Episode 52 | Loveboat, Taipei: Abigail Hing Wen
None of these stories that I heard in my family were ever things we talked about in school. They weren't in our history textbooks.
Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 52 from Season 4 of Rock The Boat: Making Waves, edited for clarity.
Have you heard of Loveboat? The program's official name is the Overseas Compatriot Youth Taiwan Study Tour. It's a three week summer program for college aged overseas, Chinese and overseas Taiwanese to acquaint or reacquaint with Chinese culture and language by spending time in Taiwan. Essentially it's a Chinese summer language and culture camp for students transitioning from high school to college.
The program was initially created to help strengthen political power for a wing of the Taiwanese government called the Chinese nationalist party, or commonly known as Guomindang or KMT. However, over the years, its purpose has served a completely different result.The summer tour inadvertently has become a debauchery space for reacquainting overseas Chinese with hooking up and finding romance with each other, thus dubbing the program with as affectionate, nickname, Loveboat.
The stories from Loveboat were so compelling that a documentary was made about the program in 2019 and this year in 2020 a young adult novel about that experience was released called "Loveboat, Taipei." Many people call it the young adult version of "Crazy Rich Asians," and the book was recently optioned for a film by the same production company behind To All The boys I Loved Before. In this episode of Rock the Boat, Lucia sat down with the author of the novel, Abigail Hing Wen, for a very candid conversation about her background and about the book.
I. Abigail's Origin Story
Lucia: Abigail, I'm so excited to have you on rock the boat. Do you mind introducing yourself?
Abigail: Sure. Yes. Thank you so much for having me. It's really great to be a part of your podcast. I'm Abigail and I'm the author of "Loveboat, Taipei," which is a novel that came out with Harper Collins on January 7th, so about three months ago. And it's been a really whirlwind experience since then.
Lucia: So we had a conversation last week, and I got a sense of your background. You grew up very multicultural since your parents immigrated from Shandong to the Philippines and then Indonesia, and then to the States.
You talk a bit about growing up in a multicultural family. How has that kind of impacted you and, how did you grapple with your identity growing up?
Abigail: I've loved it. I've loved always growing up knowing that there were so many different sides to every story. I would travel a lot as a child between Ohio and the Philippines where my mom's family was based. And, you know, I would listen in as my aunts and uncles would talk about different conspiracy theories about the United States and just some of the histories of the opium war between China and the British.
And my dad would tell stories about seeing this placard in Shanghai saying, "No dogs and Chinese allowed," and how he would cry.
And so I think I've always had that other perspective, like to compliment the things that I was learning in the United States, going through a very patriotic public school system and learning about the revolutionary war and our founding fathers and all these things that I love as an American.
I think the other piece is that within my own family, we are multicultural with my mom being from a Catholic country, but an immigrant, she's Chinese, Filipino, and now Chinese American and my dad being from a Muslim country as Chinese Indonesian, and then eventually moving to Michigan.
Lucia: I guess as you were listening to these stories and juxtaposing them with what you're learning in school, how did that, make you feel, or did that cause any sort of, tension.
Abigail: That is a really great question. I think especially now that I have book out in the world about a Chinese American girl who goes back to Asia because I think what it was is that my home world and my school world were just completely different. Like none of these stories that I heard in my family were ever things we talked about in school. They weren't in our history textbooks.
So in some ways they, maybe as a child I had this implicit sense that they didn't, they weren't as valid or they didn't matter, or they weren't as important as the things that were actually written in print and English.
II. Abigail becomes a writer
Lucia: So when you said that your family expected you to be in politics, that's actually pretty rare. I'm curious if that was something that your family wanted you to do.
Abigail: I do think my family is quite unusual. When I was growing up, they would go into speak with high school administrators, not about me or my brother and sister, but actually about other immigrant kids in our community who were struggling with the language barrier, whose parents didn't understand the school system. And they would help them.
For me, probably because I was doing things like debate and I was in the dance squad and show choir. And I was kind of a public figure even within my community growing up. I think they saw that as an opportunity to just really be a voice and have a voice. And it wasn't just from them, it was from their friends and who were just really struggling with not having a voice in the United States and just feeling marginalized and unseen and ignored.
Lucia: When did you decide that in order to further my writing experiences, I want to get an MFA. Like what compelled you to do that and how are you able to do that amidst all the things that you were doing? You were raising two kids, you had a law job and you have a husband, which I think is a full time job. So, how did you balance it all?
Abigail: So I felt like I'd hit a ceiling in terms of my growth as a writer. I had sent that second novel into the world. I got an agent with it, came close at a major publishing house and couldn't get through, couldn't get through marketing. And that happened with two more manuscripts.
I went and it was the most amazing creative journey of my life.they really took apart my writing. I remember telling my first advisor, I don't want to learn how to polish my writing and make it look pretty. Cause I've done that my whole life. I want to be an artist. I want to go deeper and find the heart of my work.
And that's what she did for me. She took me all the way down and she said the most important questions to ask are what would it take to break your character? And would you take a bullet for this character? Like you have to love your character that much.
It was really the human side of things.
And in a very strange way, I had always thought like I would quit my job. you know, once my book career started taking off and the reason why I didn't, and I haven't yet. Is because all those years of studying, the craft of writing and the characters and exchanging my work ended up being a study of human nature and what motivates people and what builds relationships and connections and all that ended up being really useful in my job.
Lucia: Can we go back a little bit to that moment when. It was like, what changed? Do like if there was anything like internally or externally that changed, or was it kind of that you were doing incredible work, things just weren't going your way, and then somebody gave you a chance or somebody realized all the work that you were doing and give you a chance
Abigail: It's a great, great question. Cause I don't know if I even know the answer entirely, but I think it was putting myself out there. So even though I lost those two promotions, there were like 35 people applying for each of these jobs and so. I applied and I interviewed with everybody and I got on everyone's radar screen and people were impressed with my work. My problem for both of them was that I wasn't as well known by the decision makers. And so I learned so much from going through that process of applying and putting myself out there and getting rejected.
You just gotta push through it and we got to find ways around it. And so that permission to rock the boat. was revolutionary for me. And then even a writing "Loveboat, Taipei" and realizing, okay, these kids are all rebels.
They're all fighting the system. Like so many people, when I interviewed them, they were actually embarrassed about this.
I'm taking those risks and fighting, and that's what my managers and my mentors have told me that was the biggest takeaway I got. I had mentors telling me that you need to obey the hierarchy. You need to just be a good worker.
Honestly, I would get that advice and that seemed very much consistent with my cultural upbringing. But my new manager, the one I'm with, he was like, "You're going to step on some toes. That's okay. You've been very successful. That's going to attract some resistance."
IV. Telling new Asian American stories
Abigail: The most important part of storytelling, I think, is to connect with readers. And to share and just share truths. so I didn't have a particular message in mind, but I knew I wanted to showcase the diversity of the community and, thinking about like, what are some of the existing stereotypes about Asian Americans based on what the limited portrayal in media and entertainment?
And then, basically choosing characters that I knew. We're counter-cultural. So Rick is a football player at Yale.my husband also played football, in high school and he played sprint football at Princeton, and all his friends were recruited athletes and they're Asian American.
Of course there are Asian-American athletes, and yet you don't really see that represented very much.
And Xavier being an artist and Sophie, she's boy crazy, right? And so I think that's, so that's a real, like, actually, of all my characters, I feel like people are like, all my girlfriends, like, yes, I'm Sophie.
So these are, for me, I think they're all people like you. I know they're not based on real people, but they're people that I know, exist in the community.
Lucia: I think it's fascinating because you are humanizing Asian culture. And you're humanizing the different types of Asian Americans that exist in current culture versus what media used to portray Asian-Americans as, right? So I think there's a couple of stereotypes that Asian American actors always fall into.
What advice would you give to those who are kind of stuck in your previous situation where they have built a career for themselves, are maybe stuck in the nine to five, but have some sort of creative passion. They realize that this nine to five isn't necessarily what is going to sustain them for the long run and they have a creative passion.
Abigail: Maybe two things. One is to get training, the training really matters. I think my MFA program was incredibly useful, but there's other ways to get training from mentors and critique partners. And then yes, put yourself out there. That's what I learned.
It paid off, both in my job and with the writing.
I've been rejected so many times by so many agents and editors. And the funny thing is, I've had work rejected by one agent and then adored by another, and that also made me realize when the agents reject you and say it's subjective, it's so true.
I think just to have confidence in your work, be authentic because if you're imitating everyone else, then you might. Get some traction, but you're not really making the contribution that only you can make.
I think really paying attention to like what is the unique voice that you bring based on all your particular experiences and your background and your family and your culture, and really don't give that up because that's your secret weapon.
Did you go on a Loveboat trip? What was your experience like? Let us know!
Check out Abigail's book "Loveboat, Taipei," and if you make a purchase, please support your local independent bookseller.