November 17, 2017

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Back to the Future: A Trip Back in Time Can Help Students Embrace Other Cultures

The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball“I can’t even imagine not being excited about history,” says Dori Jones Yang, author of The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball (Spark Press). This historical novel for readers aged 10 and up focuses on the little-known Chinese Educational Mission of the 1870s. The story envisions the lives of two young Chinese brothers sent to the United States by the Emperor to learn about technology and bring that knowledge home. This is the author’s seventh book after many years as a journalist covering China.

What attracted you to this subject matter?

I’ve spent a lot of my life learning about China, but did not know this history until recently. A friend of my husband’s told me that his grandfather came to the U.S. in the 1870s as part of this grand experiment. There are only a few non-fiction books written about it. The boys were between 11 and 15 years old and they were told that they were going to stay for 15 years. That captured my imagination. There were no cell phones or Snapchat then, and letters took months. I wanted to write a story imagining what it would be like for those boys. As a kid, I loved stories that connected me to the “long ago and far away.”

Why was it important to you to tell today’s children about the Chinese Educational Mission?

It’s an undertold narrative of history. Most American students learn about Chinese laborers who came to California in the 1800s and built railroads, but few realize that in recent years many more Chinese immigrants came here as students. Some of today’s kids can relate more easily to this story of the first Chinese students in America. This book also shows how some immigrant kids adapt better than others.

Can you tell us a bit more about the real life history that inspired the book?

In 1876, for the 100th birthday of the United States, Philadelphia played host to the Centennial Exhibition. In real life, all the boys in the program got to go. They saw many amazing machines at the height of the industrial revolution: sewing machines, bicycles, and locomotives – all new and exciting in those days. The Transcontinental Railroad was less than a decade old, and the boys took the train across the country. Some of them even witnessed a train robbery by the outlaw Jesse James. In those days, the United States was overtaking Britain, and today China is catching up to the U.S. and in some ways even surpassing it. China has more than 13,000 miles of high-speed rail, and we don’t have a single mile.

Can you share the cultural differences that the Chinese students taking part in the Chinese Educational Mission would have experienced when coming to America in the 1870s?

Back then, China’s values were Confucian and America’s were Victorian. Chinese stressed obedience to authority. Victorian values were strict by today’s standards, but to the Chinese they seemed loose. American women could meet young men and choose their marriage partners. In China, women in wealthy houses had to stay in their own quarters. Chinese greeted each other with a bow, not a handshake. To touch a woman’s hand felt totally foreign.

Can you talk about the educational differences between Chinese and American students in the 1870s?

In China, very few children were educated, only boys. Actually, even in the United States only 2% went to college. In China, privileged boys studied with tutors who made them memorize long passages and poems from the Chinese classics. Teachers were strict and would punish laggards by hitting their hand with a bamboo stick. When the boys got to the U.S., most of their learning was in the homes where they were living. Some were even taught by well-educated women!

Cultural diversity is perhaps more relevant now that when you started your book in 2012.  

I was struck by the fact that public schools in the United States are now majority minority. So, most kids are going to school with classmates from different backgrounds. I’m passionate about the need for diverse books in children’s literature. Whatever their race or cultural origin, it’s important for kids to read about kids who are different from them. When they do, it’s like making a friend with a kid from another culture. After that, those children no longer seem like strangers. In today’s America, it’s more important than ever to be welcoming to outsiders.

How does America’s favorite pastime fit into the story?

Baseball is all-American – it was invented here. It took off nationwide after the Civil War and became the hottest, most well-loved sport.  And yet these Chinese boys were told not to become “too American.” That’s a common thing children of immigrants hear. They were told to learn English and technology, but not to do anything that would distract them from studying. Still, many of them loved playing baseball. They even had a team called the Orientals. In the book though, the older brother forbids the younger from playing the game. So baseball comes to symbolize the differences in values between China and America.

Baseball also plays a more personal role in the narrative.

Yes. In my story, the parents in the host family had recently lost their own son in a sledding accident. That was one of their motivations for participating in the program. The brothers found a baseball and a bat in a closet, which led them to discover the reasons for the family’s mysterious sadness. The boys end up giving a lot of joy back to the family. There’s one moment where the father sees the younger Chinese boy throwing up a ball and hitting it, trying to learn baseball by himself. The father pitches balls to him, but then starts crying when he realizes the last time he did this was with his own son.


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