Saturday, October 26, 2013

Small Footsteps in the Land of the Dragon

Small Footsteps in the Land of the Dragon: 
Growing Up in China
by Barbara Brooks Wallace
Publisher:  Pangea Publications

  • ISBN-10: 0989406547
  • ISBN-13: 978-0989406543

How many Americans can say that they were born in China? Today China is viewed as a powerhouse, world player, financier and new entry in to the world corporate scene, but in this short autobiography, "Small Footsteps in the Land of the Dragon," it is the China of the "little people" -- the children -- that we see. Looking at the "normal" world around her, the author describes, in her childhood voice, the impressions of her childhood, especially the day to day activities that she had no idea were different from what other children experienced. Beggars in the streets, bandits, getting lost in hostile countryside fields, gunfire in the city, were all part of "normal" everyday events.

While large social and political upheavals were growing and becoming more and more violent, everyday life went on. In Barbara's childhood, the older Chinese sensibility ruled.
This was the China before communist dictators and experiments with capitalism. Barbara's China is the China of the Amah, where families charged someone with the single job of loving and caring for small children, wherever they went, whatever they did. This was the China where the vacation home didn't have indoor plumbing and nobody minded, where folks who worked for the family lived in small houses out back, where warlords attacked one anothers' cities from time to time, where weddings were huge, ornate affairs proclaiming affluence, and coolies still carried tourists in sedan chairs. But to little Barbara, it was simply home.

Since her dad worked for Standard Oil of New York, we also get a peek at the repeated re-locations and uncertainties her parents faced in an ever-shifting political landscape (a very limited one, as the child never really sees what causes the changes), which finally became tumultuous enough to cause the family to be evacuated by a US Navy destroyer. Moving to different cities involved disconnections from friends and getting used to new surroundings, which made the presence of the Amah an even more important lifeline to the children. The author brings us the sights and sounds of the China that her childhood self grew up with, writing in a voice that makes it clear what age she is at each stage in the book (it goes from her youngest memories to when she started high school in America). It is interesting to note that with all the differences in the environment around her, many of the thoughts and feelings she shares are so universal, they would be totally familiar to children in today's USA as well.

"Small Footsteps in the Land of the Dragon" is a rare look into history, not from the overview of the historian, but from the perspective of a young person not yet old enough to understand everything going on around her, which makes her the perfect reporter in some ways. No politics, no trying to sort out who did what to who, just eyewitness descriptions of the world around her, and it's a fascinating read.

After reading this book, it comes as no surprise that Barbara Brooks Wallace became a writer of children's books, quite a number of them, including several award winners. The original paper versions have become collectors items, but many are available for kindle. The titles are often alliterative, "The Trouble with Twins," "The Secret in St. Something," "The Barrel in the Basement" and the latest, "Miss Switch and the Vile Villians." Wallace also penned a biography of her mother, who came from Russia to Shanghai to go to nursing school, "Anastasia, Florence Nightingale, and I, A Nurse's Story."

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