Posted by: istop4books | August 29, 2009

Paper Daughter, a Memoir by M. Elaine Mar

paper daughterOne foot on firm ground, the other stuck in the mud and trying desperately to pull it out. This is how I thought of Elaine’s experience as a Chinese immigrant in the US. Born in Hong Kong to Chinese parents, she describes an early childhood of learning her multiplication tables by the age of 4, of knowing her place in society and living by a routine set by mother. Chewing on chicken bones and walking to the market teaming with people, smells, sights and bright lights were the highlights of her days – until father left Hong Kong to seek a better life in the United States. Living in a 10×10 room, in a house with 20 other people sharing cooking facilities, the bathroom and fighting for water on the days it was issued, she never had toys, lived in crowded, poor conditions, but was still a seemingly happy little girl.

As they arrive in the US and settle in to life in the basement of Aunt Becky, Elaine takes on a new American name and tries desperately to fit in to her new surroundings and school. Her mother imposes strict, harsh Chinese cultural rules which seem absurd to an American, but not to Elaine’s mother. She shouts, hits, and puts her down on a daily basis. On top of this at school, she is accosted by racists, bullies and uncaring teachers. This is where her story, at least to me, seems to fall apart. In the third grade, she becomes the target of a very mean, very crass 3rd grade girl who calls her all sorts of names and tries to pick fights with her. My problem with this is that a third grader is 8 years old and these kids were talking in a language that 8 years olds aren’t familiar with. Even the poorest, the most uneducated 8 year olds don’t speak like that, or act like that for that matter. And even if they did, the target kids would not understand the meaning of their words. So that hit me the wrong way.

Later on, as I continued to read, I felt a certain affinity for Elaine. I myself came to this country as a one year old, and while English was not a problem, Spanish was spoken often at home and my house was “different” from everyone else’s for a number of different cultural reasons. When I was 11 years old, I had forgotten all my Spanish, was 100% American and at that point we moved back to South America and I went through the integration process again. So I did relate to many of Elaine’s issues. The clothing – for her, she wore the same thing everyday, and nothing stylish. For me, it was wearing prissy clothes, clothes that a 30-something would wear, not a 12 year old. Elaine was too petite in a world of Amazonian women, I was a lily white Amazonian in a world of petite, tanned women. But as Elaine continued to try to fit into this world, her parents made no effort to assimilate and relations became stressed beyond the comprehension of a young girl. She became bolder, ruder, and more miserable. Her degree of rebelliousness was fairly high, and as I read I recognized some of the symptoms that I went through. Hating my mother, being horribly embarrassed by her, wishing I had been born to someone else – hanging out with a family I liked better. But as I grew I reflected, I began to understand where my parents came from. I still became independent and moved 5,000 miles away. But I never ceased to love them.

And therein lies the real tragedy of this very sad memoir. As poignant and well written, as illustrative of the dilemma of dual cultures, it is unforgiving. She never stops to explain her parents; she never tries to love them. She seems to be a self indulgent, proud young lady, very secure in her ability to achieve knowledge, get good grades and enter Harvard. But all the book knowledge in the world will never teach her to love, for forgive, to understand. As she does not explain why her parents immigrated to America, what they expected from this country, you get the feeling that this is unimportant to her. She never explores her parents’ dreams, their hopes and emotions, only their reactions to her achievements or misbehaviors.

So the book was eloquent, it held my interest, it was well written. But the book (and Elaine herself) missed a chapter. As she got older I kept waiting for a chapter of reflexion, of growth, and this did not happen. The book ended abruptly when she entered Harvard. I was hoping for a chapter that said, “Once I entered Harvard and could step away from the daily grind of living with my parents I began to understand how their culture, this lack of education, their exhaustion from non-stop work, their anxiety, had shaped not only their lives but mine. And while I will never be that close to them, I love them and want to ease their lives in the future.” Never mind. That paragraph is not a part of the book. In the end, Elaine seems to be a self indulgent, self concerned young woman. Perhaps a few years under her belt and a couple of kids will help her to understand her own parents. One can only hope.



  1. I really think that Elaine did not want her parents at her graduation. I think she waved the real reasons off. She could have gotten them there if she had wanted to. By the end of the book it was obvious how much she hated her mother especially, and her father. I wonder how she feels about them to this day?

  2. I wondered the same thing. I haven’t done a search for her to see if I could find what she’s been doing. Maybe that wouldn’t be a bad idea. Hopefully she’s grown emotionally and spiritually.

  3. Great website. Plenty of helpful information here.

    I am sending it to some friends ans also sharing in delicious.
    And naturally, thank you for your effort!

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