There is an increasing number of young adult (YA) novels with an Asian focus—“Asian YA”, as fellow ARB reviewer Susan Blumberg-Kason recently wrote—and Wai Chim throws her hat into the ring, with The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling.
The book is centered on Anna Chiu, an Australian teenager who emigrated from Hong Kong with her mother (her father arrived in Australia a few years earlier) when she was two. Her father opened a Chinese restaurant in a small town, before relocating the family to Sydney and commuting 90 minutes each way. As the eldest child, the teenaged Anna takes care of her two siblings—her sister Lily, also in high school, and her primary school-aged brother Michael—in part due to her father’s absence, and in part due to her mother’s mental illness. Chim opens the book:
When Ma stays in bed, our mornings are a game of fortune-telling where I’m forever looking for signs. The search begins when I try to coax her up with a cup of herbal tea. I shuffle down the hallway, looking for a shadow that looks like a smiley face, waiting for a shock from the doorknob, or trying to miss the creaking board on the floor. These signs tell me something about what to expect behind Ma’s closed door.
When Anna sees her mother “lost in a swathe of thick doona”, she realizes that it’s not a good day; her mother has now been in bed for two weeks. Anna rushes to get herself and her siblings out the door and to school, wishing for a “normal” life. But things are, of course, not normal: while Lily is an academic overachiever, Anna struggles; Anna is embarrassed by her family, namely her absent mother with an illness the family doesn’t quite understand. And then there is her father’s struggling restaurant—food is Anna’s passion, but Anna’s father is (initially) uninterested in his eldest daughter’s help. But things start to change, when Anna is permitted to help her father on weekends and she meets Rory, the new delivery boy.
In many ways, Chim’s story follows a typical YA cadence and includes the not unfamiliar themes of school, family, first loves and the future. But there are also less-typical (and much-welcomed) elements, for example an open discussion between Anna and Rory (who is Caucasian) about microaggressions.
Given the book’s title, it’s no surprise that food plays a central role. It is, for example, through food that Anna communicates best with her father.
“Did you eat?” His standard greeting for, How are you doing? I shrug.
“Yeah. We had dinner.” My reply for, I’m okay.
We’re silent for a while and he takes another swig of beer. I’m almost tempted to ask for some. Maybe if I’d been a son, he would offer it to me, pour me a glass. But I’m not sure what it says in the Chinese handbook for fathers and daughters drinking together.
While Anna is forced to deal with more serious issues than perhaps the average teenager, her youthfulness is revealed both by her enthusiasm in helping her father run the restaurant as well as in her excitement for dumplings. It’s also what initially connects her to Rory and perhaps also serves a way to connect with readers who may be less familiar with a character like Anna.
The mention of dumplings instantly puts me in a better mood. Dumplings are the great social equaliser, and so many cultures and communities have some version of meat wrapped in dough, with recipes handed down through generations. It’s one of the reasons I love them so much. Plus they taste so good!
Chim does well in showing the different cultural tensions in the Chiu’s life—a subtle example is that Anna calls her parents “Ma” and “Ba”, but her young brother Michael refers to his mother as “mummy”. Chim also integrates Chinese throughout the book, starting on the opening pages when Anna asks if her mother wants “Caa4. Tea”. As her younger siblings make breakfast Anna recalls her mother throwing out the toaster because “toast is too jit6hei3 (hot air)”. While Chim explains that she chose Jyutping romanization to represent Anna’s ability to speak Cantonese but not read or write Chinese characters, this decision doesn’t always achieve the desired effect. At least for this reader, this romanization’s use of numbers to represent tones can result in a disruption to the flow of the text; there may have been alternative ways to achieve the author’s goal.
Chim’s voice is a welcomed one in the growing body of YA fiction that has a focus on East Asian culture. There is a plainness to Anna’s voice that speaks to the hardships that she as an ethnically diverse immigrant has both witnessed and endured and it’s a maturity that Chim captures well. While Anna’s Chinese-Australianness is part of the book, mental illness is just as key a theme and Chim also tackles this successfully, with emotion, humanity and care.
Melanie Ho is the author of Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera.