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Bitter Melon

An excerpt from Cara Chow's new novel about growing up the daughter of a strict and demanding Chinese mother.

By Cara Chow

Nellie is just scanning the letter grades. But Mom’s eyes are examining every detail. “What’s Speech?” she asks. “And where’s Calculus?” She flips over the report card, in case Calculus is written on the back. But there is no Calculus back there, just her forged signature at the bottom. Mom blinks for a moment, confused, like maybe she had indeed signed the card and gone senile. For confirmation, she looks at me. The look on my face answers her question.

Mom walks towards me. Her right hand, which is still holding the report card, swings towards me and whips me across the face. The report card makes the sound of thunder against my ear. My neck cracks as my head turns from the impact. A second later, my cheek stings and grows hot, swollen, and tingly. I resist the urge to rub my cheek. That will only make her hit me harder.

Through the kitchen doorway, Theresa’s head is bowed, and her eyes are glued to the sink. In contrast, Nellie’s eyes widen with alarm, like two spotlights. Her clownish smiling lips morph into an O of surprise at Mom’s reaction.

“Gracie! Don’t be so hard on Fei Ting!” she cries. “Wait here.” She waddles to Theresa’s room. Moments later, she returns, holding my trophy. “Look. She won this at a speech competition.” The brassy trophy catches the light, and for a split second, I am blinded by its brightness.

Nellie hands the trophy to Mom, who is once again confused. Nellie is hoping that my success will soften Mom’s anger. I am hoping so too. But my hopes prove futile. As Mom scrutinizes the trophy, I can almost see the images in her mind flashing behind her eyes like a slide show, documenting every moment I was not home and not accounted for. With each passing second, her frozen expression thaws, giving way to a steely stare.

“So all this time you’ve been working so hard on Calculus, hah?” Mom says. Venom drips from the word “Calculus.” “To win this award, you must have put in a lot of time practicing. Is this why you weren’t at Princeton Review on the day of the earthquake? How many other classes did you miss?”

I don’t answer, hoping that her question is rhetorical.

“How many!” My ears pop from the shrillness of her voice.

One thing I should know by now: if I answer her questions, she’ll be angry that I gave the wrong answer, but if I don’t answer, she’ll be mad that I ignored the question.

“Two,” I say.

Then she lunges towards me.

From Bitter Melon, by Cara Chow. Text copyright © Cara Chow, 2011. All rights reserved. Used with permission from Egmont USA.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

02/7/2011:
"At that age I would have shut her off and closed up emotionaly. This is a portrayal of child abuse. The mother should have beem removed after she hit her own child. How can these Chinese feel so proud of this kind of parenting?"
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