Under the scourge of McCarthyism, 21-year-old Chinese-American Telemaque was forced to question whether she was the all-American she always thought herself to be.
At home on the Minnesota-Iowa border, Telemaque’s family ran the Canton CafÃ©. There, her father, uncle and cousins served Chinese food to the locals, aided by a liberal-minded lawyer â€œMayor Johnny” and the friendly kuie (ghosts) conjured by her mother. Their lives were a rich mix of Chinese tradition, insisted on by her mother, who refused to learn English and feared her children would turn into â€œwhite devils”; and of the capitalist politics fervently espoused by her father, a supporter of Chiang Kai-shek against the Communists during the Chinese Civil War. As a student, Telemaque spent her afternoons at the cafÃ©, studying in a back booth, cleaning celery for the chow mein and ringing up customers. Frustrated by her mother’s unremitting Chinese-ness, Telemaque modeled herself on the Americans around her, at one point so taken with a teacher’s tale about a girl with flaxen braids that she attempted to dye her black hair yellow. But as Telemaque grew to understand her mother’s proud past, she sought Chinese groups in college, mainly to meet men. Though diligently working at the UN and with UNESCO, she found herself under the scrutiny of the US State Department’s Loyalty Board: Her associations in college, the Chinese student group and American Youth for Democracy were on the Attorney General’s â€œspy” list. In a heart-wrenching scene, her father, a capitalist and American to the core, is accused by an FBI agent of being anti-American. Caught in the loopholes of confusing immigration laws, he was forced to plead his case through his English-speaking daughter with as much dignity as the two could muster. Though her story ends abruptly and there is little reflection in the narrative–the author recounts anecdotes more often then she explores her own motivations or insights–the vignettes of her family and life are as sincere and cozy as the descriptions of her father’s restaurant.
This warm account of a Chinese family’s assimilation in Minnesota during the anti-Communist ’50s is a familiar, heartfelt American tale.