Bark review: tikki tikki tembo

Posted by on Oct 6, 2016 in Blog | No Comments

This post was originally published at Bark on October 6, 2011


look at their faces. the whole damn story’s written right there on the freaking cover.

quick: name for me the hero of tikki tikki tembo.  you can’t, can you?  because it’s sort of a trick question.  in more ways than one.  at the center of this conundrum is the matter of how we define “hero”—and also the true heart of this story, which has nothing to do with arlene mosel’s purported purpose for telling us this tale in the first place.  what, you thought this was an ancient folktale passed down through generations about why the chinese don’t give their first-born sons crazy-long names anymore?  because that’s what the book jacket told you?  don’t be ridiculous.

this book is much closer to being yet another example of americans importing, appropriating, and abusing a product of the humble chinese people for their own profiteering ends.  yeah, in case you missed that part, the “author” of this book is some old white lady, who made up an absurd name for her character that sounds nothing like any kind of chinese word, let alone a name—oh, and she sold a million copies of her book.  and a special bonus, we get a depiction of the chinese as monsters who would let a child die rather than forsake the honor due to one’s elders.  which totally falls in line with my understanding of the chinese (i.e., they are dragon-worshipping weirdos).  but back on point…

everybody knows the name of the idiot who fell down the well: tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi pip peri pembo.  he is the title character, but not the hero.  you could be forgiven for thinking so, however.  i had forgotten until recently re-reading this book that tikki tikki tembo, etc. had actually helped save his little brother, who fell in the well first (long before tikkilicious did).  it happens in like the first five pages of the book.  but i’m guessing i’m not the only one who forgot that.  or the only one who forgot the name of the brother, who i’m sure everyone remembers as being the one who saves tikkitard when he falls down the well.

but the little brother whose name you don’t recall (it’s chang) isn’t the hero, either.  because he’s not the one who actually saves tikkitor tikkitee tikkity tikkitoo.  nor does his “most honorable one” mother.  the real hero of the book is the dude with the ladder.  and the reason you don’t remember his name?  yeah, that’s cuz it’s fucking “old dude with the ladder.”  oh, excuse me—where is my deference… it’s “old man with the ladder.”  which is a pretty great interpretation of the millenia-old chinese tradition of filial respect for your elders.  but that’s not what we’re supposed to take away from all this.  we’re supposed to be learning why the chinese don’t use long names anymore.

and yet, nobody who reads this remembers chang’s name.  the old man with the ladder has no name.  and tikkitron’s name (which supposedly means “the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world”), despite all it’s nonsense syllables is the one that readers have absolutely no trouble recalling, even years after reading the book, and undoubtedly can recite at a fairly rapid clip. tikkitikkitembonosarembocharibariruchipipperipembo.  i said that like 8 times aloud in the time in took me to type it.  and “chang” is the name i couldn’t remember to save my life.  and the “moral” of this story is what?  that it’s a terrible idea to give your kid a long name?  riiiiight.

but even that is surface level bullshit.  let’s look at the story itself.  am i supposed to believe that after all the trouble the first near drowning in the well caused, they somehow didn’t work out a hand signal for this shit?  just in case this happened, i don’t know, a completely foreseeable second time?  because children are stupid little monkeys.  and so are the chinese if i’m to believe this insane book.  they didn’t even put one of those folding child gates around the well’s opening.  i could understand it if these were girls we were talking about.  because, if i remember correctly, the chinese totally just shoot a newborn in the head if it’s a girl.  but these are highly valuable boys.  and yet nothing is done to prevent their dumb asses from falling into the well.

and when they do!  the mother doesn’t lift a finger to help them?  either time one of her boys falls in?  she keeps doing the wash in the water of the “roaring” river that looks about as still as a fish tank?  and when tikkimaster falls in, why doesn’t the little kid just say his “brother” dropped into the drink?  and at the end of the story, while tikkibird is recovering and his mother & brother are bedside caring for him, where is the real hero, the old man with the ladder?  outside the house, looking in a window.  those ungrateful bastards don’t even invite him in for so much as a cold cup of shitty tea made with well water that probably tastes like dirty little boys now.

have you ever heard a chinese person talk about about this “classic” book?  me neither.  and i ask chinese people about it every single time i see them.  mostly they just stare at me blankly in return.  or say something to their friend in mandarin and giggle effusively.  but i have a good idea what they’re really thinking, after the hilarity of the moment fades.  they’re plotting their revenge in response to how we’ve disrespected a nation that is certainly our elder.  they’re thinking about the day when their homeland calls to collect on all those u.s. treasury bonds they bought and they own all our asses.  they’re thinking toodle-oo, motherfuckers!  which is all a long way of saying: if this book is the childhood foundation on which so many of us base our understanding of chinese names, and thus culture, it should come as no surprise that the chinese are trying to kill american kids with lead-paint toys.  we’ve got it coming.

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