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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

Listen To The Squawking Chicken

Posted: 10 May 2014 09:00 AM PDT

A child who can make her parents happy, will be happy herself.

Let's be very, very honest.

What kind of impression would you have of your mother if she was the type to consort with the Chinese Mafia, played mahjong all day and is a veritable show off?

Elaine Lui, who has written this book in honour of her mother, puts in succinctly: She'd be nothing without her.

A prominent Toronto-based blogger, Lui captures her mother's larger-than-life personality in this phrase, "Muhammad Ali floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. Ma walks like an elephant and squawks like a chicken and, she has always taught me to do the same".

Of course, her mother is a feminist to boot. In the very first chapter, Lui recounts how an uncle who had hollered at his daughter to walk like a lady, was shot down indirectly when her mother turned to Lui and said it was OK to stomp around like an elephant. Real women don't creep around like mice.

Unlike most sappy mother-daughter memoirs where all the salacious parts are conveniently left out, Lui spares no detail on how her mother came to be christened the "Squawking Chicken" because of a jarring voice and a reputation for delivering sharp-edged retorts.

First to find fault were Lui's maternal grandparents, one of whom was a habitual gambler and another, an alcoholic and odd job lackey of sorts for local Hong Kong gangsters. One can sense the resentment, as Lui describes her grandparents' unsympathetic reaction when mum is raped – believe it or not, so they didn't have to waste money on medical expenses and to save face. Just to be fair to everyone, even her fathers (meaning Lui's biological father and stepfather) are not spared, as she exposes their inadequacies and infidelities.

As Lui puts it, she did not have it easy being her mother's daughter.

For all her shortcomings, the Squawking Chicken sounds like an answer to the "strawberry generation", the Chinese neologism for those born into economic prosperity and so used to being overprotected by their parents that they have actually come to believe the world owes them a living. Assuredly, Lui is fortunate to have escaped this brand of delusion-causing upbringing.

If you were Squawking Chicken's daughter, whinings of having to walk in the heat instead of taking a taxi are quickly silenced. If you're going to complain, then stay home.

To put it bluntly, the Squawking Chicken's parenting method is the antithesis of the modern style so lauded by the West. Lui's mother is not the type who will go easy on you, not even if it's for the sake of sparing a child from so-called mental torture. In her book, it's actually an effective way of nipping a problem in the bud.

In one episode, after a young Lui had unintentionally whacked her mother's thigh with a ruler during a mahjong game, devastating all chances of a win, the Squawking Chicken promptly declared to a roomful of friends that she should have given birth to a piece of barbecued meat instead, certainly less trouble than mothering a child who gave her nothing but trouble!

What kind of mother is the Squawking Chicken? Does she not fear that the scars of humiliation will run deep and damage a fragile psyche?

Not according to Lui, who tells the story of a childhood friend who later suffered the disastrous consequences of over-lenient parenting. Lui defends her mother, insisting it is the duty of every parent to put a child in its rightful place, and not by using "reasoning", as modern parents prefer to do. Because five minutes later, the child is at it again, unrepentant.

As for fulfilling the ideal of a self-sacrificing parent, for Lui's mother, a child should be thankful just for being a born. For receiving the gift of life, she must repay her parents her entire life, first with obedience and, when required, in the form of cash, jewellery, lavish birthday parties or leisure cruises. As it turns out, the Squawking Chicken is a stickler where the collection of such dues are concerned.

In the end, the rules of filial piety according to the Squawking Chicken simply boils down to this: A child who can make her parents happy, will be happy herself.

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Mothers in literature

Orphan Train

Posted: 10 May 2014 09:00 AM PDT

THE quirky backwaters of history can be rich places of exploration for novelists and so it has proved for Christina Baker Kline. She discovered the existence of "orphan trains" through reading a non-fiction article in an American historical society publication and her interest was caught. But the clincher was the realisation that her husband's grandfather and his siblings were key figures in the account she was reading. When history met family, the idea of writing a novel based on the orphan trains was born.

Historically, the orphan trains ran in the United States between 1854 and 1929 and transported more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless children. Many of these came from immigrant families from east coast cities like New York.

The children were put onto a train with a predetermined route. In advance of the train arriving at any specific township, posters were displayed advertising the time of arrival and the availability of orphans for adoption. When the train pulled into the station, the children would be lined up and the local people given their pick. Children not selected were then put back on the train and taken to the next township where the selection process was repeated.

It is hard to imagine the emotional turmoil that must have afflicted these poor children, uncertain of where or to whom they were being taken. There also seems to have been little or no effective screening of the suitability of the adoptive parents. Poor Mid-Western farmers saw it as a wonderful opportunity to get free labour from strong looking boys and small businesses welcomed young girls who could contribute to stitching and garment-making. All this for the price of minimal accommodation, food and clothing. No wonder that many of these children ended up in loveless households, victims of exploitation and abuse.

Orphan Train follows the lives of two children, one through the 1920s and 1930s, the other a modern day one.

Niamh Power is the child of Irish immigrants whose entire family is killed in a fire. Boarding the orphan train, she has a baby boy thrust into her arms as, at nine, she is one of the older and more responsible children. The baby is swiftly adopted when the train stops at Minnesota. For Niamh, the train journey in search of a home continues but it quickly becomes obvious that, despite the Christian protestations of charity and "doing good", many of the orphans are simply viewed as a source of cheap labour.

"So you have the opportunity both to do a good deed and get something in return," advises the children's overseer in his address to the citizens of Minnesota, before adding:

"The child you select is yours for free on a ninety-day trial. At which point, if you so choose, you may send him back." Niamh is taken at the next station by a couple who need an additional seamstress.

Molly is a typical difficult 21st century teenager. With her Goth appearance, nose studs, multiple earrings and stroppy attitude she has moved from foster family to foster family and ended up in one where she is tolerated rather than loved. She has her commercial value as well – the family is paid for looking after her. One of the pleasures of Orphan Train is watching the gradual process by which Molly finds her place and herself.

Sentenced to 50 hours of community service for the theft of a library book, she agrees to help clear the attic of an old lady who is the employer of her boyfriend's mother. Full of trepidation and near visible hostility, she finds herself committing to the old lady and to her past, and in the process learning a great deal about herself.

Orphan Train is carefully researched and its descriptions of the American mid-West are particularly vivid. After the sewing business collapses following poor stock investments, Niamh ends up on what can only be called a backwoods white trash homestead. In one of the book's standout episodes, she lives in grinding poverty, forced to make stews from squirrels and whatever game the idle owner can shoot while his wife lies in bed and shouts abuse at her. Fortunately, better things are to come.

First and foremost, Orphan Train is a very good read, and it is not difficult to see why it has become a bestseller. Despite its rather grim subject matter in places, it is ultimately a feel-good novel and one that I am sure will be beloved of book groups, as it offers a deal to talk about. Buried not too deeply in it are probing questions about survival, belonging and identity.

For instance, Niamh has her name changed several times by her adopted parents – is the re-naming a sign of their "ownership" and, if so, what effect does that have on the renamed little girl who finds herself increasingly wedged apart from her real origins?

Reflecting on these matters, she says: "In Kinvara, poor as we were, and unstable, we at least had family nearby, people who knew us. We shared traditions and a way of looking at the world. We didn't know until we left how much we took these things for granted."

As Orphan Train makes clear, the world can be a very big, alien place when the things we take for granted are removed entirely from our control.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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