Buddha Baby by Kim Wong Keltner

buddhababy.jpg HelenKay:  Buddha Baby is all about heroine Lindsey Owyang – her past, her future, her jobs, her heritage, her family, her loves and her insecurities.  All of these issues overlap in a light and funny chick lit offering with serious undertones relating to racism and the  pressure to integrate into white America at the expense of ethnicity.   

Lindsey is a third-generation Chinese American.  She is lives in San Francisco and holds down two part-time jobs about which she is less than enthusiastic.  One of those not-so-great jobs takes her back to St. Maude’s, the Catholic School she attended in her youth.  The set-up allows for numerous flashbacks to the playground and classroom and a return to a time when being different posed both a physical and emotional threat.

At the beginning of the book, Lindsey’s live-in love Michael, who is a quarter Chinese but always has "passed" for Caucasian, has proposed and is leaving town for a work assignment.  Enter her 6th grade crush Dustin who happens to be all Chinese and has returned to town handsome, living off family money and armed with a stated desire to date a Chinese woman for a change.  He picks Lindsey as the object of this quest and is ready to woo.  Combined with this subtle love triangle is Lindsey’s ongoing struggle to satisfy her family obligations and meet the expectations of her grandmother, all while trying to balance her Chinese heritage with her Americanized upbringing. 

Romance and chick lit genres are not known for their willingness to branch out from white characters to tell the stories and portray individuals of different races and ethnic backgrounds.  Many times, when diversity is introduced it is done so in a situation where the character – usually a secondary character – happens to be African American or Asian, but the issue of race is not central, in any way, to the character.  That is not the case in Buddha Baby.  Lindsey is Chinese and a significant portion , if not all, of her story deals with being Chinese in San Francisco, an Asian-friendly city where the supposed friendliness sometimes is more about external acceptance than any type of real understanding between cultures.  There is no way to separate Lindsey from her heritage and have Buddha Baby survive.  Her experience and the numerous flashbacks all relate to who she is, who she isn’t and how she tries to bridge the two. 

This is not to suggest Lindsey is a heroine to whom the reader cannot relate.  She absolutely is.  Many of her experiences are universal:  playground bullying; teachers who act less than human; going along with the group in order to get along; the pull of family; the rush of feelings that come with an engagement to marry; and the "wonder what ever happened to him" syndrome everyone has experienced.  It is the perspective from which Lindsey tells these stories that makes the telling unique.

There are several strengths to Buddha Baby beginning with Keltner’s strong and charming voice.  She tells the tale in third person point of view, but in a voice so strong it is easy to forget as a reader that you aren’t in Lindsey’s head.   The book has a week-in-the-life feeling to it as Keltner drops the reader in the story and picks up with a easy flowing retelling of Lindsey’s mundane days in a very un-routine manner. 

Where the book falters a bit is in two aspects:  the lukewarm love triangle and the constant back story and flashbacks.  The love triangle is less than compelling only because, for the majority of the book, Michael is out of the picture.  He shows for short periods of time, in phone calls and in flashbacks.  But, for the most part he is safely off on his assignment.  By using this construction, Keltner ducks the harder parts of the Lindsey-Michael-Dustin relationships and sells Lindsey a bit short in the conflict.

Also, the flashbacks, while effective in relating in Lindsey’s experience without a boring backstory dump, do drag down the middle of the book.  There is a point, right before Dustin’s appearance moves from background to forefront, where the story slips to the past with such frequency that a reader may wonder when and if it is going to get moving to the future again.  Keltner overcomes this problem, but the otherwise steady pacing does stall a bit.

Buddha Baby has a pop culture feel and San Francisco plays an active role in the story.  Keltner smartly uses the tempting city almost as another character.  The city, like the other secondary characters in Buddha Baby, plays an active role but never overwhelms the star – Lindsey.    The story is hers and she doesn’t cede the spotlight, which is a very good thing since she is so interesting.

Wendy: Buddha Baby, the follow up to Kim Wong Keltner’s debut novel, The Dim Sum of All Things, continues on with protagonist Lindsey Owyang’s journey. The book opens like a conversation in midstream—which it is—but Keltner doesn’t linger in bringing the reader up to sped: Lindsey is a third generation ABC (American Born Chinese), living in San Francisco with her Secret Asian Man boyfriend, Michael (so called because he is one quarter Chinese), and working two jobs she doesn’t love. While Lindsey continues to grapple with what her ethnicity means to her, a business trip takes Michael south to Santa Barbara. Alone, Lindsey uses the time on her hands to explore her waspish and ornery paternal grandmother Yun Yun’s surly roots. But, fate steps in and delivers a relic from the more recent past: Lindsey’s sixth grade crush, Dustin Lee. As Lindsey unravels family secrets, goes to work for her Catholic grammar school, and tries to make sense of it all, her old crush steps in to tempt her with “what ifs,” “what could bes,” and the ultimate, “Are you saying you’re gonna get married and live your whole life without kissing a Chinese guy?”

Like many a chicklit heroine, Lindsey has a humorous and relatable take on life, love, and passion. She is believable due to her middle-of-the-roadness; she is neither spectacular nor humdrum, neither an overachiever nor a loser. But, what separates her from the rest and gives her depth in a pool made for kids, is that Lindsey is the Marginal Man. Keltner subtly yet poignantly creates scene after scene in which Lindsey is caught spanning her Chinese heritage and her American upbringing. With a foot in two cultures, Lindsey moves between worlds where Yun Yun passively aggressively punishes her for not learning Chinese—by speaking Chinese in front of Lindsey—and where the nuns who ran her Catholic school relegated and segregated all the Chinese students to the last pews, farthest from the alter, during mass. It is Lindsey’s feeling of not wholly belonging to one group or the other that allows room for someone who feels equally unaccepted and misplaced. Dustin’s greatest appeal, in addition to being Lindsey’s sixth grade whatever-happened-to crush who grew up to have “I play rugby shoulders” and an endless supply of sexually charged come ons—“I’m trying to get in your pants, y’know,”—is that he understands the two distinct cultural systems Lindsey belongs to and shares her struggle to straddle them.

Keltner further uses Dustin, Yun Yun, and to greatest effect, San Francisco, to bridge past and present together for Lindsey. San Francisco, more specifically Lindsey’s San Francisco, takes on the role of another character. The city’s history with Chinese Americans is Lindsey’s own family’s history. Lindsey is as shaped by her surroundings, a product of her setting, as she is the decades she grew up in. Keltner makes Chinatown and Golden Gate Park not simply part of Lindsey’s landscape, but living and breathing entities, as familiar as family.

Where other books about young women making their way in the city label drop with the frequency and rhythm of breathing and feature an acerbic voice, Buddha Baby uses 70s and 80s pop culture as a universal language. Lindsey doesn’t spend time lusting after Versace, but fondly remembers her checkerboard Vans. Keltner short hands descriptions with movie references that cast a wide enough net for any reader to identify with: From what Lindsey could see, Yun Yun was Felix Unger to Yeh Yeh’s Oscar Madison, He possessed a certain John-Lone-in-Year-of-The-Dragon coolness, but with his suede jacket and cowboy boots he also worked a Robert-Redford-as-Jeremiah-Johnson look. Though repeated references to The Brady Bunch, Welcome Back Kotter, Charlie’s Angels, and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father raise the question if readers outside Lindsey’s generation would understand the significance of growing up with these shows.

If there is a complaint, it is that there are many storylines in what is ostensibly a character piece. In addition to solving the Yun Yun puzzle and grappling with her feelings for Dustin, Lindsey also spends time sorting out her feelings about her Catholic school upbringing, learning her grandfather Yeh Yeh’s history, reliving her own act of aggression towards another Chinese family, dodging people she calls Hoarders of All Things Asian (men: nerdy white guy in beige clothing whose good guy demeanor camouflaged an insatiable hunger for Asian flesh or women: preferring to feather their nests with a health dose of oriental razzamatazz) and gets a peek into the ties between old and new San Francisco with Mrs. Clemens, her daughter, and adopted grandchild. All the paths Keltner creates are interesting and tempting to follow, but with limit space and the book’s focus elsewhere, these remain as unrealized opportunities.

Ultimately, Buddha Baby draws the reader in with a deceptively shallow pop culture voice, all the while making incisive commentary on racism, love, family, and what it means to be unique in an American culture that uplifts individuality yet deplores difference.

Wendy’s Response to HelenKay:  Fiction labeled chicklit is overwhelmingly told through a first person narrator. Buddha Baby is told in third person, solely through Lindsey’s perspective. Since the “I” voice is an easy miss if the reader doesn’t identify with the protagonist, do you think Keltner chose to tell Lindsey’s tale in third person to acknowledge the gap between a Chinese-American heroine and a largely non-Chinese-American readership?

HelenKay’s Response to Wendy:  In many ways you don’t notice the unusual use of third person narrator here.  Lindsey’s voice is so strong and clear that it’s easy to forget the viewpont is not hers alone.  While I’m not sure of Keltner’s motivation, I think her choice was the right one.  Lindsey’s character doesn’t suffer and the larger environment – the family buzz and San Francisco vibe – come through and are not limited solely by living them through Lindsey’s voice.  It may be the decision also makes Lindsey more accessible but, really, many of her experiences do have a ring of familiarity regardless of ethnic background.  The way Lindsey experienced them was different but the events themselves were not always unusual.  The best example is of Lindsey’s many descriptions of classroom antics where the Chinese students felt segregated and did not band together for fear of being ostracized (or beaten up) as a group.  Who doesn’t remember some school days where not being "in" for a day or forever set you apart?  Lindsey’s experience in that area comes from a different place and is, at times, heartbreaking to read, but the idea of her staying away from those who fell out of favor so that she wouldn’t be next?  Well, many people can relate.  Keltner’s gift is in giving us a new way to think about these issues with a sort of "yeah, if you think yours was bad, then try this" mantra that is subtle in execution and only hits you once you finish the book.

Wendy’s Final Thoughts:  Buddha Baby entertains while giving something for a reader to sink their mental teeth into. Recommended.

HelenKay’s Final Thoughts: Buddha Baby is difficult to categorize but easy to enjoy.  Recommended.

You can purchase this book here and here.

4 thoughts on “Buddha Baby by Kim Wong Keltner

  1. Her second book’s out already? I’ve not even gotten the first one yet!
    Next stop: The Bookshop

  2. Sounds fascinating. Just gotta read it!
    Thanks a lot – now I’ll be one of the readers crushed under the teetering tons of books that’ve steadily accumulated in my home!

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