Beyond Boba: Grunge Rock, Taiwanese Democracy, and the Model Minority Myth—in A Kid’s Book


The idea for my first novel for kids, It’s Boba Time for Pearl Li!, came pretty easily. Anti-Asian and Asian American hate had surged in the early days of the pandemic, with its hateful perpetrators demanding that many of us who have lived in the US our entire lives “go home.” To resist their cruelty, I decided to create a sweet, happy, joyful book that showcased a normal, everyday, highly relatable Taiwanese American kid— one who was super proud of her heritage. And what immensely popular, kid-relatable, easily promotable cultural export from my family’s homeland came to mind right away? Pearl milk tea, of course! But for the sake of attracting the modern day kid, I compromised on semantics, and It’s Boba Time for Pearl Li came to life, which features 12-year-old Taiwanese American Pearl Li and her entrepreneurial quest to save her favorite boba tea shop by crafting and selling adorable, kawaii crochet dolls. 

And the reception to my debut novel has been so heartwarming. Tween girls have come up to me at author events to tell me breathlessly, “she looks just like me!” while pointing excitedly at the book cover. (I even met a real life, shy, sweet Pearl Li and got to sign her copy). Adult readers have DMed me to confess that they tried their very first boba after falling in love with the story. The highest praise, however, has been the reaction of my own child and her merry mix of friends, who have each declared that they all want to be authors now, too. And so I had to keep going on my writing journey!

But for my next novel, the ideas didn’t flow as easily. Plus, I had a bolder goal in mind. The horrific Atlanta spa shootings had just happened, and the narrative of Asian Americans as submissive, invisible model minorities who fly under the radar was in full flames. This time, I wanted to feature a Taiwanese American kid who fought, who spoke up, who was bold, brave, and vocal. I wanted to craft a story that actively challenged the status quo, that explicitly broke down stereotypes with cultural nuance, and that, of course, would invite kids to pick it up, fall in love with the story, then engage in dialogue about its themes.

So I did some research. Beyond pearl milk tea and our amazing Taiwanese food and night markets and language, what was being Taiwanese and Taiwanese American about? What was our history? And why should modern kids living in the US, of any heritage and background, care in the first place?

And what a bubble I discovered I had been living in! As a kid and as an adult, I knew that Taiwan was under single-party, authoritative Kuomintang (often shortened to KMT) rule starting in the late 1940s and that my Taiwanese parents still to this day hold a deep mistrust of China and its government. But as I dug into the past, I learned that one of the implications of the KMT dictatorship was that my parents weren’t allowed to speak Taiwanese in school (and were punished if caught). In fact, they had to learn Mandarin, which put them at a disadvantage to their Chinese peers whose parents had arrived in Taiwan from China with the KMT. I learned that speaking up against such injustices wasn’t allowed under any circumstances because of the censorship laws imposed by Chiang Kai Shek’s government, which was solely focused on winning China back from the communists, and that authorities would imprison anyone who demanded change as a challenge to that singular goal. It was a surprise to me also to hear that when my parents immigrated to the States in the late 1970s, they were actually die-hard supporters of Chiang Kai Shek because of the indoctrination they underwent as Taiwanese citizens under the KMT regime. But once out of the shadow of that censorship, their eyes were opened to the hard truth of the government that controlled their lives back in Taiwan. Taiwan ended its martial law period in 1987, and transitioned towards a democracy in 1993, a status that is wholly embraced and celebrated by its modern-day citizens but continues to be under threat by the Chinese government to this day.

With this knowledge, I also looked back at my childhood, which is where I always go when I’m brainstorming ideas for kids’ books. Suddenly pieces that I didn’t even consider as parts of a larger puzzle started to come to light. My immigrant parents pushed me hard to excel in school, which I did without question, wowing my teachers and earning star student status. But my parents’ goal wasn’t necessarily for me to use that privilege to make change happen and fight for others. They didn’t have the luxury, nor the inclination given how suppressed their own voices were, to imbue me with that message. Their hopes and dreams were for their kids to keep our heads down, make it to good colleges and keep excelling so we could have safe, secure futures. 

In contrast to that parental message, I remember how much I loved listening to the big, bold music that was popular in my formative years—Pearl Jam, The Cranberries, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, Alanis Morisette. That music was loud and aggressive, soulful and purposeful. But with the lack of, or grossly offensive BIPOC representation in entertainment in the eighties and nineties, the idea of actually joining my musical heroes’ ranks one day as a female Asian American rock and roll musician didn’t cross my mind. I can’t fathom that my parents would have made that connection, either. In fact, I didn’t realize what I was missing when it came to seeing faces like mine on a TV or movie screen until I found myself bawling at the first scene of Crazy Rich Asians, when Michelle Yeoh properly owns that racist hotel concierge—and in perfect English. 

If I didn’t know or value any of these things as a Taiwanese American kid or adult, there’s a very slim chance that kids of today know any of this fascinating history and context, either. And with the book banning and censorship of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ stories sweeping our nation, continued challenges to basic human rights like women’s control over their own bodies, and new attention given to the importance of diverse representation in media, the history of Taiwan and my own experience as a child of multilingual immigrants hold powerful lessons to teach us here in the US. We mustn’t take our right to free speech, the power of our voices, our demand for diverse representation, and the fight against the suppression of human rights—like the right to a meaningful education, regardless of the languages we speak—for granted.

So in my second novel for kids, Lily Xiao Speaks Out, I rewrote my experience in middle school with what I know now. Lily is a model minority student growing up in the early 1990s, loved by teachers but largely ignored and invisible to her peers, like I was. Her yearning to be bold is reflected in her love of grunge rock, the musical antithesis of the classic Asian violinist or pianist, and she jumps at the opportunity to go to rock and roll camp with her recently immigrated Taiwanese cousin by her side. But when she discovers how hard it is for her non-English-speaking cousin to do well at school because of the lack of English as a Second Language (ESL) support, which was actually commonly inadequately offered in California public schools in the early 1990s, Lily has to decide how far she’ll go against her immigrant family’s wishes to stand up and speak out for those who deserve more.

I’m immensely proud of my first novel, It’s Boba Time for Pearl Li, and I intentionally chose the themes of cute amigurumi crafts, boba, and other yummy Taiwanese desserts like mango shaved ice, aiyu or grass jelly because they’re kid-friendly, accessible ways to draw attention to and spark conversations about Taiwanese culture. But with Lily Xiao Speaks Out, I hope to take the goodwill that It’s Boba Time for Pearl Li! has earned me for a spin and to introduce kids to big, bold concepts like recognizing injustice and taking matters into your own hands to correct it, or wrestling with the dilemma of how to decide who you want to be, even if your family has other ideas.

Because not only can Taiwanese and Asian Americans be artists, entrepreneurs, and boba tea lovers, we can be grunge rockers, star students, and activists for change. We can use our own big, bold voices to speak up and stand out, too. And I hope that Lily Xiao Speaks Out inspires kids to fight sooner than I ever did, simply because they can—and should.

Nicole Chen’s experience growing up Taiwanese American, and the blend of Catalan, Spanish, Taiwanese and American influences in her present home, fuels her desire to write and tell stories that reflect a diverse and multicultural American identity. Nicole lives in sunny California with her Andorran husband and young daughter. Her debut picture book, HOW WE SAY I LOVE YOU, illustrated by Lenny Wen and published by Knopf BFYR (December 2022) was a Target Book Club pick and selected by the Dollywood Foundation for inclusion in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program. Her debut middle grade novel, IT’S BOBA TIME FOR PEARL LI!, from Quill Tree/Harper Collins (February 2023) is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. Her third book, middle grade novel LILY XIAO SPEAKS OUT, will be released on May 7th, 2024. To learn more about Nicole, visit

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