One of the first things Natalya said when she finished the book, “I’m hungry!” Isn’t she always these days? But then, I started reading this just before bed and as I set it half-finished on my headboard I thought, “I’m hungry!” I’m not sure which is yummier about the read, the description of all the food or the story that features it.
“You’re Taiwanese-American,” Mom said. “And, no matter what, that’s what you’ll always be.”
Forever, I thought. I’d always be Taiwanese-American, no matter if I spoke Chinese, made my eyes bigger, or was called a Twinkie. Even if I didn’t like it. Being Taiwanese-American was like making a brush stroke. The mark couldn’t be erased, and the ink and the paper could never be separated. They were joined forever. (221)
I’ve yet to read The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat (which I plan to remedy very soon), but Dumpling Days is a new chapter in Pacy Lin’s life. She and her family are flying to Taiwan for the month to visit her parents’ homeland and celebrate her grandmother’s very important 60th birthday. Their visit coincides with Ghost Month, which works perfectly within the story because Pacy can’t help but feel like a ghost herself. She often feels as if she does not belong, and upon occasion, disliked. Pacy cannot speak or read the language (Chinese or Taiwanese) and the culture is unfamiliar which makes for some very hard moments. But it isn’t as if she feels 100% like she belongs back home in New Hartford, New York either. Much of Dumpling Days is Pacy coming to find and embrace her identity as a Taiwanese-American.
Pacy, as our narrator, has a great sense of humor so while serious topics are explored, there is a levity I found completely charming. Another thing I appreciated about the way the story is framed, using a child narrator, is that Pacy and her sisters needn’t be politically correct. While Grace Lin has adults to debunk misconceptions, or clarify potentially negative misgivings, the children are allowed to be disgusted by things like restrooms, or stinky tofu. There is an irreverence that some of the adults observe that I really admire. Grace Lin is telling a story, not selling people on Taiwanese culture. The sincerity is a gift. The sale is a given.
One of the selling points of Taiwanese culture for Pacy is the food. It is an accessible way for her to explore the culture her parents want her to take part in. Her love of dumplings (and food in general) becomes a source of humor, but it also creates a thread and a means to share a story or lesson in language. Art is another way her parents think to introduce their artist daughter to her heritage. This feels tenuous to Pacy, but it turns into a valuable source of metaphor and a place to further explore what she thinks she knows about herself, and what she has yet to learn.
I really enjoy Grace Lin’s writing. She slips in gorgeous little similes and metaphors here and there and her sense of humor and pacing is flawless. I adore her sense of storytelling. In Dumpling Days she finds perfect moments to share a story with Pacy (and us) that enriches the cultural experience. These moments find relevance in the text so the tales are natural outpourings of the story—in other words, it doesn’t feel contrived. For instance, in explaining a bit about Ghost Month, Pacy’s father shares a story about his Great Uncle-Zhuzhan. The format shifts into a heading “Honoring Great-Uncle Zhuzhan” and the text becomes italicized (30-32). The print quietly returns to the greater story as the father finishes his tale. Between these little narratives and the illustrations by the author, the story takes on a nice texture. The playfulness extends to the bottom corners of the book featuring a flip-book sequence mimicking the crosswalk signal figure Pacy tells the readers about.
Few books are as informative and entertaining as Dumpling Days. Be sure to plan a dinner to compliment the reading. And take some time to explore some of the conversations in the book about identity and culture. I think the book heightens a sensitivity to immigrants and cultures other than your own. And I think it encourages the reader to explore and celebrate their own heritage, as well. I found myself not only hungry for dumplings and more stories from Taiwan, but for the comfort of my own stories and the spaetzle that comes with them.
Dumpling Days by Grace Lin
Little, Brown and Company, 2012.
Hardcover, 261 pages.
Grace Lin is also author of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, which I also highly recommend.
“From The Mixed-Up Files…” blog a wonderful interview with Grace Lin about Dumpling Days.