The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim Book Review
Someone give me dumplings because now it’s all I can think about when I think of this amazing book. There, I said it, it was AMAZING. Cue blurb:
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.
“There are two sides to everything. Every thought, every gesture, has a good and a bad.”
– Wai Chim
I cannot express how much I loved this book. It’s hard for me to even write this review because I’ll say this with absolute certainty that this is one of my favourite books of all time. I related to so much within this book and it’s hard to contain within me how much I want to shout into the void and recommend this to everyone.
The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling is about a high school student Anna, who’s just trying to get through school and look after her siblings because her mother isn’t particularly well, sometimes for months on end. She’s been brought up under the strict, harsh parental regime of her mother who holds very common stereotypes, traditional Asian cultural views and expectations for her and her siblings. Meanwhile, her dad spends 80% of his time at his restaurant far from their current town, so when Anna’s mum begins to again experience mental illness and is hardly ever seen, it’s Anna’s job as the eldest to make sure her younger sister and brother are looked after.
“But guilt trips are a part of my mother’s parenting, filial piety and duty being supreme.”
– Wai Chim
It’s almost weird how much I was able to relate to Anna. I wasn’t brought up in a very Asian household, being from Mauritius however does mean my own mother has similar cultural views but I still managed to relate a lot to it. Anna explains in the beginning how she feels classified as a bad Asian or at least a mediocre and I can’t stress enough about how important it is to note that this is normal – I’ve felt this and that the cultural stressors of being the best based on everyone else’s performance can be so deteriorating for self-esteem.
I related to her as well because she is obviously going through a hard time but not really talking about it and feeling like she can’t trust anyone or really understand the benefits of talking about mental health due to the stigma in her community and her family values. During her school holidays, she finally convinces her dad to let her help out at the restaurant. Not really knowing what she wants to do after she finishes high school, she’d rather help out and do what she loves best and that includes cooking Chinese food. Through working there, she meets the new delivery boy, Rory, who not only becomes a great friend and something more for her, during this ‘coming-of-age’ and coping time, but helps her by opening up about his own mental health.
This book just touched on so many issues that I think are extremely important for anyone to read, whether you identify as Asian and can relate to it and even if you don’t and you can gain a better understanding of cultural norms in other countries. Mental health was obviously a big topic here and I thought it was done amazingly well. As someone who’s currently dealing with a lot of things and mental illness, it made me tear up and appreciate great mental health representation that highlights coping strategies, speaking up, and best of all; healing. Other topics covered in this book that added even more depth include racism in Australia, a brief and succinct explanation for Hong Kong’s relationship with China, the stereotypes within and outside Asian minorities and more.
Wai Chim’s writing was so easy to read; I read this book over two days in about 24 hours and couldn’t put it down. It was so cohesive and sucked me into the story. The plot was always interesting and juggled multiple aspects of the story perfectly. The side characters were all so well fleshed out that you knew them all well and appreciated their role in the story by the end of the book. Anna’s character development was immense throughout it and as someone who suffers from mental illness, it was also just really interesting to read from the perspective of Anna who doesn’t have it but is seeing someone else (her mother) deal and try to cope with it. The best takeout from this novel is the idea and the point that mental health is important, it’s part of your health and wellbeing but it’s also a long process for recovery and ongoing healing.
Another great thing I appreciated was the diversity of including Cantonese (although I cannot read or speak any Chinese languages) within the narrative which was done so well that you never felt like you didn’t know what was said and it was subtly assumed that certain characters were speaking Cantonese rather than English and vice versa.
Reading this book definitely made me crave dumplings continuously and it was unfortunate and kind of heartbreaking that Wai Chim came to Melbourne twice to take fans out to get dumplings and celebrate this new release but both times, I was struggling with my own mental health and couldn’t make it. I do hope that I get to meet her one day and get my book signed – which by the way is looking super colourful from all the tabs I used throughout it.
I highly recommend this book if you’re looking for a quick, meaningful contemporary. Definitely one of my favourite books of all time and I can’t wait to read more of Wai Chim’s work in the future.
What are your favourite dumplings? I usually get steamed pork dumplings 🙂
Until next time,