I’ve had a complicated relationship with my Taiwanese background for most of my life. My parents immigrated in their twenties, and I was born in the US but raised in a very traditional, Mandarin-speaking home. Growing up, I felt like I had two sides to me: an American skin I’d wear at school, which felt most like me, and a Taiwanese one I’d force on at home. My friends didn’t understand me—even my Taiwanese American friends, because my family was still keeping traditions from the 50s alive. Even my mother has said recently that friends from her generation were shocked at some of her stories. All of this led to me trying to hide my Taiwanese side for most of my life despite it being a large part of it.
Through high school and college, I didn’t read books let alone write them because I was focused on math and science, which was what my family and society told me to focus on. It wasn’t until I was miserable in dental school that I turned to reading to get me through my day. And I eventually found my way to writing.
I began writing for myself, to help me work through some of the obstacles I was facing. Eventually, after I graduated from dental school and began working full-time as a dentist, I started writing my first book. And when I changed careers and dedicated myself to trying to make it as an author, I channeled a lot of what I was going through with my family into my first book. As I’m sure you can imagine, my family had a difficult time with my career switch. They didn’t understand why I had “failed” at being a dentist and why I would choose such a fickle, financially-unsteady career.
To be fair, they had a point. But the biggest problem was we weren’t communicating effectively. And for the sake of writing my books, I started having difficult conversations with my parents that I may not have had otherwise. I needed to understand their point of view. And surprisingly, these conversations were so illuminating that one of them even made it into one of my novels word-for-word. I thought writing would be what broke my relationship with my parents, but it shockingly became something that (eventually, after many years) helped us understand each other a little better.
And it also helped me understand myself better. I wrote about the challenges I was personally going through, and my characters question their identity and what it means to be Taiwanese American. By writing from different perspectives, it helped me work through some of my struggles. As each of my characters learned how to accept, love, and reconcile their two sides, I began joining those pieces of myself together, too.
In AMERICAN PANDA, Mei is an MIT freshman whose parents want her to become a doctor and marry a Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer despite her hatred of germs and crush on a Japanese classmate. In OUR WAYWARD FATE, Ali is struggling as the only Asian in her small midwestern town when another Taiwanese boy moves into town and turns everything she knows upside down as her mother forbids them from being together for an unknown reason. In RENT A BOYFRIEND, Chloe hires a fake boyfriend from Rent for Your ’Rents to introduce to her parents, only to fall for the real guy behind the role after she’s already introduced him to her parents as someone else. And Drew, the fake boyfriend, has been cut off from his family for pursuing art. Each of my characters has a piece of me in them, and their learning to be comfortable in their own skin was my journey as well.
I’ve also learned so much more about my culture from the research I’ve done for these books. I’ve asked my parents and looked up so many questions about Mandarin phrases, holidays, food, traditions. OUR WAYWARD FATE has a retelling of THE BUTTERFLY LOVERS and I read poems, watched old movies, and read different iterations of the folk tale to create my own version. All of this has given me such an important appreciation for the history as well as a glimpse of just how beautifully enormous the diaspora is. I always knew my parents were unique in their traditions and interpretation of culture, but now I have an even better sense of just how small of a dot they are on the existing spectrum (and that they were quite far to one side).
I write as honestly as I can about my experiences in my books for myself and for my readers. Hearing from people who relate to my characters or my personal journey has been a surprising silver lining in this—I set out to try to help someone else feel less alone, and in doing so, I have also felt less alone myself.
After three books and several years of taking steps forward with my family, I was finally ready to explore the most joyful aspects of my upbringing. My fourth book, WHEN YOU WISH UPON A LANTERN, is a love letter to my culture featuring some of my favorite holidays, food, traditions, and folk tales. It’s also a celebration of the beauty of everyday moments, of love, and of community, bringing to life a tight-knit, vibrant Chinatown community. The story follows a girl whose family owns a wishing lantern shop in Chicago’s Chinatown, and when she discovers the business is struggling, she teams up with the boy from the mooncake bakery next door to make secrets come true for the customers in secret. Only, sparks begin to fly and she realizes she has a secret wish of her own that she can’t seem to grant. I wrote this in 2020 during a tough time in the world when I needed to remind myself that there is hope and light, though sometimes you have to make it happen yourself. I wanted to write a contemporary book that feels like magic, with the magic coming from acts of kindness for others. I’ve always loved the wishing lantern tradition, especially the part where you write your wish on the side, and I couldn’t imagine anything more magical than a sky alight with wishes and dreams. Being an author was the metaphorical lantern wish I sent into the air ten years ago, and I am so grateful today for where I am on that journey.
I turned to writing because of my own struggles, and never did I foresee how much I would gain personally through it. I have a better sense of myself and where I come from, I have a better relationship with my family, and I’ve been able to connect with wonderful readers. WHEN YOU WISH UPON A LANTERN feels like a culmination of all of these steps forward, and I hope readers enjoy it as much as I loved writing it and feel a little bit of the magic I felt.
One of the most important things I’ve learned from all this is that this is a never-ending journey. There will always be more questions to ponder and more we can learn about ourselves, but reading and writing are wonderful ways for us to explore and feel less alone.
Gloria Chao is an acclaimed author and screenwriter. Her novels include AMERICAN PANDA, OUR WAYWARD FATE, RENT A BOYFRIEND, and WHEN YOU WISH UPON A LANTERN. Her award-winning books have received starred trade reviews; were Junior Library Guild Selections, Indie Next Picks, YALSA teens’ top 10 Pick, Amelia Bloomer list selections; and were featured on the “Best of” lists of Seventeen, Bustle, Barnes & Noble, PopSugar, Paste Magazine, Booklist, Chicago Public Library, Bank Street, and more.
After a brief detour as a dentist, she is now grateful to spend her days in fictional characters’ heads instead of real people’s mouths. When she’s not writing, you can find her on the curling ice, where she and her husband are world-ranked in mixed doubles.
Visit her tea-and-book-filled world at GloriaChao.wordpress.com and find her on Twitter and Instagram @GloriacChao.
Four starred reviews for this incisive, laugh-out-loud contemporary debut about a Taiwanese-American teen whose parents want her to be a doctor and marry a Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer despite her squeamishness with germs and crush on a Japanese classmate.
At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.
With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth–that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.
But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?
From debut author Gloria Chao comes a hilarious, heartfelt tale of how, unlike the panda, life isn’t always so black and white.
A teen outcast is simultaneously swept up in a whirlwind romance and down a rabbit hole of dark family secrets when another Taiwanese family moves to her small, predominantly white midwestern town in this remarkable novel from the critically acclaimed author of American Panda.
Seventeen-year-old Ali Chu knows that as the only Asian person at her school in middle-of-nowhere Indiana, she must be bland as white toast to survive. This means swapping her congee lunch for PB&Js, ignoring the clueless racism from her classmates and teachers, and keeping her mouth shut when people wrongly call her Allie instead of her actual name, pronounced Āh-lěe, after the mountain in Taiwan.
Her autopilot existence is disrupted when she finds out that Chase Yu, the new kid in school, is also Taiwanese. Despite some initial resistance due to the “they belong together” whispers, Ali and Chase soon spark a chemistry rooted in competitive martial arts, joking in two languages, and, most importantly, pushing back against the discrimination they face.
But when Ali’s mom finds out about the relationship, she forces Ali to end it. As Ali covertly digs into the why behind her mother’s disapproval, she uncovers secrets about her family and Chase that force her to question everything she thought she knew about life, love, and her unknowable future.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before meets The Farewell in this “entertaining and nuanced” (Kirkus Reviews) romantic comedy about a college student who hires a fake boyfriend to appease her traditional Taiwanese parents, to disastrous results, from the acclaimed author of American Panda.
Chloe Wang is nervous to introduce her parents to her boyfriend, because the truth is, she hasn’t met him yet either. She hired him from Rent for Your ‘Rents, a company specializing in providing fake boyfriends trained to impress even the most traditional Asian parents.
Drew Chan’s passion is art, but after his parents cut him off for dropping out of college to pursue his dreams, he became a Rent for Your ‘Rents employee to keep a roof over his head. Luckily, learning protocols like “Type C parents prefer quiet, kind, zero-PDA gestures” comes naturally to him.
When Chloe rents Drew, the mission is simple: convince her parents fake Drew is worthy of their approval so they’ll stop pressuring her to accept a proposal from Hongbo, the wealthiest (and slimiest) young bachelor in their tight-knit Asian American community.
But when Chloe starts to fall for the real Drew–who, unlike his fake persona, is definitely not ‘rent-worthy–her carefully curated life begins to unravel. Can she figure out what she wants before she loses everything?
Acclaimed author Gloria Chao creates real-world magic in this luminous romance about teens who devote themselves to granting other people’s wishes but are too afraid to let themselves have their own hearts’ desires–each other.
Liya and Kai had been best friends since they were little kids, but all that changed when a humiliating incident sparked The Biggest Misunderstanding of All Time–and they haven’t spoken since.
Then Liya discovers her family’s wishing lantern store is struggling, and she decides to resume a tradition she had with her beloved late grandmother: secretly fulfilling the wishes people write on the lanterns they send into the sky. It may boost sales and save the store, but she can’t do it alone . . . and Kai is the only one who cares enough to help.
While working on their covert missions, Liya and Kai rekindle their friendship–and maybe more. But when their feuding families and changing futures threaten to tear them apart again, can they find a way to make their own wishes come true?
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