The High School Novel You Needed If You Have Asian Immigrant Parents
Ed Lin's "David Tung Can’t Have A Girlfriend Until He Gets Into An Ivy League College" is written for his younger self
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If you were to ask someone to picture an American high school, a very particular image comes to mind. It’s probably nothing like the setting that author Ed Lin describes in his young adult novel David Tung Can’t Have A Girlfriend Until He Gets Into An Ivy League College. The public school in the New Jersey suburb where Lin’s teen protagonist lives boasts a student body that is predominantly Asian American. The demographics create something of a pressure cooker: “Studying hard is the baseline for success here. Shark Beach students are bred to rip each other to pieces for every point on even minor quizzes, lifting that B-plus to an A-minus to an A. Sandbagging the competition is one route.”
The cutthroat atmosphere may sound exaggerated to some readers, but for me it’s all too familiar. Although I grew up on the other side of the country from the fictitious Shark Beach, I immediately recognized David’s experience of competing with other high-achieving peers. His sense of isolation and loneliness likewise feel uncomfortably real. Despite their shared racial identity, David, whose Taiwanese immigrant parents work at a restaurant rather than a white-collar job like most of his wealthier classmates’ parents, struggles to reconcile those differences that fall along class and ethnic lines.
Fortunately, David finds friendship and relief during his weekend trips to New York City’s Chinatown, where he attends Chinese school with other working-class kids. He narrates this double life with a balance of humor and sincerity. Lin, who previously authored a darker coming-of-age novel for adult readers called Waylaid, as well as two crime series, easily captures the voice of a quick-witted though sometimes socially inept adolescent. We chatted about the challenges of writing the second-generation Chinese American experience and who these stories serve.
Mimi Wong: I feel like sometimes with coming-of-age novels, or novels drawn from personal experience, they can be challenging because of how close you might feel to the character. For me personally, high school was the worst. They were the worst years of my life. So it can be really painful to go back. I was just wondering if you confronted anything like that or if you found other aspects challenging?
Ed Lin: I went to two different high schools. My first three years were in central Jersey in a not-so-great school system. I was the only Asian there. So there was a lot of almost “friendly racism,” you know? Then we moved to the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania for my senior year. And that was real, legit racism. My first week there, I took a wrong turn, and I was going down this road, and there was this house that had a lynched gorilla suit in the front yard. And I was like, “Okay, I know what I’m dealing with.” Then when school started, these kids were coming up to me [saying], “Hey, you know, we have a Klan chapter here.” And I was like, “What?!” He’s like, “Yeah, so-and-so’s father is the editor of the newsletter.” The Klan has a newsletter? It’s like, “New arrivals: Asiatic family,” or something. That’s definitely part of my personal experience, this kind of schism. That senior year felt longer than the first three years of high school. So I think about the kids who are in that situation now, you know, not necessarily dealing with racism and a traumatic changing of schools, but who feel stuck and feel like no one’s really hearing them or seeing them.
Part of David Tung is that he goes to a majority Asian American high school. And that was a part of me being like, I don’t want to give an inch to white supremacy. You don’t have any power over us. I’m going to talk about us. We got our own problems. We got our own issues to deal with. That is at the heart of the matter: the parent and the child interface, other children of different socioeconomic profiles, and how they’re dealing with it, too. Another part is there’s this model minority thing, where it’s like this faceless horde of overachieving kids. And I just wanted to show the pain that’s there. These achievements don’t come without a cost. There’s a lot of self-denial involved, to the point where you deny yourself even the feeling of appreciating how much you’ve done. You were never allowed to feel like you achieved anything. I hope that pain—and the humor—is reflected in the title, as well.
MW: What are the misconceptions that people who don’t come from that kind of majority-minority community have? What is not as visible to them?
EL: I don’t think they know how hard it is really. The academics, getting tutors and everything, is one thing. But then there’s also no real sense of family, either. I also grew up working for my parents, too, like David. We had a hotel. It’s a 24-hour business. A restaurant, at least, has closing hours. Anyone could come in [to the hotel] any time. I feel like it’s a very Asian immigrant thing to endure the pain. And this is passed to the second generation, as well. Just put your head down and work through it now. But that’s also not really participating in American society.
One thing the first-generation immigrants don’t get is that if you identify as Asian American, that is a political identity born out of the ’60s and the movement against the Vietnam war. And if you identify as Asian American, you’re obligated to speak up for all oppressed people—for all people, Black Lives Matter definitely, your BIPOC allies. One thing that I hope a non-Asian would get from reading this is the struggles of Asian Americans. Yes, they are unique, but also within the context of experiencing both racism and the super high expectations from the parents. My parents were not refugees. They were immigrants. And as immigrants, that chip on your shoulder is: “I came here, so now I have to prove that coming here was the right thing to do, and I can do this by making a shitload of money and then having my kids do really well, too. ‘Cause then that’ll prove to everyone back home that this was the correct thing to do. I need confirmation that this was the right thing to do.” And if you feel the whole weight of the village on you, it’s a really tough life to live.
MW: The immigrant story is to buy into the American Dream, and that’s what you’re chasing. I feel like part of the model minority stereotype is being complicit in that system. What’s really interesting to me in your novel is that it isn’t just representation for representation’s sake, even though David is a great character to get behind. But there’s also a healthy dose of self-critique and internal critique of the community. I’m curious to know what it is that you want to shine a light on?
EL: There are a lot of things about the Chinese American community that are pretty ugly. It’s almost like anti-Chinese culture, right? Because traditional Chinese culture emphasizes working together—holding together and branding people outside of your neighborhood as barbarians. We all got to stick together. But that’s not really [the case in America]. It’s like you’re all in cars and you’re racing. If someone runs out of gas or wipes out, it’s like, “Oh, well.” You just keep going. That’s the Shark Beach community.
David on the weekends is able to access going to Chinatown and seeing how another socioeconomic group of Chinese Americans live. In some ways, it’s easier for him to be with them because it’s easier for him to form true friendships ’cause he doesn’t measure up to the other people in Shark Beach High. He works in a restaurant, which is manual labor. But these other kids [in Chinatown] don’t really care. They haven’t been socialized to try to do the whole Ivy League thing to the same degree that they have in Shark Beach. Actually, with the immigrant kids, like a YK and Andy, even though he was born here, he doesn’t quite get it. Chun himself is like a real lost guy. He’s looking for a jail to get locked into. This is not to say that kids in Chinatown do not face the same kind of pressure. It’s just different.
MW: When you talk about the pressure from parents, I think that’s so real. But now there’s this Tiger Mom stereotype that unfortunately Amy Chua has put out there. How did you navigate writing a parent that felt true but didn’t also feed into these stereotypes?
EL: David’s mother is the major force in his upbringing here. I tried to show what her development was. She grew up being basically locked away at home and not allowed to go out and see anybody. Her preliminary takeaway from that is: “Oh, so that’s the proper way because I turned out okay. So in America I have to watch out even more. I’ve seen these American movies where these kids smoke pot as soon as they walk into school. It’s even worse there.”
The whole Tiger Mom thing, the straight A’s, the Ivy League schools, it’s almost like anti-learning where it’s driven by scores and everything. But your mind doesn’t retain anything. It’s more about test-taking than real learning. You can be groomed for anything, I guess. There’s not a tradition of cram schools here like there are in Asia, but there are similar things.
MW: That’s so interesting that you point out that here, with our individualistic mindset, it does feel like you’re much more isolated. I think that probably contributes to how lonely you feel, too.
EL: We don’t speak about our pain, which I think is one reason why mental illness, depression, suicide are so prevalent and yet also so taboo. I feel like it should be talked about as much [as], if not more than, the whole success thing.
MW: Like David, were you not allowed to date in high school?
EL: Oh, no. Not at all. No. This is one thing cribbed from my mother here. You can date when you get into an Ivy League college. At least she didn’t specify Harvard or anything. I told someone else about my book, and they said that their friend’s father—somebody was calling to try to talk to his daughter—and this guy intercepted the call before his daughter could get it. He goes, “You can talk to her when you have a Ph.D. from Harvard!” He slams the phone down. I guess that is the Asian dad’s “get off my lawn” equivalent.
MW: Who was your imagined reader when you were writing this novel?
EL: It’s always me. I always write books for me. I think about the kid that I was, or just me browsing something in the library and finding something—”Hey, this guy’s got the same last name as me.” But it’s always me. Even when I think about the kids out there who are in pain, I just remember what it was like for me. It was just reaching out to myself. Have you seen that Netflix series, the German series, Dark? It’s got a lot of time travel stuff. Some people see visions of themselves from the past. So I’m writing for myself.