Currently reading Cara Chow’s Bitter Melon

Bitter_Melon_Final_CVR-400x600A few weeks ago, from an Asian American Literature Fans Livejournal post, I learned about Cara Chow’s Bitter Melon. I started reading the synopsis as written in AsAm Lit Fans and had to tear my eyes away after being hooked enough but not before the words “bat-shit crazy mother” and that the central character, Frances, should be taking AP calculus but she does something else instead…

This is a YA novel and that fits on my plate at this point in time. That would also explain how the subject could be so satisfyingly angsty.

While I was reading the novel, I wanted to keep a chart to show the differences between Frances’ life and mine. Who had it worse? Isn’t that the point of reading these novels, I tell NPY. But while most novels reach an impossible climax and then reconciliation and acceptance all around, real life (my life) neither boiled over (to the same extent) nor can be stamped “and they lived happily ever after”. A bat-shit crazy mother was a good start.

The novel starts with a conversational synopsis and I can see my life in Frances Ching’s. Her mother is a single mother after the father left the family and works all the overtime she can get and long hours not just to make ends meet but also to send Frances to private girls’ school and Princeton prep course. It’s the Chinese way to show love through sacrifice, not hugs. It’s the Chinese way to defer gratification for your children. Frances is supposed to go to Berkeley, the best school on the west coast, to become a doctor and have a better life than her mother. That also means the mother can be taken care of, her mysterious stomach ailment cured, and be able to brag about her child. It’s a blurred line who the tiger parenting really is for. Yes, this is tiger parenting in novel form complete with prohibition of dating and after-school jobs. While I griped that Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother memoir was about music, this novel was satisfying all about school.

Frances and her mother share a one-bedroom apartment, uncomfortably tight quarters but that is all she has known – on top of that, they sleep in the bedroom on a bunk bed! Her life up to senior year is very sheltered, not venturing beyond a few districts in San Francisco where she lives, goes to school and Chinatown. She has never been to a fancy restaurant and doesn’t know much besides Chinese food. At the beginning, she is her mother’s whole world and vice versa and nothing has disturbed that so far.

Then Frances accidentally gets enrolled in speech class instead of calculus and she is instantly captivated by the charismatic teacher. Theresa is also in speech class – she who is introduced as Frances’ arch-enemy because their mothers often compare the children. They quickly clear the air and Frances lets Theresa in on her secrets like taking speech class on the sly and her interest in a boy in her Princeton review class, Derek.

Frances shows quick aptitude in giving speeches and enters the competition circuit all on the sly and conveniently she has a new friend who can help her cover her tracks. Derek is also in these competitions and a friendship tentatively forms.

I totally understand that Frances’ tactic is to hide her activities from her mother. Under such smothering circumstances, it is the greatest liberty to do something right under her nose. And you can only imagine the mother’s reaction to activities not on her permissive list. Indeed, when the mother sees Frances’ success and meets a successful Chinese journalist, she changes her tune and starts pressuring Frances about her weight and appearance. I thought the novel had taken a turn for an anorexia story. But that was the only time the mother accepted something outside of her plan.

Parts of Frances’ speech is written out in full text several times in the novel to show how her state of mind is changing. At first, she wrote an irritating – but award-winning – speech hypothesizing the cause behind successful Chinese students comes from Confucian and family values while disparaging the individualistic culture of the United States leading to society’s decline. She speaks of her mother’s sacrifice and whole-heartedly believes her goals are aligned with her mother’s.

Three showdowns ensued and to be fair, Cara Chow’s scenarios are not over-the-top and cringe-worthy like fellow San Franciscan writer Kim Wong-Keltner (who is more of a comedic and satirical author). They were the right amount of awkward, what the young adult reader wants to read and sympathize with:

  • when the mother finds out about speech and beats her with the trophy – in front of Theresa and her mother
  • when Frances is caught sneaking home after prom – the mother berates her in the presence of the boy
  • when Frances tries to run away to college but is barred by her mother who withdraws all her money from the bank – they are alone and with every defiant thing Frances says rewards her with a slap to the face

On the day that Frances plans to run away to attend the college of her choice, a brief mention of how the mother got up at 4:30 in the morning to go to work turned my head a little and while I always root for happy endings, I started to worry about the mother being hurt by the turn of events.

Frances breaks free and in the epilogue, we jump forward nearly six months and she is on campus. Is her life is better? That part is left ambiguous. She receives Chinese New Year money from her mother, either out of duty or the first gesture of reconciliation. I can’t help but be convinced that they are intrinsically linked and she’s grown up enough to make the first phone call.

A day later, I am still wondering: Who is “right”? The kind of environment that Frances mother tries to create is a suitable one for fostering excellence – the only kind the mother can afford, an environment that is controllable and has the highest likelihood for success. I find myself rooting for them to reconcile because they are almost two halves, co-dependent, not quite whole alone but now have had the chance to be independent after this time apart. Cara Chow has created the mother with just the right amount of crazy to root for Frances but also enough blind teenage willfulness and selfishness (particularly her treament of and misunderstanding Theresa) on Frances’ part to make you sympathetic for the mother.

I am reminded of Jean Kwok’s novel Girl in Translation that I read three years ago. That one also kept me in its spell for a few days, in no small part because of the devastating love story I desperately wanted to “set right”. That story was a little more fantastical and there was a more certain ending. This one uncomfortably feels more realistic with ambiguity and an ugly mother-daughter relationship. In any case, it was a good novel for young adult audiences.

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