Random House Teens
IQ "So far, I'd found that people became annoyed, even angry, when you did something unexpected. They wanted you to conform to their idea of what you should be. Chinese were expected to be experts at laundry, girls were expected to do exquisite embroidery, and Westerners with big noses were not expected to speak Chinese. People liked you to be predictable because it made them feel safer." Xueyan pg. 148
Xueyan (her nickname is Yanyan) is sixteen and living in Nanjing, China where it's customary for girls her age to get married. But Yanyan has no interest in marriage, she wants to be a doctor. Most women don't go to college in 1921, especially not for medical school. When Yanyan is offered the opportunity to go to Cornell college in America, she jumps at the chance. But then she realizes that moving to America means she won't be able to see Liang Baoshu, the only man she has ever considered marrying. Yanyan decides to move to America, but Baoshu isn't giving up that easily.
I was really excited to read this novel. China in the 1920s, sounds great! Unfortunately, An Ocean Apart, a World Away did not live up to my expectations. My only problem with it was that I found it tedious. This is rare, I don't usually find historical fiction boring, but this novel moved so slowly. Also, I don't think it helped to have half the story take place in Ithaca, New York. After all, nothing happens in Ithaca! There's no diversity and hardly anything to do. Yanyan was bored and lonely and I was bored with her. I wanted more China time or to really delve into the experiences of Chinese students in America. Yanyan is an outsider, so she doesn't spend much time with the few Chinese students there and I wish that she had. I wanted to know about their experiences too, to have their stories interwoven.
The novel does present an interesting portrait of China. During the 1920s China was separated into different groups (China became a republic in 1911, a rather ineffective republic). Eventually, the Nationalists and the Communists become the dominant groups fighting for power (and then they get into World War I & II). Before China was a republic, the Manchu Qing dynasty ruled. The Manchu are not Chinese, their language is similar to Turkish and they come from the northeastern part of China. At first, the Qing dynasty was doing well, they didn't Chinese women to have bound feet, and China was calm and prosperous. However, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, China was embroiled in the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion and other events. The result was a weakened China that the the U.S., Britain, Japan, Germany, Russia and France tried to take over. It's interesting because Liang Baoshu is passionate about restoring the Manchu dynasty. He is a Manchu, Yanyan is Chinese and she's not so sure she wants to see the Manchus back in power. I enjoyed reading about the differences between the two groups of people and following Yanyan and Liang Boshu's debates. Of course, Yanyan meets someone in America too, so we have a distant love triangle. I love Yanyan though, she studies martial arts with her Eldest Brother (her Second Brother ignores her), she discusses politics with her father, devotes herself to learning English at the school she attends in China and studies medicine on her own. In America, she takes hard courses precisely because her counselor told her Chinese people and especially Chinese women, could not succeed at them. This was refreshing to read about because Yanyan does not necessarily prove him wrong (I don't like when a character comes into a new setting and does perfectly at a strange school in hard subjects), she struggles but she handles the situation maturely. I also really admired her for leaving her home at the age of sixteen and traveling across the world to a foreign place where she wasn't fluent in the language. That takes courage.
An Ocean Apart, a World Away had potential with a strong female main character and unique setting, but this novel crawls along and there's little action. There's a lack of secondary character development which is a shame, because the other characters (not just the Chinese students but the other women students) seem to have interesting background stories. I liked reading about China in the early 190s and the learning about the various disputes going on, and of course, the discrimination against Asians and women made my blood boil. Other people will probably enjoy this novel more than I, it had too little action and adventure for my tastes.
Disclosure: I bought this book. I got this one because Yanyan's feet are not bound. Lensey Namioka has another novel with some of the same characters called Ties that Bind, Ties that Break, but I chose not to read it because I don't know if I can handle reading about the foot binding process just yet. Eventually I will read it.