It's not unusual for teenage girls to want to feel accepted by their peers. And some girls go to great lengths to fit in. Toronto author Ingrid Lee wanted to portray accurately some of the very tough circumstances that a daughter of recent immigrants to Canada can face when she wants to fit in.
The result is the recently-published teen novel Thief Girl,featuring Chinese Canadian main character Avvy. It's based on Lee's observations of the teenagers she encounters daily at the Scarborough high school where she teaches.
In the book, the problems for Avvy go deeper than just not fitting in at school. Avvy\'s parents are struggling immigrants from China who run a food kiosk in a food court that is being targeted by local thugs. Avvy's younger brother, Tommy, gets picked on at school, and her cousin from China, who is in Canada on a temporary work visa, is hiding the fact that she's being sexually harassed by her employer.
Although her intentions are honourable, Avvy makes a bad decision to try and help her family — she steals money from a bank card she finds on the street. She soon finds that one lie turns into another as she tries to cover up what she's done. But as Avvy's mom warns, "Bad choice, good choice always come back — like ghosts."
CM Magazine calls Thief Girl "…an emotionally engaging novel" and "…a good read that relates the realistic problems of teens who don't fit in but strive to be accepted by their peers."
For an idea of Ingrid Lee's style, check out this brief excerpt:
Thief Girl Excerpt:
“#31, no onion,” I repeated mechanically from behind the counter. “No hot sauce. That’ll be $4.26. Five minutes.
”The woman ordering the food fussed over the coins, cobbling together change from pockets and pouches. I threw the money in the drawer quickly, before she could change her mind. I knew she wouldn’t be satisfied with her choice. All the signs were there, the anxious rereading of the menu and the side-glances at the plates of other people in the food court. The food would be too slimy. There would be too many strange vegetables. She should have stuck to the chow mein, or maybe some potstickers with plum sauce.
So what? It was none of my business. All I wanted to do was grab Tommy and go home. I had a history paper due in the morning.
Another customer headed for our stall. Bad luck, I thought to myself. It was Mr. Finch, one of my teachers from Oak Ridge High, the one to blame for the history assignment that loomed over me. He must have come straight from school. He was still dressed in his old wool jacket, the sleeves dipped in chalk.
“Wah!” my mother exclaimed from the cramped kitchen. She nagged at me in Mandarin. “Avvy, pay attention. This order ready to bag.
”Normally if I saw someone I knew at the food-and-trinkets court, which was hardly ever, I’d slip out of our stall and head past the bakery toward the tunnel, the wide mouth that separated us from the big mall. There, I could hide among the shoe shops and clothing stores. Too bad escape was out of the question this time. I kept my head down, bagging hot orders and taking new ones. Maybe Mr. Finch wouldn’t recognize me.
“Fried rice with egg, no pork, please,” Mr. Finch said. He patted the pocket of his jacket. “I seem to have forgotten the wallet. Good thing I keep a spare bill.
”I nodded, keeping my face angled toward the cash register. He moved aside and stood patiently by Madame Cho’s bakery next door. As soon as my mom scooped the rice meal, I bagged it, doing my signature twist to the plastic ends, nestling them inside each other. “Chopsticks?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “Thanks anyway.”
“You’re welcome,” I mumbled.
Serving Mr. Finch in our food court was a bit of a jolt. The neighbourhood where I lived was a community of immigrants. Oak Ridge High was some distance away, across a rail bridge and through a maze of suburban streets. It was definitely part of the older, richer side of town. I only attended the school because the apartment building where we lived straddled some municipal line.
For the next forty minutes, orders came faster than spatters of fat.
“Beef with black bean and rice noodle.”
“Moo Goo Guy Pan.”
“Vegetable Lo Mein.”
I operated on automatic. My mother and father kept up a constant barrage of words while they worked. They drained noodles and tossed shavings of meat and vegetables back and forth in the woks of the cooker. The noise of the food court, the drone of our old fan, and the sizzling grease added to the din. When my brother Tommy arrived from school, he made everything worse.
Tommy never could settle down and stay quiet.
“Where’s your books?” my mother nagged. “How you going to live in a big house if you don’t do homework?” She grabbed a highlighter and some papers. “Here. Put yellow line on Heavenly Meal Special, #6. Make important.”
Tommy deflated as if someone had poked him with a pin. He crouched behind the freezer with the pile of menus. Afterwards he folded them into pamphlets. I felt a little sorry for him. “So, where’s your new friend?” I asked.
“He’s just stupid,” Tommy said. He scribbled over one of the papers.
I turned back to packing and rolled my eyes. It was always the same. My brother never kept a friend for long. He was a ten-year-old misfit. Right then he was wearing blue shorts, though summer was way over, and his legs stuck out like vermicelli. One knee was skinned. “Are those guys bothering you again?” I prodded in Mandarin as I took an order for pepper pork.
I didn’t hear him answer. The lady pacing between our stall and the bakery leaned over the counter. “Is my meal ready?” she whined. “I’ve been waiting at least fifteen minutes.”
I went to the kitchen to grab her order. My dad had put together her choices, three of them, in two-and-a-half minutes, tops. And she knew it. But I kept my face quiet. We never showed irritation to the customers. That was one thing my parents had drummed into me a long time ago. “Fork or chopsticks?” I asked, adding all the extras, the napkins and sauces.
“Four forks,” she said impatiently.
My mother gave Tommy some hot rice with shrimp. It was a wonder he wasn’t as fat as a blimp, the way she was always trying to get him to eat, coaxing him with bean curd and shredded vegetables. But he stayed as thin as a stick. That’s what my mother called him — her little stick-man. “Take some food to Mrs. Dong,” she said, shoving a Styrofoam container at him. “She need to eat too.”
Tommy liked Mrs. Dong. He skipped happily across the court toward the New Worlds Market, the produce store squashed between the food-and-trinket stalls. I watched him disappear behind a table stacked high with fresh melon. No fruit or vegetable would dare go bad on Mrs. Dong’s watch. She organized her staff like a drill squad.
I took orders until my head spun. Dinnertime was the only time when every food-stall tenant in our little court was happy, the only time when it looked like everybody’s troubles were over. It was the money hour, the chance to beat the odds. It was also the time when my parents needed my help. The rest of the day they waited for customers . . .waited and hoped, just like everyone else in the rest of the stalls.
It wasn’t right, the way I saw it. Maybe the court wasn’t glitzy like the mall on the far side of the tunnel. Maybe it was just a dumpy little hole in the wall, left out during some renovation. But the cooks knew their food. Over at Bombo’s Barbecue, Bombo sliced and diced his pork like an artist. He made sure all his customers got a strip of skin, roasted crispy and golden. At the Red Green House, Mr. and Mrs. Patnam stirred up a mean curry laced with ginger and basil. And Madame Cho’s egg tarts were richer than gold.
The whole court should have been humming with business. Instead, it limped along like an old car that needed a tune-up.
Thief Girl by Ingrid Lee is a part of the Lorimer SideStreets series of hi-lo fiction books for young adults. To see more titles in this series visit: www.lorimer.ca