Fiction

Interview: Gloria Chao on Love and Romance in the Asian Diaspora

In Gloria Chao’s third YA novel Rent A Boyfriend, University of Chicago freshman Chloe Wang suddenly has to worry about more than grades when her parents start pressuring her to date an insufferable rich boy from their tightly knit Chinese-American community. In an attempt to assuage her parents, Chloe hires “Andrew,” a professional actor trained to stand-in as a perfect suitor to appease parents like Chloe’s. But “Andrew” turns out to be more than just a good actor. Soon, Chloe’s best-laid plans unravel as she gets to know not just her fake boyfriend, but her own heart, and those of her parents’.

Book Cover. RENT A BOYFRIEND in white cursive over a happy Asian couple, the man leaning into kiss the girl's cheek as her hair spins and she smiles with joy

Terry Galvan: You’ve pivoted careers from dentist to writer. How did that come to pass?

Gloria Chao: For most of my life, I wasn’t much of a reader and didn’t think of myself as a writer. I focused on math and science growing up, studied business at MIT, and went to dental school. But while studying dentistry, I developed a hatred for germs. I was so miserable that the one thing that got me through was reading. I fell in love with young adult books. It was my husband who first suggested I try writing. The idea sounded so foreign to me, but I started writing for myself, to work through some of my own struggles. Eventually, I would dream of getting published. It has been a long and winding journey, but I wouldn’t have found my way here if my life hadn’t taken all those turns.

You take some very serious, often painful, personal stuff, and make it into YA novels with bright pink covers and a perky sense of humor. What’s the experience like of writing/balancing those two aspects?

As a reader, I love humor in all types of books, and as a writer, I feel that serious moments are more impactful when they are balanced with humor. Additionally, I write a lot of my struggles into my stories, and viewing them with a sense of humor helps me personally.

For most of my novels, the subject matter lends itself to both serious and humorous material. Rent a Boyfriend is based on a real practice in many Asian countries where some women feel so much pressure to bring home the perfect boyfriend that they turn to hiring fake ones from a company or classified ads. This creates a complicated family dynamic to explore as well as fun humorous comedy-of-error situations. For example, I played around with Drew’s fake identity, having Chloe’s dentist father bring aspiring surgeon Andrew to the office for an emergency procedure. Real Drew is disgusted by the spit and blood flying around and almost blows his cover.

These familial struggles exist not just in Asian-American communities, but everywhere—including my own. Heck, I would have rented a boyfriend at 19!

That has been one of the coolest parts about writing. I hear from people of all different ages and backgrounds about how they related to certain pieces of my books. Everything from relating to the fairly universal experience of not wanting to disappoint your loved ones or struggling to communicate, to the mother constantly leaving voicemails for the main character. One reader joked with me, Did you somehow transcribe all my mother’s voicemails from my phone? Another reader thanked me for writing a sweaty girl who got the guy.

Your acknowledgement sections mention that you consult with your parents as you’re writing. How do those conversations go?

Some of the questions are about traditions and a lot are about Mandarin. I think in what a lot of Chinese Americans call “Chinglish.” In particular, I use a lot of Chinese words in otherwise English sentences when the Chinese word has no good translation. The two languages are so different that a lot of very bizarre grammar questions arise. I joked in the acknowledgments of Our Wayward Fate that no one has discussed the usage of the Mandarin phrase tīnghùa as much as my father and I have. My mom often jokes that she’s never had to think about any of these things before, and she enjoys the challenge. I love that the books give us a reason to chat on the phone more often and about fun things!

What’s your favorite folktale or what’s your favorite Chinglish phrase?

 My second book, Our Wayward Fate, is based on my favorite folktale, “The Butterfly Lovers.” It’s one of China’s Four Great Folktales and has famous movies, plays, operas, music, and more associated with it. I grew up with the story and Our Wayward Fate is my fictional version of it. My fourth book (which is set in Chicago!) will also pay tribute to another one of my favorite Chinese folktales, “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.”

One of my favorite Mandarin phrases that shows up in many of my works is rènào. It represents the buzzing and high energy of a crowded, lively room, and that one phrase evokes a feeling for me that takes many more English words to describe.

Another favorite Mandarin word that I like to work into English sentences is featured in Rent a Boyfriend. When Drew and Chloe are eating hot pot, he scoops something out of the boiling water and uses the word lāo, which means to fish something out of water.

Book cover, white writing over an image of a tree with the afternoon sun behind it and the silhouette of a dark-haired girl in a jean jacket with her back to the viewer, gazing up at the tree

That’s a delightful part of your writing style—having two different arsenals of words at your disposal. It was really pretty. I was learning things, but also very much in the room with them.

Thank you. That means a lot. It takes a lot of work to structure it in a way to make sure readers can pick it up while reading, so I’m glad it paid off.

I was going to ask about one that’s a bit more serious. In Rent a Boyfriend, it becomes the main conflict—the one that means, “saving face.” I feel like you explained it really well to an audience that’s not familiar with it. Making it into the main conflict was brilliant because then you can see the clear consequences, as plot and action and irony. How do some immigrants coming over here adapt coming from those kinds of norms? How do you negotiate that kind of difference of values within a family?

Miànzi. There’s a lot to unpack in such a small phrase, and it’s difficult to get all the nuances. Miànzi is the reason that Chloe and Drew’s communities growing up are so different. Chloe’s community is extremely focused on “saving face” and their reputation whereas Drew’s was not. Chloe’s community is more cutthroat, trying to one-up one another, and resulting in the kids competing.

I grew up in several tight-knit Chinese American communities. Some of them were like Drew’s, very supportive and nurturing, while some were like Chloe’s. I drew from different aspects of my experiences because I wanted to represent the range that is out there.

I’m glad to hear that you’re drawing on multiple different parts of the diaspora. It’s easy for outsiders to develop overly simplified ideas, like for example, “Chinese people think pears mean this” when in fact there’s a lot of different ideas about what pears might mean among diaspora members.

The scene you’re referencing in Rent A Boyfriend is when Drew brings Korean pears as a gift for Chloe’s parents. His family views this as an expensive and treasured gift because one of the things they missed most after immigrating was the fruit they could get in Taiwan. Giving an Asian pear from overseas is giving someone a piece of home. But Chloe’s parents believe that giving pears to someone is wishing for them to have a falling out with a loved one because the Mandarin phrase for pear is a homonym for separate.

With this, I wanted to show the multitudes of diaspora, how traditions evolve and one cannot predict which traditions they’ve come across in their lives, or which they let go and which they’ve held onto.

Chloe’s mother was also one of my favorite parts. She’s described as being either so polite it was fake or so honest you wished she’d lie. She was such a good character and she was in so much pain too. How did you come up with her character?

Thank you so much! From the start, I knew that Chloe and her parents had to be close and that her parents had to put a lot of pressure on her, enough that she would turn to hiring Drew. The mom came to me pretty fleshed out, and I loved writing her dialogue and antics. For example, she continually tells Chloe “no hanky-panky” but she also wants to buy Chloe sexy underwear in case they peek out—a perfect example of how she cares a lot about miànzi and how other people see them.

Do you have any thoughts on healthy ways to manage this kind of mother-daughter relationship?

At the end of Rent a Boyfriend, Chloe realizes that while her mom does irritate her, she wants her mom to be herself, just like she’s learned to do. It’s an interesting conundrum. She understands where her mother comes from and the traditions her mother was brought up with, but it doesn’t mean things aren’t hard for her at the same time.

It’s a difficult question that I don’t have a black-and-white answer to. In fact, that’s exactly why I write about these types of complicated relationships—because there is no easy answer. I believe the best you can do is try to communicate on your end.

You said you got into YA around when you started writing. Who are your favorite YA authors?

I have so many! Let’s start with some of my favorite Chicago authors. For fantasy and magical realism, Rena Barron, Kat Cho, and Crystal Cestari. For contemporary, Samira Ahmed, Ronni Davis, Stephanie Kate Strohm, Michelle Falkoff, Adi Alsaid. For thriller, Kimberly Gabriel, Amelia Brunskill, and Caleb Roerhig.

A non-exhaustive list of more favorite contemporary authors: Kelly Loy Gilbert, Julian Winters, Sandhya Menon, Emily X.R. Pan, Rachel Lynn Solomon, Emiko Jean, Axie Oh, Lyla Lee, Akemi Dawn Bowman, Sarah Suk, Suzanne Park, Ariel Kaplan, Nicola Yoon, David Arnold.

A nonexhaustive list of more favorite fantasy writers: Elizabeth Lim, Lori M. Lee, Cindy Pon, Julie Dao.

You mentioned your Chicago writer group in your acknowledgements as well. How did you meet this group?

Many of us met when we were just getting agents. We all attended Book Expo America when it was in Chicago and met at a gathering of authors and aspiring authors. Once we realized we were all around the same stage of the process and in the same city, we started meeting regularly for brunch.

It’s nice to have a group because publishing can be so lonely sometimes. It’s wonderful to be able to cheer each other on, commiserate, and share knowledge.

That’s such a dream come true, to be able to go to a conference and walking out with a support network.

Definitely. I was very alone walking in. I didn’t know anyone in the industry before that.

Especially doing the career change from dentistry into writing.

Yes!

To finish off, I have some superficial questions. Are there any Chicago-area Chinese cultural events or Taiwanese-American that you’d like to tell people about?

People ask me a lot where to get the best dumplings. My favorite spot is QXY dumplings in Chinatown. They have lamb dumplings that are out of this world! You can also get frozen ones to make at home. Taipei Cafe in Chinatown has wonderful Taiwanese food, and a lot of the items they offer are mentioned in my books. Te’Amo Boba Bar is delicious and they have honey-soaked boba—one of my favorite places to get boba tea.

Chatting with you, you seem like a very fun person. Would love to meet in real life for boba or something.

Thank you so much. I had such a blast talking to you, and boba would be so much fun!

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