Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dumpling Days by Grace Lin

Living overseas is difficult and wonderful. On the street, Chinese conversations flow around me like incense and the street signs look like mixed-up chopsticks. Communication oftentimes means charades, and buying what looks like milk, might be a carton of yogurt milk. At first, this new lifestyle for me was overwhelming, but now I have become used to the strangeness of it all, laughing at my mistakes and learning to find joy in each day. Pacy has similar experiences in Dumpling Days by Grace Lin, where she too, must adjust to her new surroundings in a foreign country for the summer and learn to find happiness in the adventure of each day.

Pacy is an artist. She visits Taiwan with her parents and two sisters to see relatives and take a painting class. She learns in class that Chinese painting is about sending a message, not painting a picture. Like brushstrokes on a canvas, Grace Lin paints many messages in this novel, one of them being do not compare yourself to others. Pacy compares her artwork with another girl in class and it makes her dissatisfied and unhappy. She wants to paint the best picture in class and win a blue ribbon at the exhibit, but realizes on the last day that she has been so focused on winning that she makes herself unhappy and misses out on making a friend with a girl named Eva. She learns in Chinese painting that you cannot go back and erase anything and thinks how that happens in life; how she cannot go back and make friends with Eva - art class is over and she'll never see her again.

Pacy finds that her painting talent is fickle, "The fortune-teller had said my special skill would be used all my life. Why did it keep disappearing? It made me hollow and fragile, like an empty eggshell." How true! A part of Pacy's growth as an artist, or any artist or athlete for that matter, is the ups and downs of acquiring new skills. Pacy also likes her paintings but hopes for "an even better one." She is not always content and it is how she deals with these internal struggles that adds tension and makes this story so enjoyable to read. Pacy learns that while winning is fun, it cannot be the only pursuit because it takes away her joy.

Pacy explores not only the artist within herself, but she is struggling to find her identity. Pacy is Taiwanese-American and some people expect her to speak Chinese because she looks Asian; however, she cannot speak it and is overwhelmed by being in a foreign country and not understanding the language. She's a Twinkie, Chinese on the outside and Americanized on the inside. She gets angry at times, feels ashamed at other times, but she learns to deal with it and change in a positive way. Even her relationship with her two sisters changes, as they too, deal with a different culture in their own way. When Lissy gets some glamorous photos done, Pacy decides that they are fake and that Pacy needs to be herself and real wherever she is in the world. She is examining who she is in the world and what is important to her as a person. Pacy also misses her friend Melody who has moved to California. She thinks about her often, especially when someone does something that reminds her of Melody, and she sends her a postcard from Taiwan. I think the strength of this book is that the action is grounded in every day life. There are no dramatic plot twists but everyday occurrences and the reader will be able to relate to much of what Pacy is going through during her vacation.  At times I felt like I was reading my journal when reading this book, making many connections from my experiences living overseas, and it added tremendously to my enjoyment of the story.

But unlike my random journal writing, Grace Lin constructs this story with rich imagery and repetition. The chapters are full of wonderful similes and metaphors found in Asian culture such as chopsticks, umbrellas, and soup: "His fingers reminded me of chopsticks picking the best pieces of meat from a dish," "Seeing him made all my grumpiness from being hungry fall away like rain being shaken from a wet umbrella," "A warm, happy feeling filled me like I had swallowed a bowl of delicious soup." The culture is explained and built upon through the internal struggles of Pacy. The ghost month and superstitions that are associated with it are woven throughout the plot and images and cultural explanations are built upon each other using repetition that creates a snowball effect. For instance, when Pacy is finding her identity as a Taiwanese-American, she thinks about the meaning of her name and her siblings names in Chinese. She learns about the use of name chops in Chinese culture and in paintings meanwhile relating and reflecting on this knowledge through incidents that happen to her and her sisters in Taiwan. When Pacy has insight into who she is as a person or artist she comments that it is a "beautiful thought" which is her sister Lissy's Chinese name. Folk tales and family stories from the past are also used to connect the culture to Pacy's internal changes. As Pacy learns about Taiwan culture so does the reader. The dumplings are used throughout the story. They give Pacy comfort, represent something she likes in Taiwan, and add humor to the plot (they also made me so hungry we ate at Din Tai Fung, a famous dumpling restaurant). The author uses the dumpling as a simile and also explains and illustrates how to make dumplings and the different kinds found in other countries. The author's message is stronger using this technique. Plus, the chapters are like small episodes in and of themselves which makes for a good read aloud.

Dumpling Days reads like a travel memoir dealing with everyday life in a foreign country with it's unique food smells, sounds, and sights and what it is like adjusting to all the changes, as well as, what it means to make new friends, lose friends, be a minority, be flexible, and have an identity. The illustrations are going to help readers visualize different cultural foods and items. Make sure to look at the page numbers! I love how the green man on the street lights walks through the pages.

Pacy's father says it is a good trip when "You take something with you, you leave something behind and you are forever changed." This can be said for living overseas as well. Taiwan has been a good life for me and I have learned to love it. Like Uncle Shin, I have two homes. I miss Taiwan when I'm in the U.S. and I miss the U.S. when I'm in Taiwan.  This is not a bad thing. This is a good thing and my life is richer for it.

I want to have a book club with this book next fall. With dumplings! Of course!

Reading Level 4.4
:-):-):-):-):-) 5 out of 5 Smileys

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