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The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim was recommended to me by my friend, Lili from Utopia State of Mind. Hearing Lili talk about how amazing and touching this book was encouraged me to pick this up. Honestly, I did not expect this little book to sucker punch me in the feels. Wai Chim’s YA contemporary is about a family struggling under their mother’s declining mental health and the heartbreak of enduring it all as just a child. I love this book with all my heart and I know you will to.
You can listen to the Totes and Tales episode with Lilil here.
Wikathon 2021 Book Recommendations – Totes and Tales
THE SURPRISING POWER OF A GOOD DUMPLING BY WAI CHIM
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.
GOODREADS // STORYGRAPH // AMAZON // BLACKWELL’S
TRIGGER WARNING: DEPRESSION, MENTION OF SUICIDE, EMOTIONAL ABUSE, RACISM, ANIMAL CRUELTY
HONEST FAMILY DYNAMICS
The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling follows 16 year-old Chinese-Australian, Anna Chiu, who is trying to navigate her life as a student, as the eldest daughter of her family, working at her father’s restaurant and the desire to just be a normal teenager. Throughout the book, Anna battles with what she believes a loyal daughter to her family should be. As the eldest, she is expected to be the second parent to her siblings yet she is supposed to achieve stellar grades. on top of that she acts as her mother’s caretaker, protecting her siblings from her mother’s volatile moods. Anna Chiu spreads herself thin leaving no time for her own self. So, when the opportunity arrives to help her father at his restaurant and get away from the shadow of her home, Anna takes it.
Anna is a resilient character but no child has to go through what she had to.
Her mother is unaware of the state of her mental health and her father would rather remain at his restaurant than care for his children. The family dynamics are scattered and with no one to talk to, Anna and her sister, Lily. I say, honest family dynamics because in such a situation like this, the family structure can collapse. None of the Chiu family members have a knowledge of mental illness and the conversation around mental health in their culture is absent. They navigate this in the only ways they know how.
“That’s all he thinks is wrong with Ma, that if she was busy enough, she wouldn’t have time to be sad and afraid.”The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, Wai Chim
Your heart breaks for the moments of disappointment and hurt in this book. The pain and fear of witnessing your mother lose herself each day, hoping that maybe today is the she comes back is inexplainable. The author portrays these moments with sensitivity and a touch of warmth. You can clearly see how much the family loves each other whether it’s spending extra minutes before school to help their baby brother find his sock or brewing tea for their mother even when she doesn’t get out bed. The love of family is strong in this book.
THE PRESSURE OF OBLIGATIONS
With the absence of their father, Anna and Lily took up the responsibility of caring for their little brother. They also had to cook their meals, do the grocery and all the housework. On top of this, they also had to study. Lily needed to keep her grades up as she was on a scholarship for a private school. The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling shows us the daily stress Anna goes through not only from acting as caretaker and parent to her siblings but also her school pushing her to figure out her career path right now. On top of that she also has to deal with the micro-aggressions and racism many Asians face in Australia.
Anna is only sixteen years old. While she is protecting her family, there is no one protecting her. Certainly not when she brings up her mother’s health to her father. This books gives readers a glimpse of how quickly some children have to grow up and of how trauma builds in the body of these vulnerable children. It made me so angry that Anna’s father would rather bury himself in work that protect his children. Lily, Anna’s sister, is practical and prickly. Lily may act the grown up because she had to. Caught between her mother and her absent father, Lily helps Anna, lightening her load when she can. But being left at home while Anna is at the restaurant feels like abandonment for Lily. Lily is only thirteen, an age when she should be out with friends, not picking up her mother’s responsibilities.
Besides family, Anna and Lily also face pressure from her school. Lily cannot slip or else she would lose her scholarship.
At sixteen, Anna is expected to know what she career path she wants. Any interest she shows is shot down for the simple reason of it not being good enough or not valuable enough. We see it everyday; children being discouraged from pursuing what interests them because it’s not financially viable. Rather than cultivating their interests and curiosity, the education system pushes it to the side.
In the book, Anna stands up for herself. When her guidance counsellor dismisses Anna’s choice of pursuing Psychology or focusing on helping at her dad’s restaurant, Anna pushes back.
“[…] the system is broken if I have to give up other things, things I’m passionate about, just so the “system” can tick a box that says I’m moving towards some socially-acceptable career path.”The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, Wai Chim
MENTAL HEALTH AND THE IMPORTANCE OF A SUPPORT SYSTEM
The portrayal of mental health discrimination was thoughtfully done. The author takes time to show that stigma is not only always aggressive like Rory’s friends but also the silence and the shame that people attach to it. The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling sends a message about the importance of a support system. On our own, it is very difficult to understand the tides of our mental health. We cope and survive, sometimes stuck in the cyclical behavior that sometimes we lose sight of the people we love. Without the conversation on their mom’s mental health, Anna’s family might not have taken the step. It’s sad that there are people who experience the worst before the seek out or afforded the help they need. Conversations on getting therapy, opening up to family and friends, taking medication and living with a mental illness should not be frowned upon.
“Some days I’m okay. And some days I’m less okay. I know my triggers. I have my strategies on how to cope when things get too bad.”The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, Wai Chim
Anna begins a friendship with the new delivery boy at her father’s restaurant, Rory. Firstly, their relationship is so soft and warm. Rory opens up to Anna about his own mental health and how it’s not something that just disappears. Taking care of your mental health is a routine. Recovery is not all uphill – there will be good days, okay days, bad days but no matter the days, healing is there. Through Rory, Anna begins to learn the complexity of living with mental illness and coming to understand that is nothing wrong with asking for help.
The book even shows this when Anna’s mom gets help. I love that the book didn’t end it story all neatly wrapped up but showed readers the ups and downs of Mrs. Chiu’s own struggle. There’s nothing wrong when you have the bad days. The author is empathetic in their portrayal of mental illness and how culture plays a role in our understanding of it. The bond between the Chiu family, and the community they built in the restaurant shows how love and friendship can help us get through the bad days.
The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling is a powerful book about mental illness and the responsibilities that are often left to young children whose parents suffer through it. The author perfectly balanced the moments of pain and joy, painting a true and honest picture of a family drifting apart and coming back together. Overall, I highly recommend this book to everyone who reads this.
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