Published by Allen & Unwin on August 5, 2019
Genres: Young Adult, Own Voices, Diversity, Contemporary, Fiction
Book Depository | Publisher | Booktopia
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Anna Chiu has her hands pretty full looking after her brother and sister and helping out at her dad’s restaurant, all while her mum stays in bed. Dad’s new delivery boy, Rory, is a welcome distraction and even though she knows that things aren’t right at home, she’s starting to feel like she could just be a normal teen.
But when Mum finally gets out of bed, things go from bad to worse. And as Mum’s condition worsens, Anna and her family question everything they understand about themselves and each other.
A nourishing tale about the crevices of culture, mental wellness and family, and the surprising power of a good dumpling.
I don’t know how Wai Chim does it, but The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling captures so much of my life growing up. From having strict, traditional Chinese-Australian parents, to the mental illness stigma and a sister having to take care of her siblings, there’s so much here that captures life for me and my siblings.
Often mental illness in Asian families is something to be shunned, something that is swept under the rug and wasn’t talked about. Instead of talking about it openly, and getting those affected the help that was needed, it was something to be ashamed of. Something that highlighted the weaknesses in one’s family. Something that was blamed on the children growing up. And all of that hurt, all of that pain is something that is captured in Good Dumpling. Not only is it covered empathetically, but it’s also done without blame.
“You feel weird because you see how messed up everything can get and then you wonder how far away you are from being that. Or maybe you’re already there.”
Not only does it cover the mental illness and depression well, but it’s also balanced with equal parts warmth, of hope and of love and acceptance. I loved the moments in Anna Chiu’s life where she finds love within her own family, despite the hardships they go through. She finds love out of being the “good daughter”, of helping her father look after his restaurant, of helping her mother look after her younger sister and brother. And she does all of this without question, because of her values of filial piety.
I also loved the part where Anna Chiu helps out at her dad’s restaurant which adds a fun element to a book that covers a lot of ground. The parts with Ah Jeff and the rest of the staff were so much fun and showed how grounding a family business could be. I also loved all the descriptions of food, dumplings and noodle soup in the novel and how it talks about “westernised” Asian food as well as “real” Asian food which is something that is so accepted by Asians living in the West, but no one really talks about it!
Although Anna has a lot on her plate helping out with her family and siblings, it’s amazing just how narrow-minded the education system can be. And that’s highlighted by her guidance counsellor pushing her towards a more “worthwhile” career that looks good on the books, and how her grades are everything. Anna doesn’t want to share her life story with her guidance counsellor for fear of backlash and of being judged, but I like how she speaks her mind about it.
It’s often hard to balance stories about cultural attitudes and racism, but Good Dumpling covers the Chinese-Australian experience so well. I loved the discussions about microaggressions that Asians can face in Australia, like how everyone just pretends we’re any sort of Asian and thinks we speak for the rest of the race. Something that often isn’t talked about is the intrinsic racism that many of us have against other cultures too. It’s not perfect, but Good Dumpling covers it with such grace and honesty.
Good Dumpling also covers an Asian dating someone who your parents didn’t expect you to: someone who is anglo-saxon (and not another Chinese). I loved how empathetic Rory was, and how his own experience with depression helped to open up Anna’s empathy and understanding when it came to her mother’s mental illness. How it’s an ongoing condition, and just because you “seem okay” at the time, doesn’t mean that you’re completely cured. Because in the end, that’s what this book is about – learning how to understand, manage and help with mental illness so you can function again.
“Most of the time, I have to pretend it’s no big deal…so I don’t come off as some angry Asian, you know.”
I’m a complete blubbering mess after reading The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, which moved me to tears upon finishing it. From the mental illness in the family, to caring for your siblings, and the Chinese-Australian experience growing up…I’ve never had a book that reflected my own experience so succinctly before. It’s a book that is heartwarming, meaningful and thoroughly important, and I can’t wait for everyone to read it.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Trigger warnings: mental illness, racism, bullying, animal cruelty
A big thanks to Wai Chim and Allen and Unwin Australia for the review copy and the Q&A!
A Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling is available from Australian bookstores for RRP$19.99 or from The Book Depository.
Q&A With Wai Chim
Hi Wai, thank you so much for joining the blog today to discuss The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling! I absolutely loved your book and was so happy to read something so close to my own experience growing up in Australia.
J: The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling is very different to Freedom Swimmer which was set in Mao’s China. Can you tell us what you wanted to achieve with the book?
W: This is the first book I’ve written that isn’t set in China. I wanted to write something that was closer to my own experiences growing up when it came to culture and family and the everyday. Growing up, I don’t remember reading many books that reflected the Asian-American (or Asian-Australian) experience and in some ways, it made being a teenager a bit harder. ‘Rebelling’ for me wasn’t staying out past curfew and going to teen parties, it was doing volunteer work with my friends after school and not going straight home to study and help my mum with chores. So yeah, I didn’t really know what was ‘normal’, what was my family, what was my culture etc. And I think this is what DUMPLING tries to answer.
J: The book also accurately captures a lot of nuances when it comes to being an Asian resident in a Westernised country – which is what I found really relatable about it. What key topics did you want to cover?
W: It means so so much to me that you found it relatable (I cried a little bit reading your tweet and I think a part of was like ‘oh thank goodness, it worked!’ 🙂 ) The themes of growing up with what I call the ‘hyphenated’ identity is really important and universal in so many ways. Things like being a nine year old kid and translating heavy adult documents for your parents, spending all of your free time helping at a family business, having strict parents who try to adhere to their more conservative cultures and values in a Western environment that they don’t fully grasp or understand. And of course, the topic of mental illness and the stigma that exists around it.
I definitely wanted to discuss topics like casual racism and that’s a shared experience between America and Australia. I was late 20 something before I learned the term ‘microaggression; and finally had the language I needed to talk about my own experiences with racism and identity, so I’m hoping that DUMPLING can help give today’s teens the language they need to talk about this.
J: Each of the Chiu siblings cope with their mother’s mental illness in different ways. Can you tell us a bit about how Lily, Anna and Michael cope differently?
W: So Anna’s the eldest and she’s quite pragmatic and wants to make sure everyone in the family is happy and to keep the peace. She’s a caregiver for both her siblings and for her parents as well, being the pseudo adult in tough situations. Lily is whip smart and has a strong sense of justice, so she’s very frustrated with the family situation because it seems so unfair – I personally think a lot of teens will relate to her perspective. Lily ends up lashing out a lot, which causes additional conflict with mum. And Michael, being the youngest, is largely protected by his older sisters from the more chaotic stuff, but he’s old enough now to know something’s ‘up’. However, in many ways, I think he’s still trying to ignore the difficulties and preserve his bubble as best he can. By the end, I think the three kids grow up quite a bit and their approaches and outlooks on their family situation will change.
J: There’s a lot of sibling love – but also sibling rivalry in the book. Were the sibling relationships inspired by your own experience growing up?
W: That’s really interesting because I’m actually an only child! ;D My mum came from a large family so I think a lot of my understanding of sibling dynamics especially in a cultural context, comes from listening to my mum’s experiences – as one of six brothers and sisters, there were lots of rivalry and bickering mixed with love and care especially because she was the second eldest. I’m glad it sounds like I got it right!
J: I also loved how the romance with Rory was founded upon mutual understanding – how he was empathetic towards what Anna faced with her mother, and helping out at her father’s restaurant.
W: Rory is so so beautiful as a character and gentle and understanding and I’m so glad he came into being the way he did. Rory seems to be one of the first people that Anna could really ‘talk to’ even though she remains tight lipped about her situation at home for the longest time. He sees Anna’s life is a bit different to his own experiences and he rolls with it. Straight off the bat, he’s aware of his own shortcomings (eg the microaggressions) and he has the language to be sincere, empathetic and honest. I wrote Rory and Anna’s conversations to be what I hope real conversations about serious topics can be like – instead of all the ‘yelling’ on the internet.
J: In Good Dumpling, there’s the stigma of mental health in the family, and it’s difficult for the Chiu family to cope with. Can you talk about this a bit more – especially in Asian families?
W: In Chinese culture, the attitudes towards mental illness are very dismissive – the idea being that mental illness, especially depression, is a result of ‘boredom’ or not being ‘busy’ enough. I think it’s supposed to marry up with the culture’s strong work ethic, so if you’re not working and just ‘thinking’, you’re seen as ‘lazy’. I’ve heard stories of families and family members being ostracised because they have mental illness or there’s a family history there – it’s really horrific, and lots of young people can end up feeling suicidal as a result.
With that being said, this is definitely not unique to Asian cultures, and there’s so much work to be done on the topic of mental health and mental health care as a whole. The mental health care system needs so much in terms of resources, staffing, funding, security and just general awareness and public education. I think it was Channing Tatum who casually mentioned he was seeing a therapist on Twitter and the internet went wild because here was someone finally ‘normalising’ the behaviour. So yeah, we’re getting better as a society, and young people especially seem more aware of what’s involved and have the language to talk about their own mental health – but there’s still a ways to go.
J: Running the restaurant is a big part of Anna’s family’s life – especially her father’s. However, he tends to leave all the affairs of the home to his mother and children. Is this something that you wanted to highlight in the book as something that is typical of Asian families?
W: Hmm it’s a good question, it’s not atypical and in some ways, I am playing into the stereotype of the emotionally distant Asian father – while so many Asian fathers I know are beautifully sensitive and caring and definitely play a huge part in raising the family and running the household. I think what I wanted to do was show how well-meaning adults, like Anna’s father, are pretty flawed. They think they’re doing the ‘right’ thing, working hard and putting food on the table and they use this to justify their behaviour, when really they’re avoiding a problem or trying to run away. Adults do this all the time (and teens have us figured out!) but I think what’s important to know is that flawed and well-meaning adults can learn and become better versions of themselves, just like Anna’s father does.
J: Who would you recommend The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling to?
W: Teens growing up in migrant families or have parents with migrant backgrounds or adults who have grown up in one; readers with close family members/friends who have experienced mental illness; anyone who loves good food and dumplings.
Oh and the 1.4 million members of Subtle Asian Traits – this one’s definitely for you. 😀
QUICK FIRE ROUND
- Har gao or siu mai? – Har gao 1000%
- Bubble tea or green tea? – green tea
- Noodles or rice? – noodles all the way
- Soy sauce or chilli sauce? – chilli
- Home cooked meal or takeaway? – takeaway unless my dad is cooking!
- Historical fiction or contemporary? – Contemporary but mostly because it’s the only way I can ‘keep up with the kids’ these days. XD
About the Author
Wai Chim grew up in New York City and now calls Sydney, Australia home. She is the author of the ‘Chook Chook’ series published by UQP and most recently ‘Freedom Swimmer’ with Allen & Unwin. You can find her online at waichim.com or on twitter @onewpc.