Abigail Hing Wen’s debut young adult novel, “Loveboat, Taipei,” is immersive, touching and captures the experience of being a first-generation immigrant. It’s a New York Times Bestseller and has received praise for its contemporary style and wondrous representation.
The novel follows Ever Wong, who is sent to Taipei by her overbearing parents to learn Mandarin, calligraphy and her culture. She struggles to find her place in the world as she doubts her identity and is torn between her dreams and her parents’ expectations.
Back home in Ohio, Ever feels out of place as one of the only Asian Americans in the crowd. She feels like she needs to blend in, cautiously taking care to not draw any attention to herself or her Asian identity. Not only does this capture an aspect of the Asian American experience but also the experience of ethnic minorities who often grow up feeling like they need to shy away from their heritage to fit in.
Sometimes as younglings, us first-generation kids are embarrassed of our mother tongue, the smell of our ethnic food and the confusion of our friends who might not understand our cultural differences.
Growing up, there’s more doubt about who you are and who you can be, and that’s partially because there’s no real point of reference in the media. When no one truly looks like you and no family looks like yours, it can be extremely isolating.
Many are realizing that representation matters. Representation in the media has been linked to self-esteem, as it reinforces feelings of belonging. Yet, there is little ethnic minority representation in mainstream books, TV and movies, and when there is, it is highly insufficient.
The majority of recurring Asian American characters on TV are only on screen for “less than half an episode” and are often reduced to stereotypes. A 2013 study on diversity found that people of color were only in 10% of children’s books. Society is diverse, so why shouldn’t our literature reflect that?
This is something that is slowly changing in film and television, especially with the rise of sitcoms like “Fresh Off The Boat” and “Kim’s Convenience.” However, “Loveboat, Taipei” provides a kind of representation that is incredibly rare in American literature. The characters go beyond Asian stereotypes (such as the “model minority”), and instead, are fully crafted characters with unique goals.
They openly tackle the idea of Asian Americans being inherently reserved or academically gifted and provide characters that directly counter that narrative. Instead of a prodigy doctor, Ever is queasy at the sight of blood. Instead of being reserved and non-confrontational, Sophie is bold and outspoken. Instead of being academically “gifted,” Xavier struggles with reading and writing due to dyslexia. The characters in the novels feel like real people, with real struggles.
Perhaps the answer is to simply embrace your culture, to accept and revel in it. To unapologetically flaunt your unique heritage and prove that minorities are more than their stereotypes. When Ever travels overseas, however, she feels like she isn’t Chinese enough, and that her “Asianness [is] invisible.”
The novel explores the paradox of being a part of two cultures: never feeling like you’re a part of where you belong but simultaneously identifying with different heritages. “Loveboat, Taipei” portrays the kind of disappointment that often follows after coming to terms with your physical and cultural differences — the people you thought you belonged with, may not recognize you as belonging with them.
She tackles this conflict beautifully, framing Ever’s experience with subtle cues that her Chinese identity is doubted, as staff at the airport scowl at her lack of Mandarin and her new friends laugh about how she had never tasted bubble tea.
Struggling with identity is a core experience shared by many first-generation youths. One group of people treats you as an “other” because you don’t look like them, whereas the other group of people treats you differently because you don’t act like them, which can also be othering.
The experience is shared by many and the novel provides a space of comfort for first-generation immigrant children, especially Asian Americans. “Loveboat, Taipei” gives the struggles of many a place to be seen.
There’s a pang of familiarity in these experiences. I’m not Asian American, I’m Latina, and as I read this novel, I remembered my family poking fun at my Spanish accent and calling me una gringa, while my peers questioned my ethnicity and proceeded to ask me why my pale skin didn’t look Latino.
Of course, different minorities and individuals hold different experiences, and I acknowledge the privilege in being “white passing” — but many of us can relate to being in between cultures and trying to find our place.
Ever also finds the balance between pleasing her parents and chasing her dreams. “Loveboat, Taipei” outlines the struggle of immigrant parents to provide for their kids and create opportunities in new countries: Ever’s father, capable of being a doctor back home, settles for a mediocre job in Ohio because his education isn’t recognized.
She watches her parents struggle to make ends meet, and though she understands why they have high hopes for her to become a doctor, it simply isn’t what she wants to pursue. This conflict is often such a common experience for first-generation children and it’s refreshing to see Ever struggle with this internal guilt because she knows how much her parents have sacrificed for her. It is comforting to watch her flourish and to be able to identify with these unique experiences.
Throughout the novel, Ever slowly becomes more comfortable with her Asian American heritage and becomes more confident in her ambitions. It’s a journey that many face alone: to come to terms with their mixed identity, to understand why our families may have different expectations and why we may feel the need to meet those expectations.
Not all of our experiences will be the same, however; “Loveboat, Taipei” provides a novel for Asian Americans and first-generation youth to see themselves in, to find comfort in and ultimately, feel like they have found someplace to belong.