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.
I received an ARC of the book from the publisher. This does not affect my opinion of the book.
Take note of this review’s title: The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim is one of the best books that explore mental illness that I have ever read – ever. Take note, because I absolutely mean it and I think everyone should read this book. The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling follows Hong Kong-Chinese-Australian teen Anna, who spends a lot of her time wrangling her younger siblings and making sure they are ready for school, helping at her father’s Chinese restaurant, and trying to be a teenager herself while her mother who stays in bed for weeks at a time. Don’t be fooled by this book’s bright and soft cover – though The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling has its sweet moments about teenagehood and first love, it also has some confronting and candid explorations of mental illness within Asian communities and its impact on family.
Examines mental illness; where the protagonist learns and grows
Back when I was an undergraduate studying Psychology with a pipe dream of becoming a clinical psychologist, one of my greatest motivators of pursuing such a career was that I wanted to do something about mental illness with Asian communities. The truth is this: though things are getting better and that there is growing awareness of what mental illness is and what can be done to support those living with it, mental illness in Asian communities has always been a bit taboo. There are a lot of cultural values and forces at work when Asians talk and address mental illness (and there are Asian professionals who are working hard daily to address this) coupled with lacking knowledge and awareness, mental illness has always been one of those subjects that can be very difficult to talk about with Asian communities.
The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling may not exist to educate Asian readers about what mental illness is, but it is an extremely powerful examination of how mental illness is perceived and grappled with by a young Hong Kong-Chinese-Australian teen. Anna’s mother’s diagnosis is never explicitly stated (and I don’t think what her mother lived with is not the point; rather, the point was that she does live with mental illness) and her episodes can either result in her staying in bed for weeks at a time, never leaving her room, or will result in her having manic behaviour of cleaning after midnight. Anna knows her mother is unwell, but doesn’t make the connection of her mother’s behaviour to her mother having a mental illness. I really related to Anna: she knows a little bit about the realities of mental illness, is a little naïve and ignorant. Additionally, she also finds navigating the complexities challenging, is unsure of what is the ‘right thing’ to do, and is learning the vocabulary of mental illness while making mistakes along the way. Anna’s growth and learning across the story is vulnerable, realistic, and sensitive – it allows room for readers to grow with Anna, even though the tough lessons that Anna has to learn are confronting.
Explores the complexity of diasporic experiences and family
I’ve read many books that portray diasporic experiences, but I think no book and its representation of diasporic experiences have hit me harder than what is in The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling. This isn’t just a book about an Asian-Australian teen whose family member has mental illness; it delves deep into what it means to have those experiences, the impact such experiences can have on your family, and also the messy emotional experiences that are challenging to work through.
First, Chim portrays a wide array of experiences that many children of immigrants can relate to. Because Anna’s mother is absent for weeks at a time and her father spends nights working hard at his restaurant, Anna feels a lot of burden as the eldest of three to be the primary caretaker of her younger sister and younger brother. As an eldest sibling, I strongly related to Anna – granted, I never had to be a primary caretaker, but the degree of responsibility and duty that she feels as an eldest sibling and a daughter was so… relatable, particularly when she expresses feelings of ‘Chinese guilt’ as a daughter, sister, and teen with Asian values of duty to her parents. As a consequence, this causes her to feel a cacophony of mixed and guilt-like feelings towards her mother, and I liked that the story explores this in a way that isn’t ableist but… real. Another experience that really hit close to home with me was how, as a 1.5-generation Australian, Anna at a young age has to be the translator between parent and teachers, which, itself, can be a complex experience when she is torn between translating honestly and exacerbating her parent’s concern and thus the messy family dynamic at home. This is an experience that is echoed among many children of immigrants – young kids having to translate official documents for their parents, proofread for their parents, visit institutions with their parents as translators, and I appreciated the book’s representation of this experience.
Conversely, The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling also explores Anna’s parents’ experiences, and thus don’t remove them from the story but making them as integral and humanised characters in the story. We get to know more of Anna’s mother, who experienced a lot of challenges immigrating to Australia as well as the debilitating effects of isolation, alienation, and racism. We see Anna’s mother have bad days but also good days (and the daring hope that Anna feels that the worst may be over), but underneath a parent who is human and faced with invisible demons and obstacles. In addition, we also get to know Anna’s father – the owner of a struggling Chinese restaurant who works hard to support his family but also the effect of his absence on his family, as well as the ignorance he espouses about mental illness and why nothing significant had been done so far. Nonetheless, Chim’s thoughtful characterisation of Anna and her family members are brilliant achievements of storytelling, particularly for the book’s humanising, realistic, yet hopeful ending that acknowledges that life and recovery with mental illness is not linear.
A well-rounded and empathetic perspective of Anna’s teen life
As well as its excellent and emotional story about mental illness, Chim expertly interweaves very genuine experiences of what it’s like being a teenager – particularly one that has been more sheltered. Because Anna has always been busy looking after her siblings and doing homework, this has left little room to do the things that ‘normal teenagers do’. There is a romance in this story, a romance that I actually really enjoyed. The romance between Anna and her love interest has a fine and deftly written balance between wholesome and sweet as they explore the ins and outs of first love and a blossoming relationship, as well as the challenges of trusting one another with secrets and communicating.
Furthermore, Anna’s story also delves, with great depth whilst also juggling the discussions about mental illness, into the pressures and high expectations of being in high school. In particular, the story provides an empathetic perspective of how responsibilities to life outside school can lead to ‘underachieving’ at school (and why those responsibilities outside school are just as important as school and life) and how schools, specifically guidance counsellors, can speak from privileged positions that diminish and devalue the complexities of some teens’ lives and their goals. I loved that Chim gave us a character that wasn’t a straight-A student (not every YA protagonist has to be a straight-A student!) and is able to find a path that is meaningful to her and is organic to her character development.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
What I loved about The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling was that it’s such a realistic story where mental illness, Asian-Australian identity, and themes of family and culture are tightly interwoven together – you simply cannot talk about one of these things without talking about the other, and I appreciated this immensely. I want more #ownvoices stories to be like this.
If there is any book that I want you to read, it is this book. I genuinely believe that this book has the power to change a teen’s life, and I strongly think that this book and its complex but accessible story has the power to help people grow and learn about mental illness. I loved this book, very very deeply, and it has grown to mean a lot to me personally. Please, please read this book.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A Hong Kong-Chinese-Australian teen must grapple with first love, helping out at her father’s restaurant, being a big sister to two kids, and her mother’s deteriorating mental wellbeing.
Perfect for: Readers who want to read a book about mental illness; readers who are interested in mental illness from an Asian perspective; readers who like complex and emotional stories.
Think twice if: You’re not in the mood for a heavy and likely-to-be emotionally taxing read. (See warnings below.)
Genre: young adult, contemporary
Trigger/content warning: portrayal of depression, portrayal of anxiety, familial emotional abuse, discussions of suicide and suicidal ideation, hospitalisation, ableism (challenged in text) and use of slurs ‘cr*zy’
I tweeted about this book while reading this and heck, I was a mess. As an unofficial note, this book wrecked me. This book made me feel so vulnerable, made me confront a lot of feelings and thoughts related to mental illness and family that I had to just. pause. and reflect. I say this, however, with the highest of praises. As hard as it was to read this book at times, the story was so compelling and I loved it so much.
- Have you read The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling?
- What was the last book you read that was about mental illness? Or, what is your favourite book about mental illness?
- What was a book that you read that had a big emotional impact on you?