Bitter Melon by Cara Chow
I’ve been trying to figure out how to separate my personal reaction to Cara Chow’s Bitter Melon from the book itself and actually, you know, review it. I’m not sure I’m capable of this, though, because the book includes practically every single pet peeve of mine concerning Asian-American YA literature. But the fact that I still think the writing is quite good, despite the plot, counts for something, right?
Frances Ching has been raised by a single mother who emigrated from Hong Kong and sacrificed almost everything so that Frances can get into UC Berkeley, go to medical school, become a doctor, and take care of Mrs. Ching. This is not Frances’s goal—she’s not sure what she really wants to do—but it is a path she was willing to follow, believing it a better option than uncertainty and not wanting to incur any more of her mother’s wrath.
It is not until her senior year of high school, when Frances is mistakenly enrolled in a speech class, that she begins to rebel against her mother. First by not admitting that she is taking speech instead of calculus (because, her mother says, she needs to take calculus to get into Berkeley), then lying to keep her speech competitions a secret and to pursue her feelings for Derek, a guy she meets at her first competition. Her accomplice is Theresa, daughter of her mother’s best friend and a classmate at school—a girl Frances has never liked. Until they’re in speech class together and Frances realizes that Theresa is not as bad as she thought, and being friends with Theresa is very convenient.
Theresa is a paragon to Frances’s mother, who thinks Theresa is what all Chinese daughters should be like and Frances will never be. Frances’s mother is not shy about sharing her opinion on this and shaming Frances, either. This isn’t just putting down herself and Frances as false modesty while interacting with others. As Ari points out in her review, this is full on verbal abuse, in public and in private, and sometimes physical abuse, too. So when Frances starts putting her own interests and desires ahead of her mother’s, you know a confrontation is coming and the results won’t be pretty.
Let’s get my thoughts about the plot out of the way first: it’s nothing new, but simply takes the stereotypical Asian-American storyline to an extreme + speech. I mean, you’ve got
- a first generation/second generation conflict between parent and child
- as well as an extremely demanding parent with high academic expectations for their child
- and therefore the parent won’t let their child do anything but schoolwork and perhaps some extracurricular activities that would look good on a college application*
- (because to the parent, it’s admission to an elite university or bust)
- so the child must go to extreme lengths to lie and hide things from the parent
- not to mention the mother could win an Asian parent guilt trip competition, which is saying something.
Moving on, the novel is set in 1989-1990 San Francisco, and I’m not sure this is completely necessary. The time period is really only evident when 1) the earthquake strikes and 2) you realize the main reason Frances can get away with some of what she does is because there are no cell phones, computers, etc. Which I found problematic because if a story is set in the past, I want atmosphere and I want there to be a reason for the setting besides giving characters a somewhat easier way of disobeying their parents. And outside of Frances and her mother, I never got a real sense of the other characters. Although they are the two most important people in the story and it perhaps makes sense because Frances is very self-centered for the majority of the book. In a realistic, believable way, to be sure, and I do think the depiction of Frances and her mother was done extremely well.
It’s in Frances’s narration that Chow’s prose stands out. (Except for the classic technique of defining a foreign word or expression right after said word or expression is used, as if the character herself needs a definition to figure out what it means, which I think is completely unrealistic in a first-person narrative and can’t stand.) Stylistically, the writing is rather understated, but, like Frances, contains a quiet strength. Frances is not always a likable character, but I felt more empathy for her than I expected. It wasn’t enough to overcome my criticisms of the story, but enough to make Bitter Melon more readable than An Na’s in A Step From Heaven and Wait for Me (because, okay, I couldn’t even finish the latter two books).
Ultimately, everything that another blogger, JJ, wrote recently totally applies here. Except the April and the Dragon Lady bit, since I (fortunately?) have never read it.
If Asian protagonists in books weren’t somehow exoticized, they were made into “issues”. Culture clash of Old World vs. New! Are Confucian ideals relevant in a Western society? Etc. These storylines were rarely useful to me as I did not have an immigrant experience, nor did my parents. And despite the best of intentions, these issue books didn’t do much to change Asian stereotypes; in fact, in many cases they reinforced them. (Ahem, APRIL AND THE DRAGON LADY. Okay, that book makes me see red.)
I think these issue books are part of the reason some people steer clear of diverse protagonists in books. Hell, it’s the reason I stayed clear of books that screamed “Asian” at me (the shorthand, oh god, the shorthand).
If you don’t have the same issues with Asian-American YA literature, these things might not bother you as much. For people with the same issues, I assume you weren’t planning on reading Bitter Melon in the first place.
Book source: requested ARC from publicist
* I read Bitter Melon before all the headlines about Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which I have no intention of reading, but maybe I would have felt slightly more generous if it had been the other way around.