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Dial A For Aunties

Dial A For Aunties

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Dial A For Aunties

4/5 (5 ratings)
353 pages
5 hours
Apr 27, 2021


Winner of the Comedy Women In Print Prize 2021

‘Whip-smart, original and so funny. I found it impossible to put down and lost count of the number of times I laughed out loud’ Beth O’Leary, Sunday Times bestselling author of The Road Trip

Your family would kill to see you happy

When Meddy Chan accidentally kills her blind date, she turns to her aunties for help. Their meddling set her up on the date so they kind of owe her.

Although hiding this goddamn dead body is going to be harder than they thought especially when her family’s wedding business has THE biggest wedding of the year happening right now.

It turns out the wedding venue just happens to be managed by Meddy’s ex, aka the one who got away. It’s the worst time to see him again, or…is it? Can Meddy finally find love and make her overbearing family happy?


Readers LOVE Dial A For Aunties!

‘Its dark humour and hilarious family dynamics had me in stitches from start to finish’
‘I loved every second of reading it and couldn’t predict what was going to happen next’
‘I couldn’t stop laughing throughout’
‘The characters felt so relatable’
‘What a great book this is – a really fun read’
‘A hilariously funny rom-com’
‘Escapist fun that’ll keep you turning the pages and giggling throughout’

Apr 27, 2021

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Dial A For Aunties - Jesse Sutanto


Eight Years Ago

There is a curse in my family. It’s followed us all the way from China, where it took my great-grandfather (freak accident on the farm that involved a pregnant sow and an unfortunately placed rake), to Indonesia, where it claimed my grandfather (a stroke at the age of thirty, nothing quite so dramatic as great-grandfather’s demise, but still rather upsetting). My mom and aunts figured that a Chinese curse wouldn’t follow them to the West, so after they all got married, they moved to San Gabriel, California. But not only did the curse find them, it mutated. Instead of killing the men in my family, it made them leave, which is so much worse. At least Yeye died loving my Nainai. The first one who left was Big Uncle. Then Second Uncle, and then—then it was my dad, who left without a word in the dead of night. Just up and disappeared like a ghost. I woke up one morning, asked where he was, and Ma slapped down a bowl of congee and said, Eat. That was when I knew the curse had claimed him. When my male cousins graduated, they left too, opting for schools like NYU and Penn State instead of any of the perfectly fine colleges in California.

Ah, Nat, you sooo lucky, Big Aunt says, the day my mom announces that I’ve applied to eight schools, all of them in California. The farthest one is Berkeley, and we’ve had countless arguments over that. Ma thinks anything farther than UC Irvine is too far; she won’t be able to drop by randomly and clean my dorm and nag at my roommate to go to sleep early and drink lots of water. Big Aunt’s son, Hendra, is at Boston College and ignores 99.999 percent of her calls. The other 0.0001 percent of the time is when he runs out of money and has to ask her for more.

Oh, so lucky, Second Aunt says, patting her chest and smiling sadly, probably thinking of my cousin Nikky in Philly, who never calls and only comes back once a year. Her other son, Axel, is in New York. I last saw him two years ago, when he moved out. Finally, he’d said. When it’s your turn, Meddy, fly far and don’t look back. Daughters never leave you. Girl is such blessing, Second Aunt says. She reaches out and pinches my cheek.

Fourth Aunt grunts and continues shelling roasted, salted pumpkin seeds. Ma is her biggest nemesis, and she’d rather choke on a pumpkin seed than agree that Ma’s the lucky one out of all of them. But when Ma isn’t looking, she glances over at me and gives me a wink. I’m proud of you, kid.

I smile weakly. Because I sort of kind of totally lied to Ma. I did apply to eight schools in California, but I also applied to a ninth school. Columbia. I don’t know why I did; it’s not like I’d ever get in, and plus, how would we even pay the exorbitant tuition?

Months later, I hold the acceptance letter in my hand and stare, and stare, and—

I crumple it. Throw it in the trash. I’m not like my boy cousins. I’m not like my father and my uncles. I can’t just abandon my family. Especially not my mom. I’m not stupid enough to think that the curse will skip me. Years later, after my future husband leaves me, all I’ll have left are Ma and my aunties. So I tell them I’m going to UCLA. Ma cries. My aunts (even Fourth Aunt) whoop and gather around, hugging me, patting my cheeks, and bemoaning the fact that they don’t have daughters.

You so lucky, Big Aunt says, for the millionth time, to Ma. She stay with you forever. You always have companion.

Is it true? Am I doomed to stay with them forever, just because I’m the only one not heartless enough to leave? I force a smile and nod benignly as they fuss about me, and I try to look forward to the rest of my life, living here in the same house with my mom and aunts.

Part 1

Girl Meets Boy

(There might be insta-love and also someone might die. We’ll see.)


Present Day

I take a deep breath before pushing open the swinging doors. Noise spills out, a cacophony of Mandarin and Cantonese, and I step aside so Ma can walk inside before me. It’s not that I’m being nice—I mean, I am, but I’m also being sensible. Ma grew up in Jakarta’s Chinatown, a place heaving with people, and she knows how to make her way through a crowd. Any crowd. If I’m the one leading the way, I’d be squeaking, Excuse me—oh, sorry, Ah Yi—um, could I just—I have a reservation— My voice would never be heard above the din, and we’d be stuck outside the restaurant forever. Or at least until the dim sum rush died down, sometime around 2 p.m.

As it is, people surge behind Ma as she scythes a path through the throng of families waiting for their tables, and I would’ve lost her if I wasn’t keeping a death grip on her arm as if I’m all of three years old. She doesn’t bother stopping at the front desk. She strides in as if she owns the place, eagle eyes scanning the large dining hall.

How can I describe the chaos that is a dim sum restaurant in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley at 11 a.m.? The place is filled with close to a hundred round tables, each one occupied by a different family, many of them with three to four generations of people present—there are gray-haired, prune-faced Ah Mas holding chubby babies on their laps. Steaming carts are pushed by the waitresses, though if you called them Waitress they’d never stop for you. You must call them Ah Yi—Auntie—and wave frantically as they walk by to get them to stop. And once they do, customers descend like vultures and fight over the bamboo steamers inside the cart. People shout, asking if they’ve got siu mai, or har gow, or lo mai gai, and the Ah Yis locate the right dishes somewhere in the depths of their carts.

My Mandarin is awful, and my Cantonese nonexistent. Ma and the aunts often try to help me improve by speaking to me in either Mandarin or Indonesian, but then give up and switch to English because I only get about 50 percent of what they’re saying. Their grasp of the English language is a bit wobbly, but it’s a heck of a lot better than my Mandarin or Indonesian. It’s yet another reason why I find it extra hard to order food at dim sum. More often than not, everything good is gone by the time the Ah Yi notices me and understands my order. Then all that’s left is the lame stuff like the doughy vegetarian dumplings or the steamed bok choy.

But today, ah, today is a good day. I manage to get my hands on two lots of har gow, something that Big Aunt will certainly appreciate, and I even get hold of lop cheung bao—Chinese sausage rolls. Almost makes the whole ordeal of coming to weekly dim sum worth my while.

Big Aunt nods her approval when the Ah Yi puts the bamboo steamers down in the center of our table, and I feel an almost overwhelming need to beat my chest and crow. I got those shrimp dumplings! Me!

Eat more, Meddy. You should keep your strength up for tomorrow, Big Aunt says in Mandarin, plopping two pieces of braised pork ribs on my plate, while I carefully place dumplings on everyone else’s plates and pour them tea. Second Aunt cuts the char siu baos into two each and places one half on everyone’s plate. The table being round means all the dishes are equally within reach of everyone, but Chinese family meals aren’t complete without everyone serving food to everyone else, because doing so shows love and respect, which means we all need to do it in the most attention-seeking way possible. What’s the point of giving Big Aunt the biggest siu mai if nobody else notices?

Thank you, Big Aunt, I say, dutifully, placing a fat har gow on her plate. I always reply in English no matter which language my family is speaking because Second Aunt says listening to me struggle through Indonesian or Mandarin makes her blood pressure rise. You eat more too. We’re all counting on you tomorrow. And you, Second Aunt. The second-biggest har gow goes on Second Aunt’s plate. Third biggest goes to Fourth Aunt, and the last remaining one goes on Ma’s plate. That shows that Ma has brought me up well, to look out for others before ourselves.

Big Aunt waves off my platitudes with a heavily jeweled hand. We are all counting on each other. Heads of big, coiffed hair nod. Fourth Aunt has the biggest hair, something that Ma is always complaining to me about in private.

Always such an attention hole, Ma said once, which was equal parts horrifying and hilarious. I asked her where she heard attention hole, and she claimed that she heard it from our neighbor Auntie Liying, which is such a lie, but I’ve had twenty-six years of living with Ma and I know better than to argue with her. I simply told her it’s attention ho, not hole, and she nodded and muttered ho, like ho ho ho before going back to chopping scallions.

Okay, Big Aunt says, clapping once. Everyone sits up straighter. Big Aunt is older than Second Aunt by ten years, and she basically raised her sisters while Nainai went to work. Hair and makeup?

Second Aunt nods, bringing out her phone and putting on her glasses. She uses her index finger to tap on it, muttering, Apa ya, the name of that app—Meddy make me use for hairstyle. Pin-something.

Pinterest, I pipe up. I can help you find it—

Big Aunt shoots me a stern look, and I wilt. No, Meddy. You mustn’t help. If Second Aunt can’t find the app tomorrow when she’s with the bride, we will lose face for sure. We’re supposed to be professionals, she says. Or at least I think that’s what she says. She’s speaking so fast I find it hard to follow, but I definitely caught the Mandarin words for lose face—a favorite phrase of hers.

Second Aunt’s mouth purses, and her left cheek twitches a little. Just as Fourth Aunt irritates the crap out of Ma, Second Aunt and Big Aunt have a lot of friction between them. Don’t ask me why; maybe it has to do with being the two oldest. Maybe it’s something in their complicated pasts. There’s been a lot of drama with my mom’s family, especially back in Jakarta. I’ve heard bits and pieces over the years, mostly from Ma.

Ha! Second Aunt crows, brandishing Pinterest on her phone as if it’s a sword she’s just managed to pull out of a stone. I got it. This is the style that the bride chose. I practiced on Meddy’s hair and it looked wonderful. She turns to me and switches to English. Meddy, you got photo I take of your hair?

I do, I say, quickly taking out my phone. I call up the picture and Second Aunt holds it side by side with her phone, showing off the two pictures to everyone.

Wah, Ma says. It’s so similar to the model’s! Very good, Er Jie.

Second Aunt gives her a warm smile.

Fourth Aunt nods and replies in English, Yes, they’re nearly identical. How impressive. Her English is the best of all of theirs, yet another thing Ma will never forgive her for even though Ma’s English is better than her older sisters’. Ma insists that Fourth Aunt has a penchant for using big words (i.e., anything with more than two syllables) just to needle Ma. I think Ma might have a point there, but it’s just one of the many truths we will never know.

The curl not show up well with Asian hair, Big Aunt says. The fact that she’s speaking English means she’s half-directing the admonishment at me. My insides writhe with guilt, even though this is very definitely not my fault. Why you choose blonde hairstyle?

Second Aunt glowers. I didn’t choose. The bride choose. Customer always right, remember? She stabs her har gow and bites it angrily.

Hmm. Big Aunt sighs. Should have tell her it look different on Asian hair than on blonde hair. But— she adds, when Second Aunt looks about ready to burst, never mind. Too late now. Moving in—

On, Fourth Aunt says.

Eh? Big Aunt says.

On. It’s moving on, not moving in. Moving in is what you do when you move houses.

Moving on. Okay. Big Aunt smiles at Fourth Aunt and Fourth Aunt beams back so hard, she might as well be a kid again. Ma says Fourth Aunt is Big Aunt’s favorite because she’s the baby of the family, and she was such a needy baby that she stole Big Aunt’s heart right out of her chest.

She snatch it right out, Ma has grumbled many times. I didn’t bother asking if Ma, as the second-youngest sister, had been Big Aunt’s favorite right up until Fourth Aunt was born.

Flowers? Big Aunt says in Mandarin once more. I relax a little.

Ma’s back straightens. All taken care of. Lilies, roses, peonies. Ah Guan will take everything to the island in the morning.

The island she’s talking about is Santa Lucia, a large, privately owned island off the coast of Southern California that boasts pristine golden beaches, dramatic cliffs, and as of a month ago, one of the most luxurious, exclusive resorts in the world—the Ayana Lucia. Tomorrow is the start of a two-day wedding weekend extravaganza for Jacqueline Wijaya, daughter of Indonesia’s largest textiles company, and—I kid you not—Tom Cruise.

Sutopo, that is. Yeah, the groom’s name really is Tom Cruise Sutopo. I checked. It’s exactly the kind of thing Chinese-Indonesians love naming their kids after—famous people and/or brand names (I have a cousin named Gucci, who moved very far away as soon as he was legally able to), or some form of misspelling of a popular Western name. Also case in point: Meddelin. My parents were aiming for Madeleine. Growing up, my cousins called me Meddlin’ Meddelin, which is why I never, ever meddle in anyone’s business, ever. Well, that and also the fact that my mother and aunts meddle enough for the whole family.

Anyway, Tom Cruise Sutopo’s parents own … something. Something large. Palm oil plantations, coal mines, that kind of thing. So it’s a wedding between two billionaire families in a newly built resort, which is why Big Aunt and all the rest of us are understandably nervous. How we managed to land these people as clients, I have no idea. Well, I do. Fourth Aunt’s husband is—let me get this straight—Jacqueline’s cousin’s father-in-law’s brother. So we’re practically relatives. Everything in Chinese-Indo culture is like that; everybody is somehow related to everybody else, and deals happen because somebody’s in-law knows someone else’s friend’s cousin.

I thought that our cheesy-as-hell company motto, which Big Aunt is supremely proud of—Don’t leave your big day to chance, leave it to the Chans!—would’ve scared away the bride and groom, but they actually found it funny. Said it made them even more certain that they wanted to hire us to cater their big day.

Ma rattles on about how she’s managed to get the rarest flowers. The arrangements are going to look—what do you say in English, Meddy? Exsqueezed?

You mean exquisite? Fourth Aunt says, and Ma gives her the deadliest side-eye in the history of all side-eyes.

Very good, Big Aunt says hurriedly, breaking the radioactive glares between Ma and Fourth Aunt. And last one, songs, all okay?

Fourth Aunt’s face goes from icy glare to satisfied smirk. Of course, the band and I have been practicing night and day. People keep coming by the studio to listen to me sing, you know. There are two versions of Fourth Aunt’s life story. Version one has to do with her being a celebrated child prodigy with a voice that newspapers described as angelic and a national treasure. She was well on her way to stardom, but chose to leave it all behind when all her sisters decided to move to California. Version two has her as a so-so singer who cunningly convinced her entire family to uproot themselves and move to California so she could pursue her pipe dreams of breaking out in Hollywood. One version is Fourth Aunt’s; the other is Ma’s.

And the cake? Second Aunt says, side-eyeing Big Aunt. Our centerpiece needs to be perfect, unlike that unfortunate thing you made for Mochtar Halim’s daughter’s wedding. She gives a dramatic sigh. Nobody has a face anymore. Hmm, that can’t be right. I parse through the words slowly in my head. I think she’s saying Big Aunt has made all of us lose face. I really need to brush up on my Mandarin.

Anyway, the point is, Second Aunt has made a really low blow. Cheriss Halim’s wedding is her favorite topic, because Cheriss had requested a fiendishly tricky cake—a five-layer upside-down tower with the bottom layer as the smallest one and the top as the biggest. Big Aunt, with years and years under her belt as head pastry chef for Ritz-Carlton Jakarta, was confident she could do it. But something went wrong. I don’t know what, maybe she didn’t build enough structural support, or maybe it was just an impossible task for a beach wedding in the middle of a SoCal summer. Whatever it was, amid the guests’ horrified gasps, the humongous tower had leaned over in slow motion before collapsing on one of the flower girls. It was the only time we’d ever gone viral, and Second Aunt hasn’t let Big Aunt forget about the incident since.

Big Aunt’s nostrils flare. I’m just here to buy soy sauce.

Okay, that definitely can’t be right. I lean toward Ma and whisper, Why’s Big Aunt talking about buying soy sauce?

Tch, Ma says. This is why I always say to you: pay attention in Chinese class! Big Aunt is saying to Second Aunt to mind her own business.

Thank you for being sooo caring, Meimei, Big Aunt is saying. Phew, she’s really mad now. She only refers to the rest as meimei—little sister—when she wants to remind them who’s the eldest. Of course everything is ready. The cake will be perfectly fine; please don’t worry about me. She gives Second Aunt a smile that I can only describe as so sweet it’s deadly and then turns her attention to me.

I shift in my seat. Big Aunt, like her title, is larger than all her sisters. I guess twenty years as a pastry chef will do that to you. She wears her size well, and it makes her more majestic, more convincing. There’s a reason she’s the one who meets with potential clients. I hate the thought of disappointing Ma, but the thought of disappointing Big Aunt actually keeps me up some nights. Maybe it’s the result of spending most of my life in the same house as my mom and her sisters. Ma and I only got to move into our own place a year ago, after the family business started turning a steady profit. We all still live in the same neighborhood, a mere ten-minute walk away from one another, and I feel the weight of their expectations, as if I have four mothers and all of their hopes and dreams have been placed on my shoulders. I’m basically driven by a mixture of caffeine and familial guilt.

Big Aunt turns to face me, and my spine straightens instinctively. Maybe she senses how nervous I am about tomorrow, because she gives me an encouraging smile and switches to English for my sake. Meddy, everything okay with camera, ya? You ready for big day?

I nod. I’ve checked and rechecked my camera, my backup camera, and all five of my lenses yesterday. They’d all been sent for a maintenance and proper cleanup weeks ago, in preparation for this wedding. I hate that the documenting of my family’s hard work—Big Aunt’s towering cakes, Second Aunt’s complicated hairstyles and flawless makeup artistry, Ma’s gorgeous flower arrangements, and Fourth Aunt’s dynamic performances—all falls on my shoulders. Every wedding, I try to capture everything, and every wedding, I miss something. Last wedding, I forgot to take pictures of Fourth Aunt from her good side, the one that makes me look twenty again, and the wedding before that, I failed to capture the centerpiece at table 17, which was apparently significantly different from all the other centerpieces.

My gear’s in perfect condition, I assure them, and I’ve memorized the list of pictures I need to take for our social media.

You good, filial girl, Meddy, Big Aunt says, and I force a smile. Ah, filial piety, the foundation of Asian parenting. From ever since I can remember, I’ve been taught to put my elders—that is, Ma and the aunties—above everything. It’s the reason why I, out of seven kids in my generation, am the only one involved in the family business, even though I desperately want out. For their sake, I pretend to love all of it—the fuss and the huge production and everything—but it’s slowly eroding what I love about photography. For months now, I’ve toyed with the idea of leaving the wedding business, of going back to what I love about photography—to be able to take my time, play around with different lenses and lighting and angles instead of rushing to take photo after photo of the same stuff. Not that I can ever reveal any of this to my family.

Yes, you are a good, filial girl, Ma chirps in Indonesian. Ma and the aunties are equally fluent in Mandarin and Indonesian and switch seamlessly from one language to the other. She’s smiling really wide. Uh-oh. Why is she smiling? That’s why we have a surprise for you.

Now all of my aunts are grinning down at me. I shrink back in my seat, the siu mai in my mouth turning to stone. What’s going on? I say, my voice coming out even smaller than usual with my family.

Ma says, I found the perfect husband for you! At the same time, all of my aunts say, Surprise!

I blink. Sorry, you found what now?

Perfect husband! Ma crows.

I look over my shoulder, half-expecting some guy Ma has probably ambushed at the Ranch 99 market to come up behind me.

Aiya, he’s not here, silly girl, Ma says.

Is he tied up in the trunk of your car?

Don’t joke, Meddy, Big Aunt tuts. Your mama is doing all of this so that you can have a good life.

I nod, contrite. I’m an adult and yet all it takes is a single admonishment from Big Aunt to make me feel all of three years old again. Sorry, Ma. But I don’t—

Don’t but this but that, Ma says. Why is it so difficult to get you to date? I tried setting you up with Uncle Awai’s son, but no, you didn’t let me. I tried setting you up with my lily supplier Ah Guan—Ah Guan is very handsome, you know—but you refused that too. Didn’t even want to meet him.

Meddy is probably cautious because last time when you tried to set her up with Wang Zhixiang’s son, he turned out to be, you know, Fourth Aunt says.

Ma waves an irritated hand. Why do you keep bringing up Zhixiang’s son? So he turned out to be some maniac. How was I supposed to know?

Kleptomaniac, I mumble. By the time our date was over, he’d stolen my makeup bag from my purse and, somehow, one of my shoes. I mean, the guy’s an asshole, but you’ve gotta give it to him. Or let him steal it.

Anyway, sayangku, Ma says, using the Indonesian term of endearment she saves for really special occasions, like the day I graduated from UCLA, this guy is so good. I’m telling you, no one is better than him. He is so handsome, so kind, and so smart! Aaand …

Oh god, here it comes. The final nail in the coffin. What is it going to be this time? With my luck, he’ll turn out to be a second cousin or something.

He’s the hotel owner! Fourth Aunt cries.

Ma glares at her. I was just going to say that. You stole my thunder!

You were taking too long, Fourth Aunt says.

They all turn back to me, grinning expectantly.

Uh. I put down my chopsticks. I mean. Am I supposed to be happy about that? It sounds like a huge liability. Do I have to give you guys a refresher course on how bad I am at dating? What part of this is a good idea, exactly?

Ah, Ma says, smiling smugly. I know you’re not so good at dating—

It’s because you’re such good girl, Big Aunt says, loyally.

Second Aunt nods. Yes, you’re not a whore, that’s why you’re so bad at dating.

Auntie! Can we not slut-shame women, please?

She shrugs, not contrite in the least.

Anyway, Ma says, it doesn’t matter. It’s okay that you’re terrible at dating, because this boy, oh, he is so in love with you, Meddy. He knows all your flaws and how awkward you are in person and everything, but he says it makes him like you even more!

Whoa, whoa, I raise my hands. Hold up. Okay. I take a deep breath. There is so much here. Can we please switch back to English? Because I’m pretty sure I’m misinterpreting everything. First of all, he knows all my flaws? What the f—what gives, Ma? How does he know any of this stuff about me?

She met him online! Fourth Aunt cries, triumphantly. I guess she’s been bursting with the secret this whole time, because her entire face is shining with excitement. Your mother went online, to a dating site, and has been chatting with him for weeks!

What?! Oh my god, so it’s not a loss in translation. She really did go and find me a random guy to go out on a date with. Ma, is this for real?

"Yes, very good idea, right? This way, you and him get to know

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  • (4/5)
    This book is totally bonkers, like all the characters in it. it bounce along lurching from one disaster and you really start of wonder how it's going to end happily. Love all the dialogue with Indonesian and Chinese words strung into them.
  • (5/5)
    i loved it .. so funny plus the unexpected plot twists ..i enjoyed this book