By Lynn Lawrence-Brown
Today we are delighted to welcome Christina Matula to the WNDB blog to discuss The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei, available since April 5, 2022.
Twelve-year-old Holly-Mei has been alienated from her friends in Toronto and is excited to start over in Hong Kong when her family relocates. However, she quickly finds that her expectations may have been too high as she tries to come to grips with new rules to follow, trying to control her habit of blurting, and missing her Ah-ma.
Can Holly-Mei navigate frenemy pitfalls and recover from her social blunders to “save face”? Will she learn to chi ku (swallow bitterness) for ku jin gan lai (for sweetness to begin)?
Christina Matula’s debut middle-grade novel gives us a window into Chinese culture and Hong Kong’s wealthy elite and explores issues of image, wealth and privilege, parental pressures, friendships, and trying to fit into a new place.
Christina, congratulations on publishing your first middle grade novel. Who and what were the inspiration for Holly-Mei?
Thank you! I’m thrilled to be sharing the book with the WNDB blog.
Moving to Hong Kong and living there for so many happy years was the main inspiration for the novel. It’s such a wonderful, vibrant, and exciting city, and so unique with its mix of Chinese and Western influence, clash of nature and concrete, and international population. They all make Hong Kong a character of its own in this book. I’m also thrilled to be able to share a story about someone with a similar background to mine—a Canadian of mixed Asian descent—who moves internationally and learns more about their heritage while also learning more about themselves.
How much of the book’s Chinese heritage was informed from your childhood experiences and how much was learned from living in Hong Kong?
I grew up in Ottawa, Canada, a child of immigrants—my father from Hungary and my mother from Taiwan. The Taiwanese side of my family, with over 20 cousins, was a huge part of my childhood. That said, growing up, I didn’t lean into my heritage. Some of the book’s moments are taken straight from my childhood, such as making homemade dumplings with my mother or going out for celebratory family dinners to Chinese restaurants. But so much was learned after I moved to Hong Kong and really started to appreciate my heritage. It started with learning the language (mostly Mandarin and a handful of Cantonese phrases) and then learning about the wonderful customs, festivals, and folktales. Most of what is in the book was picked up as part of my daily life during my fourteen years in Hong Kong.
Holly-Mei says, “it’s not exactly that I feel like I don’t fit in, but more like I stand out, like when people say I look exotic or ask where I’m from, and by that, they don’t mean Canada.” Growing up did you experience microaggressions or feel “othered,” or was being biracial (Taiwanese Canadian) ever an issue?
I feel very fortunate to have had a happy childhood. My sister and I were the only mixed cousins and there were very few mixed-race kids in our community growing up. But I was rarely made to feel embarrassed by or self-conscious about my heritage. I was happy being a typical Canadian playing school sports, hanging with friends (most of whom were white), and learning French (I didn’t have an interest in learning Chinese back then and quit Saturday Chinese school almost as soon as I started). At home, I had two distinct cultures to call my own, with their interesting histories, colourful customs, and delicious foods. Perhaps it was due to my large extended Taiwanese family and summers spent with the small local Hungarian community, but I have always loved being biracial. The only grief I received was from elders who complained that I couldn’t speak either of my parents’ languages.
Growing up, I dealt with being called “exotic” and endured the eye-roll-inducing “where are you really from” line of questions. At the time, I took these to mean that I looked a bit interesting and different to the majority, and that these questions were asked out of genuine curiosity. I didn’t take it as meaning that I was perpetually foreign and didn’t belong in my own country. But as the diversity makeup of Canada and the US has shifted, these comments and questions now seem dated. Times have changed regarding what’s acceptable to say and what words might have an underlying negative meaning to them. People should still be allowed to be curious and have room to grow and open their perspectives, but they also need to be mindful of and responsible for their words.
In the book, Holly-Mei questions skin whitening creams and ideals of beauty in Hong Kong. Appearance is a measure of beauty in many societies. What advice do you have for young people who feel that they don’t fit into society’s beauty standards?
When I was a teenager, it was the age of the self-tanning cream and tanning salons, so sun-darkened skin was seen as ideal. But then I went for a visit to Taiwan and saw ads for whitening cream. It was the first time I had ever felt that my olive skin was maybe too dark. Even now, girls and women are constantly bombarded with images of what they should look like—curvy vs slim, bronzed vs snow white—and the standards change as fast as fashion. I wish I had been told to ignore all of these images and just to concentrate on making myself feel good from the inside out—to eat things in moderation and to move regularly—because nothing is more beautiful than inner radiance.
I would also encourage young people to join a sports team at school or in their community, just like Holly-Mei does with her field hockey. Sport is such a confidence builder and great equalizer—being in a group where you train together and you win and lose as a team, and where effort and attitude rather than looks and beauty ideals matter most.
You explore the Chinese concepts of “face” and “guanxi” throughout the story. You describe face as “honor, respectability, and how people see you” and guanxi “as the Chinese world of connections, but it’s so much deeper than that. It’s not just knowing someone. It’s about trust and loyalty. Opportunity.” Do you think these practices disadvantage marginalized people and perpetuate inequalities? How do face and guanxi help or hinder characters in the story?
There is something similar to guanxi in many cultures. It can be about a group banding together to ensure survival, about helping out those from the same community to rise up or succeed. We see a form of it in university alumni associations or industry networks. People build up their inner communities to help each other out and as a consequence, intended or not, bank goodwill for future use. But those outside these groups, particularly those that are disadvantaged economically, may have trouble accessing benefits because they wouldn’t have the generational access that those already in these circles have. We need to help open channels so these people have meaningful and equitable access to the same opportunities, including for studying, jobs, and career progression.
There are characters in the story that at first glance seem to have it all—wealth and connections—but Holly-Mei learns that “not all that glitters is gold”. Gemma has parental pressure to shine, while Theo’s unquestioning belief in face costs him a friendship. And Holly-Mei, in wanting to help her mother save face, mistakenly takes on the burden of believing she has to succeed in her exhibition, so she adds more pressure on herself and makes decisions that are not well thought out. As in real life, much of the conflict in the book could have been avoided with clear and open communication.
Another major theme in the book is parental pressure to maintain face and to succeed. What do you want readers to learn from the story? What advice do you have for young people facing similar pressures?
In the book, the kids mistakenly believe they need to succeed for their parents to maintain face. Much of the stress Holly-Mei felt could have been avoided with some open communication, particularly with her mother’s comment on meeting the “right people”. Sometimes adults feel pressure and say questionable things without thinking of the consequences and it’s okay to question them.
I would love to say I wish readers could be confident in the fact that if they try their hardest, their parents will be satisfied. But I know from my own household this isn’t always the case. I have been told many times by my children that I have “unrealistic expectations” of them. Really, I just want them to push themselves a little harder, a bit out of their comfort zone, to reach their potential, whatever that may be. But sometimes they need to remind me to stop pressuring, stop looking over their shoulders, and trust them to get their work done. I would encourage young people to open up to their parents/guardians in the same way—to try to make their own definition of success and be self-motivated to achieve it rather than live to someone else’s definition of what success should look like.
The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei is the first of a series. How many are you planning to write and what can readers expect in the second book?
I’m thrilled there will be three books in the Holly-Mei series, all set in Hong Kong at Tai Tam Prep. The next adventure sees Holly-Mei and her friends explore more of Hong Kong. Although she tries hard to keep her faults in check, some new insecurities surface, and her competitive nature comes to the forefront in an all-city sports tournament. But will her push to win push her friends away? Book 2, The Not-So-Perfect Plan is out April 2023.
Given the successful start to your writing career, what would you recommend to other budding writers?
The simplest advice but the hardest to do: start writing and don’t stop until you’ve finished your story. I spent two years talking about this book before actually starting to write—it seemed so daunting to write a whole novel. I found it immensely helpful to outline the whole book before starting and then I chipped away at it one chapter at a time. It’s much less scary in bite-sized pieces.
What books have inspired you? What book recommendations do you have for our readers?
Middle-grade books that have inspired me:
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin—a gorgeously layered Chinese folktale-inspired fantasy that included beautiful illustrations by the author. It was the first MG book I read featuring my own culture.
Stand Up Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim—a touching and funny book about a Korean American girl wanting to be a stand-up comedian. About a girl trying to balance her own dreams vs. her parents’ expectations in a nuanced and gentle way.
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller—a contemporary book with a touch of magical realism about a mixed Korean girl who tries to help her sick grandmother, Halmoni, get better through the power of stories.
Hello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly—a beautiful book about a quiet boy finding his inner voice helped by his friends. Diversity is not the basis for the story, but the story is enriched by it.
Sometimes I find there is an expectation that books featuring Asian-American/Canadian characters must be about overt racism or immigrant struggles. While there’s a definite need for these, I also love to see books that feature Asian-American/Canadian kids just doing regular kid things and facing typical adolescent dilemmas, showing different facets of our lives. With Holly-Mei, I’m hoping readers can interact with mixed-race and Asian characters who are happy and confident and add to the growing collection of books that widen the lens of what a story with Asian characters can look like.
Christina Matula grew up in Ottawa, Canada. Being a child of immigrant parents, she has always been curious about other cultures and far-off places. Dumplings are her favorite food, especially her mother’s savory Taiwanese jiaozi and her father’s sweet Hungarian gomboc. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from HKU and lives in Hong Kong with her Finnish husband, two children, and puppy. Learn more at ChristinaMatula.com.
Lynn Lawrence-Brown is a co-teacher librarian at Hong Kong Academy and a freelance writer. Her mission is to promote diverse books to inspire students to become lifelong readers, allowing them to empathize with others and better understand themselves. She is in the MLIS and K-12 Teacher-Librarian Licensure programs at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and is a member of ALESS HK, ALA, and APALA where she is a volunteer book reviewer. Previously, Lynn enjoyed a 12-year career in public relations, consulting for corporations throughout Asia. A Taiwanese American, Lynn graduated from Colby College with a B.A. in East Asian Studies, which led her to study and live in Greater China for 30+ years. She splits her time between Hong Kong and Maine where she grew up.