Never Have I Ever vs Loveboat, Taipei – Cultural Representation and Resistance.

Loveboat Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen is a New Adult Contemporary Romance about a second generation Chinese American woman who expects to be sent to a strict summer school, but actually goes to the ‘infamous Loveboat’ program in Taiwan.

Never Have I Ever by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher is a Teen Romance Drama on Netflix, about an second generation Indian girl, growing up and finding love after her father’s death.

These stories are not wholly synonymous; there are plenty of elements within them that are vastly different. Ever Wong (Loveboat) grows up in a 2.4 family, understanding that her parents have sacrificed so much to give her the opportunities she has, without the confidence to tell her parents what she actually wants. Abigail Hing Wen described her story as, “a story to showcase more diversity among Asian Americans […] with a cast of over thirty Asian American characters who are simply themselves: funny, quiet, timid, outrageous, sensitive, flirtatious, artistic – and all talented and flawed in their own ways.” Devi (NHIE) is a rambunctious, self-centered comedienne dealing with grief, the pressures placed on her by her overbearing (but sensitive, caring and kind) mother:- which she does not do quietly. In a promotional trailer Kaling said, “In most teen dramas, the nerds are just little losers in the corner. That’s not what we wanted to show. Our nerds are out in the crowds”.

There are enough similarities that I felt warrented comparison. For example:

  • Both narratives are lead by a female protagonist.
  • Both narratives look at second generation Asian women in America
  • Both narratives explore a non-white culture through the eyes of a character ‘caught between’ their family’s traditions, and their cosmopolitan aspirations.
  • Both narratives are driven by a conflict within those characters related to their cultures.

And most importantly: both narratives look to represent the cultures and nationalities within their stories in an honest and authentic way. And I say ‘look to’ because one story manages to do this. And the other does not.

Representation is important. That goes without saying. And as a CIS White Woman, I’m rarely without representation whether it’s on the big screen, little screen, or paperback. This is not the case for Asian women, and even though representation is growing, there isn’t enough. So when I talk about ‘failed representation’, I do so in a commentary ‘3rd party’ capacity. I am actively trying to read less ‘white washed’ narratives. I want to see the publishing and film industry run with own voices, and voices of colour. But as I started to read Loveboat, I knew something with off. And I started doing my research.

I related to Ever in a way. The Immagrant story, the guilt, your parents, the expectations they place on you, identity, the disconnect. But these issues are glanced over, too rushed.

Warda, Goodreads

There are expectations that we will be immersed in Chinese culture. Indeed, to a limited extent we are exposed to its certain aspects […] such as some basic Chinese and calligraphy. We don’t get an authentic cultural immersion experience, which I found a shame considering the potential.

Jenny

I am Asian myself and I do speak Chinese. I couldn’t help by notice that quite a few of the Chinese references are inaccurate. Please tell me I’m not the only one who realised Xiǎo péngyǒu does NOT mean little friends. It means children. It pains me to see the author keeps calling these 18+ y/o adults LITTLE CHILDREN.

Yannes

It didn’t take me long to realise that the majority of the positive reviews for Loveboat were from white readers. And many of those giving Loveboat one or two stars were Asian readers. You know, those LOOKING for representation. There were other complaints about how badly the author looked at depression, dyslexia and victim shaming. Which I’m sure I could write another essay on (possibly with more success than this post). And as I continued reading, I couldn’t help by make comparisons to Never Have I Ever. The only person surprised by the success of NHIE is Mindy Kaling herself. Audiences and critics alike have praised the series for it’s entertaining authenticity and charm.

So let’s take another look at those earlier comparisons:
Both narratives are lead by a female protagonist: NHIE has a strong female collective, and only two male perspectives which we see (once they’ve been established through the MC’s gaze). Devi is opinionated, brash, rude, honest, confident, and awkward. (Which could also be used to describe every teenager I ever taught). Ever begins her story as quiet, unassuming, lying to her parents and pressured by them and, for the most part, inherently bland. I haven’t read far enough into the story to see if this changes, and I don’t care enough at this point to try.

Both narratives look at second generation Asian women in America:
Ever is raised by a God-fearing Christian woman, who shows through her overbearing actions how much she’s willing to sacrifice for her family. Devi is raised by a Hindu woman who still believes, but feels abandoned after her husband passes away. A woman who constantly pushed and fought against her daughter, and carries the guilt with her because of the things that were said before Devi’s father died suddenly. She’s willing to sacrifice so much for her family too. And both mothers are Queens.

Both narratives explore a non-white culture through the eyes of a character ‘caught between’ their family’s traditions, and their cosmopolitan aspirations:
There are three white characters in NHIE.
Ben Gross, the Jewish competitor and long standing rival of Devi. [SPOILER ALERT] And potentially my favourite Rivals to Lovers storyline to date.
Eve, the LGBTQ love interest for one of the main characters, who is also Jewish.
And Mr Shapiro. Who is every ‘White Knight Woke-Man’ rolled into one cringe worthy string bean. (And I mean that with love and affection. His dialogue is so bad it hurts, and I love it.)
Every other character is a POC. They all have their quirks, and their culture. Some of them resist, some of them indulge. And because it’s a comedy, there is no shortage of parody and irony designed to entertain rather than hurt. The whole series is thoughtful, well-crafted, funny and YES I CRIED, OKAY!? ARE YOU HAPPY?! Ahem*

Both narratives are driven by a conflict within those characters related to their cultures:
One of my favourite scenes in NHIE is when Devi is openly mocking traditional Indian dancing at a Hindu festival, and she’s immediately shot down for it. I love this for several reasons. The first is, there are some people who do not like the culture/race/religion they’re brought up in, and there are some that do. And there are some caught between what they’re expected to be, and what they want to be. And this short scene with maybe two or three lines of dialogue encompasses all of that. Another reason is, both characters speaking are correct. The writers do not shame either character for having that opinion. Whilst feeling like an outsider is the key theme of the episode, fundamentally, all three Jagannathan women (Devi, her mother, and her cousin) feel feel the push/pull of being caught between two cultures, regardless of their age and experiences. And thirdly, it’s inherently relatable to enjoy slamming something, right up until someone who cares about the thing you’re slamming checks you.

Because the opening chapters are from Ever’s perspective, we have to infer the struggle and perspective and fear her family feels. She hides from the conflict behind a false selflessness which doesn’t translate on the page particularly well. And because so much of her story is away from her parents, we’re unlikely to see her grow and understand her culture in the same way we see it in NHIE.

Conclusion:

I binged Never Have I Ever across two days. (I had to work… otherwise it would have been one) and I’m DNF’ing Loveboat Taipei. I want to read more Asian voices. I want to be entertained, but not at the expense of authenticity. And if the Asian community tell you that a book is a poor representation of their culture, I’m going to believe them.

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