As Chloe Wang prepares to leave her University of Chicago campus for a long Thanksgiving break back home in California, she packs a suitcase, turns in her assignments, and hires a fake boyfriend to join her family’s holiday celebration. The practice of renting a boyfriend may raise eyebrows in the US, but has in recent years become something young women in Asia resort to in order to avoid the usual barrage of personal questions from relatives during family holidays like the Lunar New Year.
In Rent a Boyfriend, a bubbly romantic comedy, Chloe Wang doesn’t just want to drive her own romantic narrative. She also wants to thwart her parents’ plans for her to marry chauvinistic Hongbo Kuo, the son of wealthy family friends. So Chloe turns to the company, Rent for Your ’Rents, to hire someone to pose as her boyfriend. Enter Andrew Chan.
College students like Chloe and Andrew rarely figure in young adult fiction, but Gloria Chao paved the way for this age group in her debut YA novel, American Panda. Now with Rent a Boyfriend, she sticks with college students, but Andrew at twenty-one may be the first leading character in YA old enough to drink in the United States.
Andrew, who goes by Drew outside his work as a fake boyfriend, poses as a University of Chicago senior in the midst of medical school applications. He speaks Taiwan-accented Mandarin, as do the Wangs, and he arrives at their house with a bag of fancy mooncakes. Chloe’s dentist parents approve of Andrew’s manners and ambitions, but they would surely kick him out of their house if they knew that the real Drew was a college dropout and aspiring artist.
But for the time being, he serves his purpose and even goes along with the interesting fusion concoctions Chloe’s mom puts together for their first break at that Wang house.
Andrew bit into a scrambled egg, ketchup, and Kraft Single sandwich on pan-fried raisin bread drizzled in ginger honey. How he didn’t spit it out immediately was beyond my taste buds and certainly made me feel better about his backbreaking price.
When Chloe’s father brings Andrew to his clinic for an emergency dental procedure, he thinks Drew will enjoy the experience; any aspiring surgeon would. But Drew can barely stand to enter the clinic, let alone assist Dr Wang in a procedure involving a cesspool of germs.
In my year and a half at Rent for Your ’Rents, I had been covered in spit, yes (when Michelle’s mother yelled at me about the soaps and a spray accompanied every third consonant), had worn a mask, yes (at Grace’s house, because her nainai was a hundred and we all had to cover up so she wouldn’t get sick), but no, I’d never been covered in spit while wearing a mask that suddenly felt too thin. All while holding tools in a stranger’s mouth.
Drew returns for more holidays, namely Christmas and the Lunar New Year. But as the lies pile up and their relationship blossoms—in real life—they find themselves digging a deeper hole of deception. Getting out of marriage with Hongbo is one thing, but Chloe’s left with the problem convincing her parents that the real Drew is right for her.
Gloria Chao is known for her inter-generational tales of young adult angst when it comes to balancing Chinese traditions with western customs. In Rent a Boyfriend, she draws from some personal experiences, although she has never rented a boyfriend herself (she’s long been married to her college sweetheart). But she did try to please her parents by studying business at MIT and later training as a dentist. In dental school, she learned that germs and pus were not her thing. It was at that time that she turned to young adult fiction—as a reader—to mentally escape the world of fillings and root canals.
Any number of Asian cultural practices from Tik Tok videos to wearing masks are increasingly commonplace and accepted in American society as well. Rent a Boyfriend is a fun, romantic comedy, but perhaps it’s also a leading indicator of yet another new trend as well.