The Dim Sum of All Things
Kim Wong Keltner
Avon Trade, 2004
The Dim Sum of All Things is a funny, complicated exploration of growing up Chinese-American in the United States.
Of course, one novel about one main character can only explore so much. Wong Keltner packs in as many cultural references as she possibly can on all sides, from mooncakes to Muni. At times her style can become a bit labored as she tries to fit in explanations of different Chinese cultural references without breaking the book's mood. However, this book has something for everyone, and her references are largely funny and enjoyably satirical.
"For her final (art) project she had planned to return to large abstracts, but the instructor had kept urging her to 'get really Oriental.' Frustrated and exhausted by her fianls and essays for other classes, she'd dusted off her calligraphy brush from her St. Mary's days.... The teacher had been wholeheartedly pleased, feeling satisfied that he had inspired a young girl to embrace her culture. He'd had no idea that, in reality, her string of delicate calligraphy strokes had described the $3.99 lunch special at Kung Pao Express."
Some reviewers labeled the characters unsympathetic and the plot boring. as But as one Amazon reviewer
explained, "This book is one long inside joke... If you know what a Chinatown
smells like in mid-summer or are in any way familiar with the smell of Tiger Balm
overlayed with the aroma from a pot of Chinese herbal medicine bubbling on the stove
, you will love this book."
From the beginning, Wong Keltner makes it clear that her protagonist Lindsey is going to have to go through some personal growth:
Mrs. Owyang: How can you live like this? This junky place is an insult to your father and me. If you respected your Chinese heritage, you'd clean up this rat's nest!
Lindsey: It's the Year of the Rat - good luck! Besides, I'm surrounded by Chinese culture. Just look at my fabulous chinoiserie drapes and place mats. I bought them at Pottery Barn.
The novel details her struggles with self-obsession, finding a boyfriend who isn't a "Hoarder of All Things Asian," and resolving the decades she spent trying to ignore everything Chinese. Ultimately, she's successful on two out of the three counts, and both she and most of her readers learn something along the way.
In some ways, this book can function as training wheels for people who know very little about Chinese and Chinese-American culture. The more you know, the more of the jokes you'll get, and the more you will enjoy the book. But readers who know very little can get a lot of out of this book, and grow along with Lindsey, if they are willing to set aside their expectations and assumptions about the book.
Dim Sum is clearly being marketed as part of the "lightweight women's fiction" genre... also known as the "we'll throw you a bone so you think your voice is being heard" genre. It was published as part of some imprint which aims to get women to carry books in their purses. The back of the book says, "Avon Trade... because every great bag deserves a great book!"
Frankly, I think that the main problems I had with the book were the fault of the publishing company. A lot of books aimed at this market seem to be very superficially edited, so that the author is forced to present her work unassisted. "The Dim Sum of All Things" was a challenging first novel: Wong Keltner took on the risky task of presenting a lot of different experiences of and perspectives on her cultures and making it funny. She was obviously under a lot of pressure to incorporate her Chinese and Chinese-American heritage in a way that the publisher's desired white female audience would understand, without breaking up the pace of the story. I doubt that Avon Trade (an imprint of HarperCollins) gave her the support she deserved.
I thought it was well-written but that the editing seemed a little lax. The writing style reminded me a lot of Mercedes Lackey: there were a lot of jokes that were driven home by exclamation marks so we would know they were jokes, and the tale was told by a universal narrator who nevertheless was totally immersed in the main character's thoughts and experiences. I think it might have worked better in the first person, but it still ended up being funny and interesting and drawing me in.
How do I know that the publisher was aiming at a white audience? Just read the back cover blurb.
Have you ever wondered:
Why Asians love "Hello Kitty"?
How to achieve feng shui for optimum make-out sessions?
Where Asian cuties meet the white guys who love them?
Why, no. No, I haven't. Partly because some of those sentences don't make any sense, and the rest are bizarre and problematic generalizations.
Fortunately, Wong Keltner's novel manages to prove once again that you can't judge a book by its cover.