“I don’t know who I am,” Anne Nguyen tells her Grandma Nội’s ghost as she struggles to make perfect chả giò (spring rolls). “How can I be the future?” For the nine-year-old Vietnamese-Canadian protagonist of Linda Trinh’s The Secret of the Jade Bangle, the quest for perfect spring rolls isn’t simply a desire to bring good food to her ballet school’s holiday party – it’s also her way of asserting an identity she’s still trying to figure out.
It’s a testament to Trinh’s deft narration and Clayton Nguyen’s charming illustrations that the book explores racism and identity while managing to keep the story lighthearted and kid-friendly. It’s comforting to know that young Vietnamese-Canadian readers confronting their own experiences of racism will learn they are not alone, and there are strategies and supports to help them address the situation.
In Anne’s case, questions about her identity come to a head when she meets her new ballet teacher. Mrs. Smith seems friendly, yet her question about where Anne “is really from” makes Anne uneasy. Anne’s discomfort – and more importantly, her confusion about why she’s uncomfortable, especially when her white best friend doesn’t see a problem – are all too relatable. As an adult Filipino-Canadian, it’s heartbreaking to see a child experiencing this for the first time.
Especially powerful is how the Nguyens reflect some very personal complexities of Asian-Canadian identities. Details such as Anne and her siblings being named after Canadian literary characters, and the family offering lasagna at Grandma Nội’s altar, reflect the ways in which they are disconnected from their Vietnamese heritage. Yet other details show their continuing love for their heritage: the Nguyens honour Vietnamese traditions in their household, and the Vietnamese food Anne learns to cook fills her parents with nostalgia.
Anne’s confession that she doesn’t know who she is stems from the pressure to be both Vietnamese and Canadian, and the fear that she can’t measure up. The jade bangle that Anne inherits gives her comfort by connecting her with Grandma Nội’s spirit, and she gains strength from Grandma Nội’s counsel: “All of your ancestors are in you.” Anne doesn’t have to try to be Vietnamese and Canadian – she already is. When she finally stands up to her ballet teacher, the moment is cathartic; she’s come into her own and is wholeheartedly ready to continue the story her ancestors started.