It's summer time and twelve-year old Anna Wang is writing letters and exchanging English for Chinese lessons with her pen pal Fan in China. When Anna and her friend Andee decide to invite Fan to stay as an exchange student in Cincinnati, Fan responds in an unexpected way. Through this experience, Anna learns more about family values in today's Chinese culture.
In the fourth chapter book sequel to The Year of the Book, The Year of the Baby, and The Year of the Fortune Cookie, Anna grows her understanding of how to overcome conflict with communication in order to build enduring friendships. With lively and warm illustrations by Patrice Barton throughout.
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Andrea Cheng is the author of several children’s books, including the acclaimed middle-grade Anna Wang series critics call "gentle," "accessible," and "just right." Though she passed away in 2015, her books will continue to inspire readers. Visit her website at andreacheng.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
My mom doesn’t believe in air conditioning. It’s not healthy, she says, to go from hot to cold. So I stand in front of the window fan, waving my shirt to dry the sweat.
I sit down at my desk and reread the letter that came yesterday from Fan, my waitress friend in China.
I am sorry it takes me so long to answer. Thank you for telling me about the presentation to your school. I am embarrassed that you present me but I am proud too. In your last letter you ask about my summer. Summer season the hotel is very busy so there are many tables to clean and now I am a cooker in the kitchen too. You ask how is my brother. He is fine. He plays all day but I give him homework so he can be a good student, better than me. My mother is fine but my father hurt from his job (his back). He is builder and the materials are very heavy. Sorry I cannot explain in English. I hope you understand. I still dream to learn English more. Then I can work better in the hotel like at the desk in the lobby. That is the word in my dictionary. Is it correct? Now I am tired. Thank you, my friend.
PS: Here is my try poem in English:
You are my friend
But sun rises in East
Goes away in West
We are one world,
I love the way Fan calls her verse a try poem. I open the small photo album I put together after my trip to China this past December. The last page has a picture of Fan the day I left, wearing her waitress uniform and smiling shyly at the camera. I look more closely at her face, but it’s impossible to tell what she is thinking. Fan asked me lots of questions about America, and she loved looking at photos of my family. She said she would like to visit, but then when I asked her if she could really come someday, she said, For you it is easy to get on an airplane. But for me it is not possible. I take a sheet of paper out of my desk drawer:
Thank you for your letter. I really like your poem. I wish I could write that well in Chinese.
In the morning I am helping my teacher take care of the baby she adopted in China.
The phone rings and I go into the hallway to answer it. “Hey, Anna.” Andee’s deep voice is so different from everyone else’s I know.
“I thought you were still in Vermont!”
“I came back a week early. Can I come over?”
Andee is suntanned and her curly hair is lighter than before. She has on long boy shorts and a green T-shirt, and she looks taller. She hugs me, and we head up to my room. When I ask Andee about Vermont, she says, “My grandparents enrolled me in this outdoor adventure thing, which was fine, but the kids . . . I don’t know, I just felt like I didn’t have anything in common with anyone.”
“So you left early?”
Andee nods, then reaches for her backpack. “I brought you something.” She hands me a tiny bottle of Genuine Vermont Maple Syrup.
I hold the bottle up so it catches the sunlight. “How did you know I love miniature things?”
Andee smiles. “Just a guess. What were you doing when I called?”
“Writing back to my friend in China.” I show Andee the letter from Fan, and her eyes move quickly over the words.
“So while I was climbing mountains with a bunch of rich teenagers, your friend was cleaning tables in a hotel.” Andee sees the photo of Fan. “We’re almost the same age, aren’t we?”
“She’s a year older, I think.”
“She had to drop out after eighth grade.” As soon as I say the word “drop out,” I think of kids who fail their classes. “Fan had to leave school to earn money for her family,” I explain.
“I wish we could give them the money my grandparents wasted on that adventure camp.” Andee turns to me. “Hey, maybe Fan could go to high school here for a year. Then she’d really learn English.”
It’s hard for me to imagine Fan in the front hallway at Fenwick High School, surrounded by American students. The only places she has ever been, she told me, are Beijing and the small village where she was born. “Fan could never afford the plane ticket,” I say, remembering what she said about traveling. “Her family is . . .” I don’t want to say “poor” because I don’t really know what poor means in China. “They don’t earn a lot of money.”
Andee takes a deep breath. “I bet my parents and my grandparents would donate. Plus the Community Action Team is always looking for projects. And living here would be practically free. She could stay in one of our guest rooms.” Once Andee gets an idea, she cannot stop talking. “I forgot to tell you: my mom joined the Local School Decision-Making Committee, and she convinced them to offer Mandarin Chinese at Fenwick High starting in September. We were planning to host an exchange student from China anyway, so this would be perfect!”
Andee is always so sure that she can make things work out. “Fan’s family needs the money she earns at the hotel,” I say. “Her parents don’t earn very much, and they have to send money to her grandparents in the countryside every week.” Andee pulls her eyebrows together. “We could set up one of those donor pages online. It’s a really good cause.”
“Fan isn’t exactly a ‘cause.’ ” My voice comes out louder than I expected.
Andee looks at me. “You know what I mean.”
I wipe my face with my T-shirt. I think the heat is getting to me. I feel bad for snapping at Andee when she is just trying to help my friend. Fan did tell me that if she knew English better, she could probably get promoted at the hotel and help her family more. Maybe, if we can pay for everything, Andee’s plan really could work out.
“I can’t wait to tell my mom,” Andee says as we head downstairs to get a snack. “She’s really good at arranging things. “
While we eat our ice cream, we talk about all the things we could do with Fan if she comes: take her to the zoo, to King’s Island, or the swimming pool if it’s still as hot as it is now.
It’s after eleven, but I can’t sleep. China is thirteen hours ahead, so it’s just after noon there. Fan is probably at the hotel, setting the tables for lunch. Or maybe she is taking a break and studying the English vocabulary that I wrote down in her notebook. Fan told me that even though she left school in eighth grade, she would never stop trying to learn. I know that the best way to learn a language is to be surrounded by it. I learned more Chinese in two weeks in China than I did in two years at Chinese school. So why does my stomach flip when I imagine Fan in Cincinnati?
I move to a cool spot on the bed. How would Fan feel in Andee’s house, where each room is bigger than her whole apartment? In China, she lives in an alley with lots of other migrant families. They all share a public bathroom, and they cook on electric hot plates or small charcoal grills that line the street. Andee’s house has a bathroom for each person, and a stove with six burners.
I sit up and look out the window. Last year Andee and I had so much fun planning our CAT projects together. But today I notice her insistence more, as if everything has to happen exactly the way she thinks it should. Andee is older than me by two years, but she has never been to China and she doesn’t know anything about Fan’s life. Of course, after two weeks, I don’t know that much either. Still, I talked to Fan almost every day I was there, and we ate dumplings in the small room that she shares with her parents and her brother.
I lie back down with my arms crossed behind my head. I miss Camille. She spends every summer in Oklahoma with her grandparents, but this time it seems as if she’s been gone forever.
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