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Book Review: "Bitter Melon"

By It's My Life on February 1, 2011 2:04 PM | No TrackBacks

On IML we often see comments and questions from tweens about parents who are super-strict, or pushing their kids really hard at school, or generally having sky-high expectations for everything, or even using hurtful words to express anger or disappointment. Sometimes, a person is dealing with all of these things at once, and that's a lot to handle. Really, a ton!

Take a look at a recent advice question from Jessica, age 12. Wow.

Sometimes one of the many factors in this kind of situation is a parent's ethnic background and culture. As we talk about a bit in our Immigration section, being from one country and raising your family in another can cause all sorts of fireworks.

Bitter_Melon.jpgWe enjoyed a recent book called "Bitter Melon," by Cara Chow (Egmont USA). "Bitter Melon" is about Frances, a Chinese-American teenager whose one job in life is to get into Berkeley and become a doctor to fulfill her single mother's ambitions for her. She's going along with this until she accidentally discovers a speech class at school and turns out be a natural. While pursuing her new passion, Frances finds herself hiding things from her mother and questioning the way she's been raised. She knows she must be obedient to her mother but also craves the chance to live her own life. 

We felt that many IML'ers could relate to Frances' story and enjoy the heartfelt, honest writing (we give it a rating of B+!), so we asked the author, who was born in Hong Kong and emigrated with her family to the U.S. as a child, to give us some behind-the-pages insight.

IML: Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration for "Bitter Melon"? How much of your own experiences as a teenager trickled into the book?
Cara: Though my mother and I enjoy a very positive relationship today, we definitely struggled a lot when I was a teen. My mom wanted me to be the best, and her way of motivating me was by being very hard on me. Unfortunately, her parenting strategy did not have the effect on me that she had intended. I wanted to make her proud, but I always felt like a disappointment to her, and this really affected my confidence and self-image as a teen.  Those tumultuous feelings became compost for my imagination as I created the fictional world of Frances Ching over a decade later.
Another source of inspiration was my maternal grandmother.  My mother and her siblings shared a deep loyalty to one another and to their mother.  They survived war and poverty and took very good care of their mother until she died.  My grandmother had her own bedroom in both my mother's house and my uncle's house, which were walking distance from one another so that my grandmother could choose which house she wanted to sleep in from night to night.  I knew that this loyalty was the product of culture, the culture of filial piety, which means "respect for parents and ancestors."  On the one hand, I deeply respected and admired this family style.  On the other hand, I pondered its potential pitfalls.  What if the aging parent was difficult, dysfunctional, or even abusive?  Should the grown child fulfill her obligation to the parent, or should she break free of that obligation?  Should she betray her parent or herself?  That question became the seed for "Bitter Melon."
IML: We see a lot of comments and advice questions on our site from kids whose parents are recent immigrants to the U.S. What are some of the common problems these tweens face?
carachow.jpgCara: Children of recent immigrants often experience greater pressure to conform and to succeed.  This is because immigrant parents have to sacrifice so much to live in the US so that their children can have the opportunities that they couldn't have, and it's human nature to expect a big return on a big investment.  Another reason for this pressure is that most recent immigrants to the U.S. come from non-western cultures, which tend to be more socially conservative and less individualistic.  Had their children grown up where their parents had grown up, most of them would probably not think twice about sacrificing their own needs and desires for the welfare of their families because everyone else around them is doing the same.  Instead, they're watching their American peers having more freedom to express themselves and choose their futures.  They may question and resent their parents yet feel guilty about their doubts and resentment.
IML: What's your advice for young people who are struggling, like Frances, to find their own voice, but don't want to be disrespectful to or dishonest with their parents?
Cara: There's no one-size-fits-all answer to this question because every family is different.  That said, I would suggest that young people in this situation find safe places in which to express their true thoughts and feelings.  That could be a journal (with a lock perhaps!) or a trusted friend or mentor.  The advantage of a private journal is that no one can criticize or embarrass you, but the advantage of talking to friends or mentors is that they can offer support, encouragement, and advice.  Reading helps too.  One of the reasons I wrote "Bitter Melon" was so that readers who identify with Frances can find solace and validation. 
IML: What are your thoughts on the recent buzz about Amy Chua's memoir "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother"? Many of the IML'ers on our site are talking about it.
Cara: As the writer of a novel that explores the pitfalls of "Tiger mothering," I was pretty shocked and troubled to read an article that seemed to be supporting a style of parenting similar to how Gracie raised Frances.  Then, as I watched Chua defend herself and her book on TV, I got confused as to where she actually stood.  On the one hand, she argued that the choice of excerpt and the title of the article ("Why Chinese Mothers are Superior") misrepresented her book as a whole, which was about how she learned to be less extreme in her parenting.  She also argued that the tone of the book was intended to make fun of herself.  On the other hand, when asked if she would do anything differently if given the choice today, she replied that she would do things much the same way.  I think I'll have to read her book myself to figure out exactly what she is trying to say.
As the product of Tiger parenting who is now a mother herself, I am critical of that parenting style.  Though it can push kids to achieve high levels of academic and professional excellence, it can also push kids towards high levels of anxiety and depression.  It can suppress creativity, dampen kids' love for learning, and damage their relationship with their parents.  There must be more constructive ways to bring out the best in young people!
IML: Anything else you'd like tween readers to know about your book?
Cara: There's a forbidden romance in the story...That's not the focus of the book, but it sure piques readers' interest!

IML: Thanks, Cara! We're sure that lots of young readers will identify with Frances' journey and enjoy going on it with her. Good luck with everything.

Thank you!


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