Adolescence is a confusing time for young people. The inner turmoil of emotional growth and physical development is especially pronounced for students who are from different cultural backgrounds than their American peers. Many experiences are similar, despite cultural differences: the anxieties of grades, friendships, first loves and choosing a college. But adding in the pressure of a different culture can be especially overwhelming. Such is the case of the protagonist in Helen Chen’s young adult novel, “Jin-Ling’s Two Left Feet.”
Narrated in first person, Chen tells the story of high school senior Jin-Ling, a first-generation Chinese-American girl struggling to balance her American high school experience and her traditional Chinese family’s expectations. Jin-Ling’s mother and father have especially high expectations of their children. Jin-Ling must uphold the family honor through superior academic excellence. Getting good grades and being accepted to college aren’t enough; Jin-Ling must secure acceptance to an Ivy League university. To her family, a top-notch education and respected job are critically important, and while her parents pinch pennies by reusing plastic zipper bags and envelopes, they have no qualms with accumulating large debt to pay the high cost of an elite education.
As her Chinese-American friends receive acceptance letters from Ivy League schools, Jin-Ling’s mailbox remains empty, and the anxiety of potentially dishonoring her father begins to consume her. She begins to feel like a “nobody” in her own home. When Jin-Ling finally receives a letter of welcome from Yale University, she evolves in the eyes of her family “from a nobody to a somebody.”
Jin-Ling envies what she sees as the simplicity of her American friends’ lives. As the two cultures conflict within her, she feels like “a polite layer covers an angry layer” and “a Chinese layer fights with an American layer.”
SET IN ROCHESTER
Rochester-area readers will enjoy the familiar landmarks in “Jin-Ling’s Two Left Feet,” including downtown businesses Victoria’s Restaurant, Broadstreet Cafe and the now-closed Barnes & Noble in Peace Plaza, as well as Apache Mall and the nearby Bailey Heights neighborhood. Chen’s novel comes alive with the sights and sounds of Rochester as seen through the eyes of Jin-Ling.
Born in Taiwan, author Helen Chen is a 20-year resident of Rochester whose daughter, Candace, a first-generation Chinese-American, graduated from Mayo High School. Though the book is a work of fiction, Chen took inspiration for many of Jin-Ling’s experiences from those of her own daughter.
“This book is like a family photo,” Chen says. Jin-Ling’s parents have the voices and some of the experiences of Chen’s parents, while many of Jin-Ling’s experiences echo those of her daughter, Candace.
Like most first-time authors, getting published was challenging for Chen. She spent two years writing and two years editing “Jin-Ling’s Two Left Feet,” attended numerous writing conferences and met with various publishers in hopes of receiving a publishing contract. During this process, she was counseled by an agent to change the book’s ending. The agent believed that if Jin-Ling clearly chose one culture over the other in the story, the book would be more marketable. Chen refused, keeping true to Jin-Ling’s character and experiences.
IN THE END
Chen elected to self-publish rather than continue searching for a large publishing house, explaining that telling the story of “Jin-Ling’s Two Left Feet” was more important than profiting from the book. In fact, during the first several years after publication, Chen donated all profits from the book to Channel One of Rochester to benefit the needs of people experiencing hunger in Olmsted County.
Chen hopes that readers will walk away with the understanding that Jin-Ling’s experiences reflect the idea that no one culture is better than another; it’s the pieces of each culture that make us who we are.
Mothers of teenage girls and young adults alike will enjoy reading “Jin-Ling’s Two Left Feet.” The words of the characters ring true with the thoughts, feelings and experiences of many high school girls as they navigate the waters of school, friendships, relationships and finding their way.
Catherine H. Armstrong is a full-time mom and community volunteer. She is currently working on her first novel.