rest of her life promises to be a time of life-altering discoveries and revelations.
Being away from home is liberating for most teenagers, and author Justina Chen Headley’s treatment of the bonds of friendship forged among young Asian-American women is refreshing.
While at math camp, Patty discovers a thing or two about Annie, an Asian girl at school whose academic accomplishments have made her the "Potluck Club" legend. She also befriends pierced and tattooed math whiz Jasmine. Around Jasmine, Patty learns for the first time that being "hapa" is actually considered an enviable state, at least among kids from bigger cities outside of Twin Harbor, Washington.
Headley takes great care in adding multiple dimensions to her characters. Despite being accepted into SUMaC (Stanford University Math Camp), Patty downplays her talent at math, revealing her ambivalence about the stereotypical view of Asian kids and their mythical dominance in math and science. In the end, she discovers a new talent — and possibly future gigs — at wordsmithing.
Of course, boys are a fixture in any story about the life of a 15-year-old girl. In a novel celebrating empowerment and liberation, Headley’s portrayal of men and boys is fair and justified. Sure, boys could be unthinkably mean like Steve Kosanko and as cruel and heartless as Stu. But camp counselor Brian is compassionate and wise beyond his years. Having a big brother jock like Abe surely comes in handy.
Patty’s process of self-discovery reveals links in her past that she never knew existed. Patty begins to understand why her mother — a single parent — made the tough decision to raise two children on her own. The story is reminiscent of the "ugly duckling" formula. Girl, different — i.e., "cannot pass for white or Asian" — grows up unsure about her own worth and abilities. Yet in time she discovers beauty and inner strength in the company of own her flock.