Likely Stories: China Dolls, by Lisa See

Dec 31, 2020

Hello!  I’m Jim McKeown.  Welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Lisa See has written a number of fun and interesting stories of Asian women.  The latest such story I read is China Dolls.  It describes the control young men have over their sisters from 1938 to 1988.


The story begins with three Asian girls, Grace, Helen, and Ruby trying to land jobs in Chinatown.  Lisa See’s story begins, “I traveled west—alone—on the cheapest bus routes I could find.  Every mile took me farther from Plain City, Ohio, where I’d been a fly speck on the wallpaper of small-town life.  I lived on aspirin, crackers, and soda pop.  I cried, and cried, and cried.  On the eighth day, California.  Many hours after crossing the boundary, I got off the bus and pulled my sweater a little more tightly around me.  I expected sun and warmth, but on that October afternoon, fog hung over San Francisco, damp, and shockingly cold” (3).  You always planned to leave home, I told myself.  Just because you had to escape sooner than expected doesn’t mean you can’t still fly to the stars” (4).  Grace gives herself a pep talk.  See writes, “I’m in a scary room—in a strange city” [   ] To calm myself, I began a routine I’d invented as a small child, running my hands the length of my arms (a broken tibia when I was three; my mom told Doc Haverford I fell down the stairs), slipping along my sides (several broken and fractured ribs over the years, and then lifting each leg and squeezing all the way to my feet (my legs had been a frequent target until I started dancing).  The ritual both strengthened and soothed me.  (5). 

Helen is next in line for her story.  Lisa See wrote, “This way,’ I answered, but what in the world was I thinking—skipping work, walking through Chinatown unescorted, and talking to a total stranger? // My pace was brisk, and I felt the girl wordlessly tagging along behind me as I wove down Grant.  She caught up at a red light. // ‘My name’s Grace,’ she said. // ‘Nice to meet you.’ // ‘Thanks so much for helping me,’ she went on, trying to appear composed, I thought, but actually sounding as scared as a fawn panting in fear at the sight of the moon” (17).

Ruby enters into the conversation.  Lisa wrote, “‘I have seven brothers, and my dad wished for an eighth son,’ I told them.  He hoped to get the sound ba—for eight, which sounds the same as good luck.  He wanted to walk through Chinatown and have everyone recognize him for his successful business and his eight sons.  Instead, I came along and ruined everything’” (32).

Lisa See's China Dolls are wonderful stories of difficult lives of young Asian girls.  5 Stars!

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy New Year!