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On Gold Mountain Reader’s Guide

By Lisa See

On Gold Mountain by Lisa See


The questions, topics for discussion, and suggested reading that follow are designed to help your reading group accompany bestselling author Lisa See on a journey into the world of Chinese and Chinese-Americans and to share common life experiences—falling in love, getting married, having children, coping with failure, and facing death— and the universal emotions they evoke.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Scholars often speak about the push and pull factors of immigration. What are the things that push people out of their home countries and what pulls them toward a new country? What does Fong See’s search for his father and his early years in Sacramento reveal about the forces that drive him?  What personal skills, attitudes, or attributes account for his success as an entrepreneur? What are some of the similarities and differences between the experiences of See’s Chinese-American family and the experiences of other groups (Italian, Jewish, Mexican, Irish, etc.)? What were the push and pull factors that brought your family here? At what point in your families did people change from being immigrants to Americans? What was involved in that process?

2. “Fong See and Ticie Pruett made good partners . . . ” [p. 55]. Compare Fong See’s view of their marriage [p. 55] to Ticie’s [p. 56]. To what extent is their relationship based on the practical considerations and in what ways does it fulfill their emotional needs?

3. What traditional Chinese customs and beliefs shape the Fong See household? What aspects of Chinese culture does Ticie embrace? How does she foster Fong See’s acceptance of American mores? In what ways does she rebel against her husband’s expectations for his sons and daughter? What concessions does Fong See make and why?  Is Ticie’s approach the best way to create a biracial, bicultural family?

4. One of the underlying themes of On Gold Mountain is personal identity. How does Ticie and Fong See’s sons’ upbringing affect the way they view themselves and the choices they make about their careers, social lives, marriages, and the way they raise their own children? Were the Sees (and Fongs) Chinese or American? Did it depend on the color of their skin or the choices they made on a particular day? In what ways is Sissee’s experience different from her brothers’ experiences? Does one parent have a greater influence on the way her life unfolds?

5. Fong See, his son Eddy, and Eddy’s son Richard all marry Caucasian women. What similarities do you see among the three men as lovers, husbands, and fathers? What does each marriage reflect about the times in which they took place? What does Eddy’s opposition to Richard’s marrying Carolyn convey about the ambivalence often experienced by immigrant parents [p. 330]?

6. What qualities do Ticie, Stella, and Carolyn share? What influence do their family backgrounds have on their expectations and aspirations? How do their approaches to and beliefs about marriage and family differ?

7. What causes Fong See and Ticie’s marriage to fail? Why does Stella remain with Eddy despite his neglect and long-time affair? Does the author present both sides objectively?  Does she treat her own parents’ marriage and divorce in the same way? What do you think of the choices these women—especially Ticie—made and how they lived with the consequences of those decisions?

8. In addition to having a Caucasian mother, what eases the path to assimilation for Ming, Ray, Eddy, and Bennie? Discuss the significance of their appearance and demeanor; the family’s wealth and position; and the America of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s—and of Los Angeles in particular.

9. Are the alliances and rivalries among the siblings typical of most families? In what ways do they reflect the unique situation of an immigrant family? What do they show about the importance of how American-born children identify themselves [pp. 288-291]?

10. How does See use the stories of individual women to tell the larger story of women’s roles in history?   In addition to the detailed narratives about the main female characters, what do the vignettes set in China (pp. 29-30, p. 163, for example) and the portraits of Ngon Hung (Fong See’s young fourth wife), Mrs. Leong (Gilbert’s mother), and Anna May Wong (actress) convey about the issues women face and how they deal with them? What strengths or values do the women embody?

11. How well does See integrate historical facts and events? Does the information about political, economic, and social developments in America and in China enhance your understanding of the characters and their lives?

12. What propels Fong See to marry Ngon Hung and how is this marriage different from the one he had with Ticie? How were the children’s experiences different from those in the first family?

13. On Gold Mountain deals with a number of issues that are currently the subject of intense debate in the United States, including racial and ethnic discrimination and immigration policies. What light does the novel shed on the treatment of minority groups during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Do you think things have improved? What insights does the novel offer into the current controversies surrounding immigration laws and their enforcement? Does it change your opinion about recent anti-immigration movements?

14. Did reading On Gold Mountain give you a greater sense of connection to or curiosity about your own family’s background? Do you find parallels between the stories See heard about her family and stories told in your own family?

15. See tries hard to be objective, which is difficult to do because of the personal nature of the story. Do you think she succeeds? What do you suppose See’s family’s response was to the book? How do you think your family would react if you wrote your family history?

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About this Author

Lisa See grew up in Los Angeles and spent much of her time with her paternal family in Chinatown. She is the author of Flower Net, The Interior, Dragon Bones, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, Shanghai Girls, and most recently, Dreams of Joy. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles.

Suggested Reading

Julia Alvarez, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents; Bliss Broyard, One Drop; Iris Chang, The Chinese in America; Alex Haley, Roots; Maxine Hong Kingston, China Men and The Woman Warrior; Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes; Ariel Sabar, My Father’s Paradise; Esmeralda Santiago, When I Was Puerto Rican; Carolyn See, Dreaming; Daniel Sharfstein, The Invisible Line; Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore.
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