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Bitter Melon by Cara Chow

January 18, 2011

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.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2011 12:10 am

    We were offered this book for review and turned it down because it sounded a lot like The Joy Luck Club for YA — and this, too, was before the Amy Chua person got started.

    It seems that with Asian American fiction, the stereotype is so heavily entrenched that it will take extraordinary effort to overcome it. Yay for those who keep talking about it.

    • January 19, 2011 12:30 am

      I thought of The Joy Luck Club, too! And so did Steph Su (see the comments for Ari’s review). But I thought I should put my, er, reviewing where my mouth is. Or something.

      As for Amy Chua (whose World on Fire I read back when it was first published and found it fascinating), did you get the email promoting Bitter Melon in the context of all the attention Battle Hymn… is getting? Which does make sense, and great timing for Bitter Melon, eh?

  2. January 19, 2011 1:21 pm

    I’d love to hear what you think of “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” book that was recently published to much controversy.

    • January 24, 2011 1:03 am

      Haven’t read the book, or the excerpt that ran in the Wall Street Journal.

  3. January 21, 2011 5:30 pm

    I think most YA stories that feature first and second generation suffer from the all school, learn, learn and nothing else stereotype. Unless of course the teen works in the family restaurant or store. (more times then not there is some type of family business)

    In Meminger’s new YA novel Jazz in Love – One of the first things I notice was there wasn’t stereotypical disconnect between the parents and their daughter

    • January 24, 2011 1:09 am

      Maybe I don’t read enough immigration stories, particularly non-Asian-American ones, but while I have run into similar parents in novels with white families, they seem to appear more often in Asian-American stories.

      As for Jazz in Love, which I have read, the parents also had high academic expectations for Jazz, but they weren’t as over-the-top. I think the difference for me is that it wasn’t a burden for Jazz. They weren’t Ivy-League-or-bust, and it was obvious that they loved her. You’re right that it wasn’t the same disconnect as usual — the parents (well, the mom, mostly) emphasized their culture, but they also acknowledged the differences between how they wanted Jazz to be and stereotypical American culture.

  4. January 25, 2011 5:08 am

    I instantly thought of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Does the existence of stereotypes mean we should always write the opposite? And to what extent are certain stereotypes based on cultural trends or traditions?

    Thanks for the review!

    • January 26, 2011 4:07 pm

      Ooh, tough questions! 🙂 I had to spend some time thinking about this and hopefully other readers can chime in, but here’s my $0.02.

      There are commonalities that people within a culture recognize, but I think being part of the culture means a person is also more aware of the differences that can be found within it (differences among the population comprising the culture, that is). So it seems to me that some stereotypes are based less on cultural trends/traditions than *perceptions* of the culture. Which is not to say that a person within any culture is ignorant of the stereotypes, doesn’t resemble/reflect a stereotype, or consciously or unconsciously tries to fulfill a stereotype.

      I don’t think the existence of stereotypes means authors should deliberately write the opposite. If a stereotype is common enough to be recognizable, there is reason for it to be addressed. However, just because I think they should be addressed, in fiction or non-fiction, doesn’t mean it’s the only thing worth writing/reading about. I want more variety in the types of Asian-American stories that are published, and when stereotype-related stories are the majority of what’s published, I think this makes it harder to overcome the stereotypes.

      I don’t mind reading about a few stereotypical aspects in Asian-American novels, but like I said, this one managed to include almost all of them. Basically, I don’t mind characters or parents with a couple of stereotypical character traits or problems, but I’d much prefer them to be balanced with either more universal problems or really unusual/supernatural problems.

      Does this make sense?

  5. Pam permalink
    February 5, 2011 6:57 am

    Trisha, I have been working (off and on for 2 years) on a ya fiction with an Asian-American
    teen heroine. In short, it is a coming of age story with a mystery twist that leads her on an adventure back to Laos. It has culture, heart, humor, touches of supernatural and more, but racism and other such stereotypes never enter in. Ethnicity is just, as you put it last summer, “an integral part of the character.” I have noticed the lack of ya fiction with such as an Asian-American heroine, so I don’t see this book going anywhere. However, my own passion for the story compels me to finish it anyway… Regards.

    • February 7, 2011 10:17 pm

      Finish it! Your description sounds fascinating.

      Well, that, and your story seems to have a lot in common with Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries, which I love.


      Anyway, best of luck with your story. You never know, you might be the one who will break down some barriers.

      • Pam permalink
        February 10, 2011 2:42 pm

        Good to know. I am ashamed to admit that I have never heard of him. I
        will check him out…

        • February 10, 2011 4:50 pm

          Well, he actually writes adult mysteries set in 1970s Laos. It was mainly the Laos + mystery + humor + culture + supernatural that I was referring to.

          If you do check out his books, I hope you enjoy them!


  1. REVIEW: Bitter Melon by Cara Chow | Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog
  2. Food for thought « The YA YA YAs

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