Book: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

"Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet"

In 1986, Henry Lee joins a crowd outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has discovered the belongings of Japanese families who were sent to internment camps during World War II. As the owner displays and unfurls a Japanese parasol, Henry, a Chinese American, remembers a young Japanese American girl from his childhood in the 1940s–Keiko Okabe, with whom he forged a bond of friendship and innocent loe that transcended the prejudices of their Old World ancestors. After Keiko and her family were evacuated to the internment camps, she and Henry could only hope that their promise to each other would be kept. Now, forty years later, Henry explores the hotel’s basement for the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot even begin to measure. His search will take him on a journey to revisit the sacrifices he has made for family, for love, for country.

I sought this book out because of the title. I didn’t really know anything about it, except that it was about Asian Americans during the second world war–and that it’s a love story of sorts. But there was something about the title that told me I need to find a copy of the book… and I couldn’t find it anywhere locally. So I had it special-ordered through Fully Booked.

Honestly, the book starts very slowly. The only thing that pushed me to keep reading was the fact that I already invested so much time in getting a copy, that it would be a great waste if I stop reading. And I’m very grateful that it took me time to find the book, and that it took me time to get into the groove of the story.

Time made Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet all the more satisfying in the end.

Author Jamie Ford doesn’t rush anything: from the introduction of the characters, the way they develop, to the relationships they form. And while this pace was frustrating at first, it ultimately works best for the story he’s telling. Because Hotel on the Corner of Bitter Sweet is a love story that spans years. Heck, even the love story takes time to develop.

Henry, our main character, doesn’t see his love interest as one for most of the book. He sees her as a friend. And as his feelings for her develop, so does ours. Personally, my appreciation for the narrative grew just as Henry’s world expanded within the book. Author Ford begins the story with a very narrow window into Henry Lee’s life–and it’s probably the reason why the first part of the novel is so exhausting to read. Because our point-of-view is limited; we’re boxed in with Henry, and we’re yearning to get out. But we can’t go out until we get to know who Henry is, who the people in his life are. Because we need to understand him, and the people who are important to him, to understand the things he will do.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a beautiful story that’s not just about the love between races in the time of war; but also a powerful love story of a boy to the parents who he no longer understands, and to the son he doesn’t know as much as he would like.

And to end, I say: find a copy of the book. Take the time to read it. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is worth the effort.

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Book: Dumpling Days

"Dumpling Days"

Pacy Lin is ready for summer! But her parents have decided the family is going to visit Taiwan for a whole month. Taiwan? Pacy isn’t even sure if she knows where that is.

And when she gets there, Pacy looks like everyone else but can’t speak the language, her art talent seems to have disappeared, and she has only her sisters to spend time with! But there’s plenty of adventure in Taiwan, too. As the month passes by, Pacy eats chicken feet (by accident!), gets blessed by a fortune-teller, searches for her true identity, and grows closer to those who matter most.

It seemed apt that the first post I was going to write for the month of August is about a book that takes place during the Ghost Month. I just wanted to put that out there.

Okay, so Dumpling Days. It says in the book that it’s a recollection of the author’s first trip to Taiwan. So I don’t know how much of it is just made up for creative license, and which parts are actually real. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. The end product is a heart-tugging memoir of a girl finding out who she can be by accepting who she is. And that’s enough for the book to get on my good side.

But here’s the thing. I can relate to Pacy Lin. I’m a Chinese guy born and raised in the Philippines. Filipino and English are my main languages for communication. And for thirteen years of my life, I saw my Chinese lessons as a torture device designed to keep me away from the television and my books. I speak better Italian than Chinese. Granted, I know more Chinese words than Italian words, but the point of that statement is, I never really connected with my Chinese heritage. Much like Pacy Lin.

Unlike Pacy though, I didn’t have a problem about cultural identity. During my first out-of-the-country trip, to Hong Kong, I was traumatized by a ship trip during a particularly stormy night. That kind of overshadowed whatever cultural shock I was going to experience. My second trip, to Taiwan, was composed of days spent locked in an apartment testing out Japanese video games for my uncles.

By the time I was sent to Xiamen (that’s in China) for a two-week ‘vacation,’ I knew enough Chinese words from school that I could get by. And, I don’t know why, but the people there liked me so much that they didn’t care about the fact that I couldn’t speak straight Chinese. One local even gave me discounts from her store whenever I thought her Filipino words.

It wasn’t until a third trip to Hong Kong that I would actually feel the alienation of being a Filipino with Chinese blood in a predominantly Chinese country. I had just graduated college. It’s been four years since I last studied Chinese. I felt like I could get by with just English. Until I realized that I was no longer that cute kid who spoke in Filipino or English to Chinese locals. I was a grown-up Chinese man who couldn’t even cobble up simple Chinese words together for a single sentence.

One particular memory sticks out from this trip to Hong Kong. I was thirsty and wanted to buy water. But I couldn’t remember how to say water in Cantonese (probably because of the thirst). I saw they sold Coke, so I said I wanted Coke. They couldn’t understand me. I said Coca-cola, and still nothing. Feeling like a smart-ass, because I could read the Chinese characters for Coke, I said I wanted to buy Ke-Kou-Ke-Le. And they looked at me like I had gone mad. I had to reach out behind the counter, point at the bottle of Coke and bring out the coins I was going to pay them with before they understood that I wanted to buy a bottle of Coca-cola.

That was embarrassing.

And unlike Pacy, I didn’t learn my lesson.

Four years later, during a trip to Beijing, I was almost run out of a store because they couldn’t understand my Chinese. Even after thirteen years of studying Chinese, I never realized that Hokien and Ko-gi were two different dialects. And that I was using the wrong one in Beijing.

The thing is, I don’t know if there will ever come a time when I would embrace my mixed heritage completely. The fact that I call myself a Filipino with Chinese blood kind of tells you how I see myself. But reading Dumpling Days… I would be more mindful to explain to my children why it’s important for them to study Chinese.