In this story, a young girl in a Chinese American family living in Ohio is embarrassed when her parents want to pull over by the side of the road to pull up watercress. At first she even refuses to eat the meal her mother cooked with the watercress, wanting nothing to do with anything that accentuated her difference from her peers.
After her mother explained the significance of watercress to them, and how it sustained them when they were starving in China, she felt remorse for being ashamed of her family. She took a bite of the watercress dish, finding “It is delicate and slightly bitter, like Mom’s memories of home.”
“Together,” the story ends, “we eat it all and make a new memory of watercress.”
In a note from the author at the end of the book, Wang states that this story was drawn from her memories of being the child of Chinese immigrants, growing up in a small, mostly white town in Ohio:
“I was very aware of how different my family and I were from everyone else. It’s hard to feel like you don’t belong, and collecting food from a muddy roadside ditch just made that bad feeling more intense for me – something my very practical parents didn’t understand.”
Award-winning illustrator Jason Chin said in his note he could also relate to the story, observing that “It is common for children of immigrants to be unaware of their parents’ stories and culture, and to feel out of place, misunderstood, and even angry.” In an interview with NPR, Chin said:
“’The themes are universal. The themes of being ashamed of your parents, I think. We’ve probably all experienced that at some point,’ he says. ‘You know, I remember walking 20 feet behind my parents when we were walking down the street, pretending that I didn’t belong to them.’”
He said he was “impressed by how Andrea was able to fold so many layers of memory, culture, and emotion into a short text,” and he wanted his illustrations to complement each of those layers as well as both the American and Chinese heritage of the characters. Using watercolor because it is common to both Chinese and western art, he chose his palette to reflect both the yellow of old photographs and the blue common to Chinese paintings, and added a number of historical touches that reflected the time of the author’s childhood.
Evaluation: Like the little girl in this book, I too felt ashamed of my immigrant relatives – grandparents in my case, and like Jason Chin, wouldn’t walk with them, to my everlasting shame. Although I would rather go back in time and change what happened, it is reassuring to see this is a common reaction by kids who want so badly to fit in. I hope this book will inspire some readers to give up that unwarranted shame while they still have their immigrant relatives around.
Note: Awards for this book include Newbery Medal Nominee (2022), Caldecott Medal (2022), and Asian/Pacific American Award for Picture Book (2022).
Published by Neal Porter Books, Holiday House, 2021