"The strong can eat bitterness, stomach the suffering,"
Frances "Fei Ting" Ching lives with her mother Gracie, in a small, one bedroom apartment in San Francisco. She attends St. Elizabeth's, a private Catholic school along with Theresa Fong, her best friend. Frances took the SAT last year and obtained a mark of 1050 while Theresa got 1350. This puts her at a disadvantage applying to universities and her mother is very disappointed because Frances' mom has her entire life planned out for her; Frances must get into Berkley and get straight As. Frances can then attend medical school, become a doctor and make an excellent wage. Then Gracie can quit her job and Frances will be able to cure her mother of her stomach ailment. It's the perfect plan in Gracie's mind because her needs and desires are the same as those of her daughter's.
While showing Frances the family's jewelry one day, her mother makes Frances promise to undertake this plan. It is their "pact". However, things begin to go awry, when Frances is mistakenly placed into speech class instead of calculus. Ms. Taylor, the young teacher in speech, makes Frances feel excited and special, something Frances cannot envision happening in calculus class. The idea that language is powerful and that it can define a person and be used to persuade and influence is very appealing to Frances. This is partly because Frances is caught in an emotionally abusive relationship with her controlling self-centered mother.
Although she intends to correct the scheduling mistake, Frances cannot quite make herself do this. She loves speech, it is empowering and she seems to have an aptitude for it. As the deadline for course changes passes, Frances realizes she has in fact, made the decision to stay in the class. Frances knows that her mother will be furious and never accept her having taken speech over calculus, so she enlists best friend Theresa to help her keep speech class a secret from her mother.
Ms. Taylor encourages both Theresa and Frances to join the speech team, which means they will have to compete in speech tournaments. Around the same time, Frances begins attending a Princeton Review class in preparation for the SAT. During the first class, Frances meets a boy named Derek Collins whom she forms an instant bond with because he sticks up for her. In a strange co-incidence, Derek shows up at Frances's first speech competition as a competitor.
After a few Princeton classes, Frances doesn't return because they conflict with her practices for an upcoming speech competition. This now means that Frances will have to hide more from her mother and cover her tracks better. It means Theresa will have to cover even more for her.
During her first competition, Frances meets Derek again and it's obvious he likes her. But Frances isn't allowed to date boys. So now, she must also hide her friendship with Derek from her mother too. What begins as a small secret, now spirals out of control with Frances living a double life - that of a dutiful, brow-beaten Chinese daughter in the presence of her mother and that of a vibrant, confident teenager with a vision of her own life away from home.
Even though Frances is very successful in her first competition, when her mother learns that she is taking speech and not calculus she is furious. She physically attacks Frances who is made to beg forgiveness from her mother. Her win, instead of placating her mother, makes Frances mother even more controlling and manipulative in ways that are truly heartbreaking. But Frances begins to discover more about herself and who she is through her speech competitions, which act as a sort of therapy for her and also help her to understand just what her mother is doing to her. This allows her to fight back. She begins to realize that she must make a hard choice.
'It's like choosing whether to cut off one's right hand or one's left hand. It is like having to decide whether to save your drowning mother, knowing that you may both drown, or swimming to shore alone, knowing that you can only save yourself. If that is your dilemma, which way is right? Which way would you choose?'
Cara Chow has written a poignant novel about a young girl's struggle to live her life on her own terms and to be true to herself. Bitter Melon is one of numerous books written about Asian teens struggling to cope with manipulative mothers. In light of the recent publication of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it seems to be an attempt by Asian women to confront the problem of mothers (and fathers) who push their children to the absolute limit using almost any means possible to attain academic success and ultimately, status.
While Gracie Ting is portrayed as a dragon mother, Ms. Taylor is the exact opposite - a mentor and a young woman who encourages Frances to consider her options and think for herself. She acts as a "corrective lens" though which Frances can view herself and her world. She is a true mentor for Frances, encouraging her to apply to several colleges, not just Berkley and to think about what SHE wants to do with her life.
Through Ms Taylor, Frances is introduced to some ideas that she has not been previously exposed to. For example, the idea of unconditional love is brand new to her. Ms. Taylor tells her and Theresa that their mothers will love them regardless of how they place in the speech contest.
"That's the first time I've ever heard the idea of unconditional love outside the context of religion....the idea that real live parents could be unconditionally loving is completely foreign. Often Mom and other Chinese parents say 'dai sek'. 'Dai sek describes children who are polite or affectionate, who excel in school, who serve their parents before themselves at banquets, or who send money back home. How can anyone be loved not for what they do but for who they are? Isn't who you are defined by what you do?"Of course, this is not Frances' experience of love at all. It seems she is only loved, like other children of Chinese parents, if she achieves. And more importantly, if she achieves what the parents desires for the family.The notion of unconditional love is very foreign to her until her best friend Theresa and her boyfriend, Derek, both give her that experience by loving her despite her many flaws.
The title of the book, Bitter Melon originates from a part in the book where Frances and her mother are eating a bitter melon during dinner. Frances does not want to eat the melon but her mother tells her, "If you eat bitterness all the time, you will get use to it. Then you will like it." This is a metaphor for the troubles of life, for hard work, and for doing things we don't like or want to do. While it's true we all must do things we do not like, or that there are things that happen to us that we don't like, in reality, Frances's situation is much different. Her "bitterness" comes from swallowing what her mother wants for her again and again. It is a result of her mother's complete lack of understanding that what she wants is not the same as what Frances wants. It is Gracie's bitterness spilling into Frances' life.
Although this book might seem a little over the top in terms of some of the actions of Frances's mother, I feel it's probably close to the mark. It seems young Asian writers have a message for their parents and all parents; we must allow our children the freedom to choose their lives. As parents, we can only direct them, not control them. They will make mistakes and not heed our advice, but in the end, those mistakes can be opportunities for growth and wisdom.
Bitter Melon by Cara Chow
New York: Egmont, USA 2011