Peanut Butter Friends in a Chop Suey World byDeb Brammer (1994)
For ages 8-12
Although a bit dated, this is a one-of-a-kind book for older third culture kids who is adjusting to life overseas, written from a Christian perspective.
Peanut Butter Friends in a Chop Suey World is a novel about a family who moves to Taiwan. Amy, a sixth-grader is the oldest and the narrator. As they descend into Taipei, she is ready to take on the challenge of serving God in this new place and culture, but things aren’t as easy or a straight forward as she thought. Trouble with friends at her new school, strange and unusual foods she is not familiar with, a language and culture she doesn’t understand – all these blended together makes her want to retreat to her room and her familiar belongings she carefully unpacks and arranges when all the boxes arrives from the US.
Amy learns hard lessons – getting lost in the large market and in her neighborhood, sitting through long church services where she doesn’t understand a word of what is said, having to handle difficult relationship issues at her new school, and learning what it means to be a Christian witness at school, in her neighborhood and at church in this strange new land.
This novel focuses on these timeless third culture kid issues:
Having friends that think and act differently from you is not easy – it takes a lot of effort, misunderstanding and being willing to change and grow. After her best friend moves away, Amy realizes she was expecting her Chinese friend, Mickey, to act like her American friends. She learns that being a good friend also involves asking forgiveness.
I love the story about “Chop Suey” in the novel – this is both a light and amusing story, but also a lesson in forgiveness. Throughout the novel, Amy had called her American friends “peanut butter friends” and her Chinese friends “Chop Suey” friends. Toward the end of the novel, she apologizes to her Chinese friend Mickey for expecting her to be like her American friends, friends that think and talk like she does. Mickey responds: “What’s chop suey?” That day she learns that chop suey and chow mein are not real chinese dishes, just an American chinese invention.
Culture shock and change
Amy is learning to try new things, like cold congee in a can, or stinky tofu and adjusting to everyday life her in Taiwan, like ghost month with firecrackers and burning paper money. Everything seems so interesting when Amy first arrives in Taiwan, but then it all comes crowding in on her, and everything around her, becomes a source of irritation and frustration. She learns adjusting to life in Taiwan is not easy and will take time. She will in time learn to appreciate the culture and even embrace her life in Taiwan.
Prayer – prayer is sometimes simply a cry for help. It’s also about telling God how you feel – calling out to him when you are afraid and asking him to give you the courage to change and grow…and thanking Him when hears our prayers.
“Then I remembered. I had forgotten to pray-again. So I did.” (when Amy is lost)
“Lord, I whispered, “thank you for all the things you’ve been showing me. Teach me how to really care about people- and how to be a good friend to Mickey.”
“How could I tell her how thankful I was? “Sye-sye ni,” I said again to her while I prayed silently, “And thank you, Lord, for sending her.”. (When a Chinese neighbor helps her find her house)
Amy has a hard time with the learning Mandarin. When she tries out a few phrases with the children in her neighborhood, they laugh at her. She is not sure what she said that was funny and they can’t explain it to her.
When Amy is lost, she realizes that she can’t explain to anyone who she is and where she lives. She doesn’t even know her street address as Chinese street names are hard to memorize.
Going to church, she has to endure long hours of sitting through a service where she doesn’t understand a word of what is being said and can’t interact with anyone.
“Twenty million people live in Taiwan, and I can’t even talk to them. After kindergarten and five grades of school, I can’t even read and write the language of the place I live in. It makes me feel like a two-year-old all over again.”
Being a Christian witness
When one of their neighbors, Mr. Hwang, tries to befriend Amy and her brother, A.J., he gives them a special Taiwanese treat, congee in a can.
“A.J. slurped another mouthful and patted his stomach as if it tasted wonderful.
I faked a smile at A.J. And said, “Quit showing off, A.J. This stuff is terrible and you know it.”
Later, she learns that Mr. Hwang, although he is shy about speaking English, understands English very well. She is horrified. She knows her family wanted to befriend the Hwangs and share their faith with him. She realized then that though the Taiwanese people couldn’t understand her at times (or so she thought), they were listening to her actions and reactions, and that was just as important as her words.
Amy had an American friend at her International school who invited her over for a sleepover. Amy and her family live in a Chinese neighborhood, but Jessica is in an American neighborhood, with American houses and expats just like them. Amy reflected on her experience at Jessica’s house:
“I learned something that weekend. Taiwan is a foreign country with a foreign language and foreign food. But a small slice of America hides inside that foreign country. You can find American schools and American restaurants and American-type stores in the Chinese city of Taichung. Some people live in a little American community in an American house. They drive through Taichung from one American spot to another, and they rarely see the real Taiwan, except through their car window.” (p. 98)
Peanut Butter Friends in a Chop Suey World packs in many meaty issues within the framework of an easy-to-read novel, with plenty of twists and turns that will definitely resonate with your TCK. This would also make a good read-aloud for a child 8-12 that can lead to some good discussions.
The novel includes a section at the end of the book describing various games played in Taiwan as well as paper cutting instructions.
Note: This novel would pair well with Grace Lin’s Dumpling Days. In Dumpling Days, a companion book to The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat, Pacy and her family, an Asian-American family travel to Taiwan to visit family. This is Pacy’s first visit to Taiwan. Although, Pacy looks like everyone else, she can’t speak the language and she experiences many new things, while learning to appreciate her cultural heritage.
I read these two books back to back, and I was glad I did. There were so many similarities – not understanding the language, ghost month, unfamiliar foods like “stinky tofu” and waxed apples, getting lost in a crowded market, and feeling homesick. Grace Lin’s book Dumpling Days offers a more contemporary view of Taiwan, with malls, skycrapers, and bullet trains, as well as an insider’s view into Taiwanese family life and culture.