I thought I’d figured it out
After reading Justina Chen Headley‘s Girl Overboard, I was finally able to articulate exactly what my problem with most YA books involving Asian-American protagonists is. Too often, it seems like the protagonist’s race/ethnicity/culture matters only when it’s a problem.
The majority of books about Asian-Americans that I’ve read (or tried to read) seemed to me primarily about the protagonist’s identity as an Asian-American instead of being about a person trying to figure out they really are, with their ethnicity as part of their identity. I mean, they were books about people who were discriminated against, ashamed of their ethnicity and culture, or dealing with immigrant parents. They were books about characters who were Asian-American first, not books about a rich girl or a smart girl or girl in love, a girl who’s not struggling with her ethnicity but more universal concerns. Which is probably why I seem to be in the minority of bloggers who didn’t love Headley’s debut novel, Nothing but the Truth (and a Few White Lies). Headley’s second novel has just been published, and while I didn’t love Girl Overboard either, I did really like it. And I’m sure this is largely because Syrah Cheng’s problems don’t stem from the fact that she’s Chinese-American, but because her father is a billionaire.
This does not mean culture is ignored, because it definitely isn’t. The fact that Syrah’s family is Chinese is an important part of the story and Headley doesn’t skimp on cultural details. But I can easily imagine a book about a rich white girl dealing with the same problems—powerful and neglectful parents, hateful half-siblings, a male best friend she might have more than friendly feelings for but is in danger losing anyway despite not doing anything about those feelings, and a dream of making a name for herself as more than just Rich Guy’s daughter. And to me, the essence of Girl Overboard has nothing to do with Syrah’s ethnicity. While their Chinese heritage is an intrinsic part of Syrah and her family, it’s not a problem she has to overcome. Girl Overboard is a story about a girl finding herself and an inner strength she never knew was there, and discovering that she’s not as alone as she thought. The problems with her parents aren’t your stereotypical Asian parent problems, but your more stereotypical rich parent problems. It just so happens that those parents happen to be Chinese.
So there I was, pleased that I was finally able to put my finger on what bothered me so much about other books when I read a book with a hapa protagonist about whom you could argue race was the cause of her problems. Or at least the cause of tension. And I ended up enjoying that book, too.
In Sherri L. Smith‘s Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, Ana Shen’s grandparents don’t get along too well. Her Chinese-American father’s parents and African-American mother’s parents will eat together. Just don’t ask them to cook together. But when Ana’s best friend spontaneously invites Ana’s crush, (the Japanese-American!) Jamie Tabata, to dinner at Ana’s house, disaster looms. Both her grandmothers are accomplished cooks, so of course both must prepare dishes for dinner. After all, it’s not every day that you celebrate your graduation from eighth grade. Ana loves both her grandmothers, but the competition between them, especially on her Nai Nai’s (Chinese grandmother) side, makes things difficult for the entire family.
Besides the gentle humor, and the fact that food is a major part of the book, I think what made Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet work for me is that the tension is not so much within Ana, but 1) between her grandmothers, and 2) between Jamie Tabata’s father and, well, basically Ana’s entire family. There was a moment where Smith had me worried about the direction of the story, but it quickly passed and I was very relieved that my fears weren’t realized.
Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet takes place over the course of one afternoon, so the scope of the story is not as large as that of Girl Overboard. I think this is the main reason I liked Girl Overboard more than Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, but as different as the two books are, I still enjoyed and would recommend them both.
I suppose what I said at the beginning, that Asian-American protagonists’ race/ethnicity/culture seeming to matter only when it’s a problem, is still true, at least among books I’ve tried to read in the past. But I’m glad that I found a book where this is not the case, as well as a book I enjoyed, arguably despite this. I’ve got three more books I’m looking forward to reading with Asian-American protagonists (all about girls. Where are the books with Asian-American guys as protagonists?), so I really hope this trend of me being able to actually finish and enjoy these books continues.