The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei
The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei
“Why wouldn’t you go straight for help?”
“Because I didn’t want to risk bringing attention to the group. Let others know that we were in trouble.”
“Why ever not?” Mom asks, sounding exasperated.
“Because I didn’t want you to look bad,” I say in an almost-whisper. I look tentatively up at her face. Mom furrows her brow.
“Why would you worry about that?” she asks, her tone suddenly gentle.
“Because of how I embarrassed you at Gemma’s party. And because all those important people will be there tomorrow night. I just didn’t want to mess things up for you again. You know, protect your new job.”
“Oh, honey,” she says, as she takes my hand into hers. “Doing well in my job is my responsibility and mine alone. It’s nothing you should worry about.” Mom pulls me into a tight hug. I feel so safe in her arms.
“But you kept talking about important people, connections, guanxi. I don’t want you to lose face again.”
“I shouldn’t have put that kind of pressure on you. What really matters is being respectful and courteous and kind. That’s the kind of behaviour I want to see, expect to see, from you and your sister. I’m so sorry about the other stuff.”
“Really? I ask, looking up at her. She hugs me again.
“You and your sister are both going to fall down. You’re going to make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. And don’t forget your father and I are here to help you pick up the pieces and stand up again.” She shakes her head. “Maybe I should have reminded you that supporting you is my job, not the other way around.”
“No, Mom, we’re supposed to support each other.”
She smooths the hair out of my face. “You’re right. Look at you, all grown-up and responsible, giving me a lesson. Let’s both promise to do better.”
Holly-Mei Jones is going through some big changes in life. On the cusp of finishing middle school, Holly-Mei’s best friend, Natalie, isn’t talking to her, and she’s isolated from her other school friends as well because she was honest about someone cheating on a test (Holly-Mei is very good at honesty, but she’s not so good at filtering her thoughts before they come out of her mouth). Not to mention her mom just got promoted to a new job, and, because of the promotion, the family is moving to Hong Kong. At first, Holly-Mei hates the idea of moving away from her Toronto life, leaving her school and her Ah-ma (grandmother) behind; but, after everything with Natalie and her school friends, Holly-Mei decides that it’s going to be great to have a new start. She and her sister, Millie, are getting excited about moving to Hong Kong and meeting all new people at their fancy new school, Tai Tam Prep, a school where all the rich kids from old families go. Holly-Mei quickly learns that going to a school like Tai Tam Prep and making friends with the kids from these powerful families not only affects her but affects her mom’s job too. Holly-Mei has to learn to think before she speaks and acts before it gets her in trouble with her new friends (Gemma, Rainbow, Snowy, Theo and Dev) as well as her mom and her new job.
Holly-Mei’s story is a classic slice-of-life and coming-of-age narrative, but what makes this novel stand out is the representation that Matula is deeply committed to showcasing. Almost every character is a person of colour, and there is a strong focus on showing mixed cultures in the novel. Holly-Mei and her family are mixed Taiwanese and British, and there are many other mixed-race Asian characters in Holly-Mei’s story. The variety and mixing of different cultures that Matula presents in the novel is a refreshing change to the usual coming-of-age narrative.
In addition to the representative characters, Matula introduces readers to the Chinese concept of guanxi, meaning relationships, connections, and networks. Holly-Mei has to learn throughout the story that her actions not only affect herself, but they reflect on her family and her friends. After her mother’s promotion, Holly-Mei and Millie are held to a higher standard in Hong Kong than they were in Toronto, and this is difficult for Holly-Mei who has trouble filtering what she thinks before speaking. She also learns that her rival, Gemma, isn’t as annoying and rude as she may seem, but rather she has to deal with the same things as Holly-Mei; both their parents are powerful people that have an image to uphold, and they expect their children to work to uphold that same image. The beauty of Holly-Mei’s story, however, is that she makes mistakes. Holly-Mei is quick to speak and act (sometimes to her own and other’s detriment), but, throughout the story, she learns to apologize and fix her mistakes. Matula shows young readers that mistakes may happen, but it is how one handles those mistakes that defines a person. Holly-Mei’s mother also realizes that her expectations for her children are those of an adult, and, after speaking with Holly-Mei about the pressure she feels, her mother tells Holly-Mei that she isn’t responsible for what happens to her family. Holly-Mei’s mother relieves the pressure that she puts on her children, thereby creating a stark contrast with other parents in the story that enforce and uphold adult expectations of children while also showing that children need to be allowed to make mistakes and learn to fix them without the pressure of guanxi.
The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei is a fun and relaxed read for any middle grade reader. What makes Matula’s novel stand out is the representation of mixed-race people and Holly-Mei, herself. Having a character that makes (quite a few) mistakes but who learns how to fix these mistakes and who learns how to forgive and to mend relationships is something that readers can both connect to and learn from.
Deanna Feuer is an English Literature graduate from the University of the Fraser Valley. She lives in Langley British Columbia and is currently studying Library Sciences.