Having Diverse Books Is Not Enough

I came across a “cute” picture book at the NCTE (National Council for Teachers of English) Conference’s exhibit hall called The Ugly Dumpling and I have to share with you what this book means for people like me. I am an American-born Chinese educator. It is rare for me to find books in bookstores with Chinese characters, and even more rare to find ones showcased on a display front and center. The book on display was the last copy so I bought it for a mixed bag of reasons. When I bought the book, the kind sales representative was thrilled that I, in particular, bought the book. She described to us how she watched teacher after teacher pick up the book over the weekend and concluded by saying “but it must be meant to be that you get to have the book!” Something cringed inside. Why did she say it like that? Would she have said that if I were not Chinese buying a book with Chinese characters? Or would she have simply said what we usually hear such as “enjoy” or “happy reading”. I felt extra self-conscious of what I looked like at that moment. My almond eyes, my yellow skin tone, my petite body type. Asian. I was an Asian person buying an Asian-related book and people were excited about it. Like an experiment that resulted in the conclusion you had hoped to find.

Children’s book author, Grace Lin, brilliantly shared in a TedTalk about books being either windows or mirrors for us. We need both in classrooms and every book we bring in serves as a window or mirror for our children. I can not think of any teacher who would not want their students to read books that do one or the other. The author of The Ugly Dumpling, Stephanie Campisi, I presume wrote this book to contribute and add a window and mirror to classroom libraries on Chinese heritage, which is not told nearly enough in stories. I am extremely grateful that she took the time to write this story because we often assume that since Asians are commonly seen as “privileged” for being academically smart, we would not need mirrors too. We need them just as badly as others. Otherwise, Asian children, like me, often end up going through school working to conform to other more commonly acknowledged racial groups. The races I most often read about or heard about in school were white or African American. Therefore in high school, I cracked Asian jokes, and dressed the way I saw others dressed so I could be “cool” around my black and white friends, my American friends. I struggled with being proud of my Chinese culture because there were not enough people like me in books. In the same way we need mirrors, we need windows for our non-Asian friends. We need books with Asian characters so that our peers can better know who we are beyond our accent, our eyes, our strict parents, or our math skills. 

The Ugly Dumpling in many ways does that for us. It shares something different about our Chinese culture: our food. The story uses the premise of The Ugly Duckling and is set in a Chinese dim sum restaurant. The main character is a dumpling who desires to fit in with others but is unsuccessful. Fortunately, the Ugly Dumpling meets a new friend, a cockroach from the restaurant, and ends up choosing to go out into the real world with his new friend over trying to belong. I thought it was nice for a book to highlight dim sum restaurants which many children do not know about and is a huge part of our Chinese culture. I used to (and still) go to dim sum restaurants all the time and my mom has thrown a handful of “dumpling parties” where we all get together to wrap about 200 homemade dumplings. The story also mentions steamed buns which is another Chinese delicacy and one of my childhood favorites. 

But, here’s the thing. What this book The Ugly Dumpling also teaches me is that there is more than one type of mirror and more than one type of window. You see, not all mirrors and windows in the world function the same, and because we as homeowners are aware of those differences, we take time to choose the ones we want installed in our homes. For instance, those fun-house mirrors we see at carnivals do not reflect what we really look like. They distort us and make us look thinner, or wider. We laugh at it and we do not take it seriously. I would never want to look into one of those mirrors when I get dressed in the morning. That is why the mirror I choose to purchase is one that is flat rather than curved or concaved. It gives me an accurate reflection of what I look like from head to toe. The same goes for windows. We most often install large, rectangular windows in our homes and not portholes because porthole windows tend to bring in limited sunlight and a limited view of the world outside. I hate small windows for that reason and we purchased our condo because of the big large windows that line the sunroom and kitchen. It pours in a ton of sunlight and gives me a panoramic view of outdoors. It makes me feel like I am not missing out on anything when I look outside.

In The Ugly Dumpling, there are pictures of Chinese servers in red Chinese robes which do not exist in today’s dim sum restaurants. I grew up seeing Chinese robes being worn on special occasions such as Chinese New Year or at weddings. But at dim sum restaurants, servers are seen wearing clothes such as black t-shirts, black dress pants, or even dark jeans. They are essentially dressed like any other server in  American restaurants; they are dressed professionally and often meant to blend in. When I look at those illustrations, I do not see me or my family. I see a comical character version of me. Like the fun-house mirrors, it makes me look weird. Instead of comforting me, I am reaffirmed to disassociate from my Asian culture because it is laughable. This book, while mirror-worthy, is a distorted mirror. I want to share that with you so that when a Chinese student in your class picks up a book like this, you can be there to tell them that you know it is not a true reflection of who they are. And then ask them to tell you about dumplings and dim sum restaurants because that part is in fact, a flat and truthful reflection of them. Let them be proud. They may not know it then but a conversation like that will go a long way for an Asian student. Even the ones who are gifted and get good grades. 

I also worry for the window a book like this provides for non-Asian children about my heritage. There is one line in the book that says “But all dumplings are ugly you say…which is a very good point!” The purpose of that line is well-intentioned. It is to imply that everyone in their own way is different and no one is perfect. However, as a Chinese person reading the story, this line can also imply that all of our food looks weird, which is so the contrary. You should see my mom’s dumplings. Her dumplings are beautiful, and almost symmetrically perfect. There are intricate folds that line the top edge and it sits nicely into a half-moon. If a friend of mine who is not Chinese were to read this book, it could either confirm their beliefs of ethnic food being weird or teach them that ethnic food can be strange and unappetizing. Chinese cuisine is already different enough from American cuisine. I would not want a story to deter children from it because of a porthole sized window they are currently peeking through when reading the book. 

This brings me to my last point. No matter small or large, please make sure to include more than one window to a world when you build your classroom library. Just like our homes have more than one window so that we can bring in more light and see from multiple angles, we need to read through multiple perspectives and multiple stories in order to get the clearest view of a group of people. If the book, or window, is in fact quite small like a porthole window and illustrates only a slice of the world, I urge you to not share the book at all with your students unless you have conversations about it with them or until you have more windows of the same world to bring in as companions. 

For example, the cockroach character in The Ugly Dumpling portrays Chinese restaurants as ones that are dirty and infested with vermin. On the last page, the dumpling and the cockroach are living inside a dumpster holding a fortune cookie looking very happy. Even if this could be true of some restaurants, a child who only has this book to read and learn about my heritage can be a victim of creating a single story about people like me and their restaurants which so many of our Chinese families open as their main source of income. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken in a TedTalk about this very issue. That knowing only a single story creates a single, dangerous perception about a group of people. She says that it can rob them of their dignity. One of the few things I have always been proud of about my Chinese heritage growing up was our food. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love food. It is because my best memories of childhood consisted of us sitting around huge round tables at Chinese restaurants or at home eating the most delicious smorgasbord of Chinese dishes (dumplings included!). It would be devastating for me if someone learned to be afraid of my family’s food because of one single story. However, if you have conversations with your students about the cockroach in the story and what it may or may not mean, you will have helped us treasure our dignity. Likewise, if you introduce the book along with other books about Chinese culture, perhaps students will not create a single story about us but a more well-rounded story where cockroaches are just a small slice of the story. 

To be clear, please purchase this book and more books like this because they are needed in our classrooms in order for us to have conversations about them. We need them so we can negate the single story and paint a larger story for our students of all cultures and groups of people. I had teachers come up to me at the conference telling me how “cute” this book was rather than thinking twice about the impact this book might make for both Chinese readers and non-Chinese readers. While the Asian community as a race are often overlooked in conversations about marginalized groups, we are just as vulnerable to distorted mirrors and stereotypes as anyone else. Remember the book saleswoman I mentioned in the beginning who sold me the book? I failed to mention she was Asian herself. 

Plot twist, right?! I do not know what nationality she was but it made me very confused and sad. Why did she not see how this story negatively portrays my heritage? Is it because we do not have enough honest conversations about stories like this? I was sad with the idea that her comment might imply she had accepted this level of appreciation for our heritage. Maybe she was excited just to see people picking up a book about Asians even if it is about dumplings, cockroaches, and Chinese robes. But I asked Chad Everett (@ChadcEverett), a friend and colleague who was with me when I bought the book, “what if you picked up a book about collard greens and cornbread becoming friends? Would you be excited to share that book with others?” His face said it all. No group of people deserves to settle on just being happy that someone paid attention to their culture. We need to raise the bar of expectations. But without conversations or other companion books, a single book can succumb a culture or race down to a single story. In this case, it was mine. In other instances, it might be yours. I think it’s time we raise the bar and not just say #weneeddiversebooks. We need diverse conversations.

Possible Conversation Starters for books like The Ugly Dumpling:

  • What surprised you in the story? Why?
  • What are some things in this story that is different than your life or your family? What are some things that are similar?
  • How do you think someone who is this race/culture would feel if they read this story?
  • Compare it to another story you have read about this race/culture. In what ways are they similar? And different? Why is that?
  • What are you now feeling about this culture or group of people?

*Please leave a comment and share any other conversation starters you have tried in the past that have been helpful to your students when talking about diverse books.