Friday, February 26, 2021

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, by Wai Chim

As the eldest daughter in her Chinese-Australian family, Anna carries a lot of responsibility.  Her younger sister and little brother need her help.  Her father is rarely home because he has the family restaurant to run.  Mother meanwhile is buried in her room, often for weeks at a time.  Ma suffers from fits of depression and bouts of psychotic delusions.  But in Chinese culture, one doesn't acknowledge these things.  Instead, we learn that one assumes that rest, "better thoughts," and time will solve everything.  It would be shameful to seek outside help. So, instead, Anna is forced to keep her family together, playing mother to her siblings as her father avoids coming home more and more often.

A boy with a past comes into Anna's life and provides both a romantic distraction and some useful insights for helping her cope.  But in the end when things grow so serious that Anna can't resolve them, the family has to face the facts that not everything can be solved by wishing for a better future.

An interesting cross-cultural look at mental illness.  Unfortunately, because the family is ultimately incapable of resolving the issues, it's an unsatisfying look.  Anna's acceptance of her responsibility for her entire family is questioned a few times by outsiders, but she never confronts it and the self-destructive behavior continues roughly unabated through to the end.  While the story ostensibly ends hopefully, a particularly grim postscript leaves us on a down note.  All of which leaves us with the question of what message we are supposed to take from this?  Otherwise, I loved the cultural details, the use of language, and especially the devotion to Cantonese cuisine (which left me with a strong hankering for Chinese take-out!).

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