David Tung lives in an affluent New Jersey town and attends a Saturday Chinese school in New York’s Chinatown. More immediately, he can’t have a girlfriend, say his parents, until he gets into an Ivy League college. His is a familiar story in young adult literature: strict parents, Ivy League aspirations, and cut-throat competition with other classmates. But Ed Lin’s new young adult novel, David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets into an Ivy League College, is also a story of a teen who finds himself “in-between”.
David’s not one of the popular students in his predominantly Asian suburban high school, but he is ranked in the top ten of his class, with hopes to climb even higher his sophomore year. When Christina Tau—both popular and intelligent—asks him to a turnabout dance, David finds himself pulled in opposite directions. His parents won’t let him date, but he’s willing to defy them and sneak out to the dance. Yet he cannot afford to buy or rent a designer tuxedo on Christina’s list of approved haute couture designers; he can’t even afford a suit from Men’s Wearhouse. David’s non-doctor, non-lawyer parents own a Chinese restaurant. David can’t help but often think about this disparity.
Christina still had ski lift tags on the zipper of her winter jacket from a Christmas trip to the Alps. I’d never even been on a plane, never mind a vacation. Me sneaking out for the dance would be my first night off from Tung’s Garden since my last winter track meet.
His mother nixes the date with Christina Tau. David finds respite at his Saturday Chinese School in gritty Chinatown:
What I like about Chinese school is precisely that I don’t have to try to be perfect all the time when I’m there. I worry about my class rank every day during the week. Seriously. Every single day, all week long. I don’t need that all weekend, too.
Still, he views himself as different from the other Chinese school students, mainly children of restaurant workers. And David’s parents immigrated from Taiwan, whereas his Chinese school friends are mostly Cantonese. At break time on Saturdays, David and the guys go out on the fire escape to smoke. David dreams of becoming a doctor and studies MCAT review questions in his free time, but smokes with his friends for the camaraderie.
Our smoking thing had started about a year ago when Andy’s family was trying to get his grandmother to quit. That led to Andy walking around Chinese school with a whole bag of Zhongnanhai packs, which he was hiding for his grandmother while his parents searched their apartment. Seeing them, Chun had grabbed a pack, lit one up, and challenged the rest of us to try something real Chinese people smoke.
His thwarted date with Christina also coincides with romantic feelings for Betty Jung, a classmate at Chinese school. Betty dreams of going to business school and is the top student at Chinese school. But she actually enjoys learning and doesn’t put pressure on herself to be the best. David ends up learning more life lessons from Betty and his other Chinatown friends than from acing tests in high school.
Ed Lin is known for his two mystery series set in New York and Taipei, but he started out in young adult fiction almost twenty years ago with Waylaid. His new young adult novel is an updated coming of age story that brings hope to teens navigating the “in-between”.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.