A new young adult novel centers around the coming-of-age, nostalgia-inducing study-abroad program so many Taiwanese Americans colloquially refer to as “Love Boat.”
“Loveboat, Taipei,” released this month, follows 18-year-old Ever Wong as she gets a taste of freedom during her summer in Taiwan. Abigail Hing Wen, who wrote the novel, was once a participant in the program herself and told NBC News that the experience helped her better understand different aspects of her Asian American identity.
“I grew up in Ohio, so I wasn't actually that familiar with Asian culture, and I was actually embarrassed about it,” Wen explained. “It was really eye-opening for me to meet all these really cool Asian Americans who were super excited about their culture."
The program "was really healing in that sense of your identity,” she said.
The program, formally called “The Overseas Compatriot Youth Formosa Study Tour to Taiwan,” is well known in Asian American circles, with many prominent alumni, including Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif. While the Taiwanese government-backed program was meant to drum up support for the island among diaspora youth, the trip was better known for the salacious revelry that took place among the participants. There was drinking and mischief, and teenage debauchery, all taking place away from the watchful eyes of strict Asian parents.
One of the most infamous aspects of the program, and the primary reason for its unofficial moniker, was the young budding romances that formed over those six weeks every year. Though the flings may be reminiscent of virtually any summer camp, the concept of love between Asians can feel somewhat revolutionary given how rarely it’s depicted in media. Asian men have historically been portrayed as emasculated, undesirable nerds, and Asian women have been stereotyped as exotic, hypersexual creatures. However, complex, loving relationships between Asians, while not uncommon in reality, remain largely absent from entertainment.
Wen, who made it a point to weave intimate scenes into the book for this very reason, explained that the romance on the trip was eye-opening and provided proof of just how falsely Asians have been represented on screen. She said in the actual program, there was quite a bit of dating, breaking up and making up among a wide range of personalities.
“This is the reality of our world. Asian guys are just as diverse as everyone else,” she said.
The author also noted that the romances and flirtation on the trip provided her with an opportunity to redefine herself in her own mind. With few Asians in her community, and barely any accurate reflections of Asians on-screen, Wen said she was often described in two-dimensional tropes like “porcelain doll” or even “another Asian girl” and subsequently “grew up really androgynous and felt not attractive at all because nobody would date me in Ohio.”
“Me, being off in my little world, I just never felt pretty. So to go into an environment where ... I just felt really seen, where boys had crushes on me and girls would say, ‘Hey, you look like an Asian Janet Jackson,' and it was so specific and weird and cool because no one had ever said that to me,” she said.
Another defining takeaway from the trip, Wen says, was rebellion. She explained that there was a lot of sneaking out of campus, dodging counselors, and other acts of defiance. She said that, as someone who ended up working in Silicon Valley — where Asians are the least likely group, compared to other races, to be promoted from individual contributor roles to management — the skill of resisting the system actually became important to her down the road.
“I've been in venture capital for a long time and we were always looking for disruptive leaders, people who are willing to push against the status quo,” she said. “That’s what Love Boat did for me and for a lot of others. We were able to rebel in a safe environment. And learn that that's OK. And there are consequences, but maybe not as bad as you think.”