‘Frankly In Love’ Shows Why 2nd-Generation Asian Americans Need Each Other

To be 2nd generation Asian American is to be a lost generation. 'Frankly In Love' is one of the most generous explorations into this truth.

9 months ago

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*This review contains spoilers*

When I first heard of Frankly In Love, I was skeptical. The synopsis went something like this: Frank Li is a Korean American teenager and his parents want him to only date nice Korean girls, but he’s fallen for a white girl, Brit Means. So he and his best friend Joy Song (who’s also Korean and dating a non-Korean) concoct a fake dating scheme so their parents’ suspicions will be allayed.

Much has been written about minority men’s idealization of white women and despite some occasional double standards (i.e. minority women refusing to be as critical of their own idealization of white men), it is a legitimate criticism. How can there be a true sense of community when half of your group is made to feel like shit compared to their white counterparts?

I feared the worst, so much so that I was compelled to tweet this for the record:

But now having read the book, I’m so glad I can say that the story is so much more than that synopsis. Not only is the story not an example of white idealization, but it is also the most modern and insightful exploration of Asian American love, whether romantic, platonic, or familial. The only other Asian American novel I’ve read that does something similar is the excellent Free Food For Millionaires, but that was mainly from a young Asian American woman’s perspective in 1990s New York City. Frankly In Love, with its 2010s teenage Asian American male point of view, adds another much-needed piece to the puzzle.

Frank is the younger child of Korean immigrant parents in Southern California. He’s a good student with realistic aspirations for elite universities. Most of his friends, like Q (his best friend) and Brit (for whom he develops feelings) come from his advanced math class. But Frank also dreams of becoming an electronic music composer, one of many differences he has with his parents who run a modest convenience store. Aside from his school friends, Frank also has a secret social group, which he calls the Gathering. It’s a group consisting of a few Korean American families that immigrated at the same time and every so often, they have dinner at each others’ homes with the kids somewhat reluctantly dragged along. This is how Frank knows Joy.

Frank’s parents have already cut off contact with his older sister because she got into a serious relationship with a black man. The pressure is thus intensified on Frank to follow his parents’ wishes on whom he dates and marries in order to preserve family cohesion and the community’s legacy. So when Frank falls for Brit, who’s white, he’s in quite a bind. But luckily for him, Joy is in a similar situation where she knows her parents wouldn’t approve of her Chinese American boyfriend, Wu. Knowing that their parents have always wished for them to end up to together, Frank and Joy decide to fake-date each other. Consequently, their once-strict parents let them go out whenever they want. It would be the perfect plan, if it not for the fact that Frank and Joy start falling for each other.

There is a thrill of discovering for yourself what it means to be Asian. For many 2nd-generation Asian Americans (those born in America to immigrant parents), our Asianness is something can feel imposed upon from above, a set of obligations with few benefits. Sometimes, even our parents don’t appear to believe in it. Frank’s mother insists that he only date Korean girls but also exalts “big eyes,” a feature that we Asians commonly associate with white people. There is a cognitive dissonance that never gets resolved. Even the very act of immigration presents the question, “If Asia was so great, why didn’t you guys stay there?”

Photo of Korean cart pulled by mule
Korea in the 1970s—Source: Vintag.es

We can’t exactly blame immigrant parents for being so terrible at selling the idea of Asianness. It’s unfair to expect them to be experts at navigating the American racial system, on top of all the other bullshit they have to deal with as immigrants. Nevertheless, 2nd-generation Asian Americans grow up seeing how our parents’ foreignness makes them targets of disrespect and even violence. Not only that, but our parents’ own concept of Asianness is an anachronism from when they immigrated (i.e. the Immigrant Time Warp). Why would any identity-confused, American-born Asian kid want to be a part of all that?

What is the duty of 2nd-generation Asian Americans in preserving and carrying on their parents’ legacy? This is one of the central questions in the novel. Immigrant parents, including my own, often accuse their children of hypocritically hand-picking what they want from Asian and American cultures, like a la carte Catholics. But as Frank notes, his parents do exactly the same thing. They moved to America for certain benefits, but they also want to preserve their vestigial legacy of a time-warped bubble reflecting the now-disappeared Korea they once knew (and left). Frank’s parents demand that their children to carry on this legacy and Frank questions why, especially when the rest of America is demanding the exact opposite: assimilation. Conservatives overtly require it, while liberals have their own nicer sounding language of “diversity.”

However, diversity can be defined in many ways. In its popular manifestation, this ideal also demands that minorities buy into a white-defined model of social inclusivity that requires minorities to break ties with our own groups in hopes of being selected into a new post-racial class. Infighting results from the ensuing rat race, thus the frequent fights (often splitting along gender and/or class lines) within all minority communities with respect to white acceptance.

But of course, our parents are not the be-all end-all of what it means to be Asian. Frank discovers this through his budding relationship with Joy. At first, he sees her simply as a childhood friend whom he knows because of their parents. It’s never explicitly stated, but it’s quite possible that she represents the Korean American bubble from which he wants to escape, which is why he doesn’t interact with her outside of the Gatherings, even though they go to the same school. It is a 2nd-generation Asian American rite of passage to not want to be associated with other Asian Americans, especially romantically. To do so means meekly acquiescing to our parents, or not being good enough to gain mainstream acceptance, or being yet another boring robotic Asian. Some grow out of this. Many don’t.

A lesser story would’ve had Frank reconcile this conflict in a suitably assimilationist way. Maybe Brit would’ve learned how to appreciate cheonggukjjang and all would be well: “The white person loves our stuff, even the weird stuff!”

Photo of Cheonggukjjang
Cheonggukjjang is good—Source: Maangchi

But Frankly In Love dares to suggest that actually, you can’t separate culture and community from the people, especially from a minority people going through similar struggles. In the beginning, what draws Frank to Brit is her white-girl confidence. On one of their first dates, he watches in stunned fashion as she casually breaks in and out of cars. He adores how open she is with her progressive creative-class parents. In contrast, he communicates with his storekeeper parents in broken English-Korean (that is, when they communicate at all). He also thinks his parents are racists.

Frank sees how Brit is part of the majority and thus, belongs everywhere. But this is also something that eventually drives him away. He recognizes that unlike him, Brit fits in everywhere and while she may be able to bring him along, there will be a cost. What that cost is, it’s not easy for him to articulate. But whatever it is, it’s a loss he doesn’t feel when he’s with Joy. In a strange alchemy, what he and Joy lack together actually adds up to be a powerful bond.

This is, in essence, the completely unexplored topic of Yellow Love. Whereas other minority communities openly celebrate in-group relationships as defiant resistance to assimilationist pressures, (yellow) Asian Americans have been much more reluctant to do so. We 2nd-generation Asian Americans are always talking about what misunderstood outcasted freaks we are. There is truth to this. We will never exist again. Our children, unlike us, will have the benefit of parents who feel at home at home. We are a lost generation that was handed a blank map from birth. Shouldn’t misunderstood outcasted freaks find solace in the only other misunderstood outcasted freaks that can get us: other 2nd-generation Asian Americans? That’s the most fucking romantic story of all.

Photo of Yeouido, Seoul
Yeouido, Seoul (2011)

There are two memorable scenes between Frank and Joy that illustrate these points. The first is when Frank’s dad is hospitalized after being shot. Upon seeing Joy interact with his parents in such a fraught and personal moment, he begins to genuinely see why his parents want him to be with someone like Joy. It’s not that his parents’ desires are completely free of selfish or prejudiced ideas, but they’re also not just 100% incorrigibly backwards and insular. It’s okay to be with Brit, but he will lose certain things, no matter how well she can say gamsahapnida to Frank’s parents.

The other scene is when Frank and Joy attend a Korean festival in Los Angeles. Once unmoored from parental expectations, Asianness turns out to be immensely appealing. Frank even takes it upon himself to try speaking Korean, something he avoided with his parents because he found it infantilizing.

When Frank and Joy fuck, it’s the ultimate fuck-you to the established rules. It’s the rule that says every other Asian looks like your brother or sister. It’s the rule that says every good Asian American should seek to be validated by those outside our community. It’s the rule that says independent Asian girls with green-flecked hair (like Joy) or Asian boys who love avant-garde electronic music (like Frank) cannot possibly want to fuck and love anyone who looks like them.

This isn’t to say that Frankly In Love is a tome exclusively dedicated to Yellow Love. In fact, in the end, there’s some hint that Frank will end up with Q’s sister Evon, which is appropriate given David Yoon’s own marriage. But the novel at least establishes that there is something beautiful to be shared between two 2nd-generation Asian Americans and that in and of itself is quite revolutionary.

It also matters that Frankly In Love is the rare novel from a young Asian American man’s point of view. If Asian Americans are the invisible minority, then there is a particular invisibility of Asian American men. In broad political and social terms, we clearly don’t fit on the xenophobic right. Yet our model minority status means our race alone has little value on the left. It often has to be bolstered by gender or sexual orientation. As an Asian American woman, Akrypti, once wrote in an article for 8Asians:

Straight APA men are not a part of any white-backed movement and as a result, do not have any affiliations, sympathies, or mainstream support.

This is not meant to inflame any intra-POC gender wars that we often see when diverse narratives are put forth. But it is to simply state the fact that for young straight Asian American men, it’s been very difficult to find much that represents our experiences, especially in modern literature. A William & Mary study showed that:

In another study, 326 people (including male, female and black, white and Asian participants) were asked to write a short story about a typical college senior taking a trip. Overall, participants were more likely to create a male character. Asked to create a black character, the participants often thought of a man, and, asked to think of an Asian character, they were more likely to think of a woman, compared to people who wrote about a white character.

Both of Schug’s studies align with the theories of gendered race and intersectional invisibility, the professors said.

All this makes the first-person narrative of Frankly In Love jarring, in the best sense. I’ve always believed that at the root of young Asian American male discontent was a feeling of cultural and social exile. In online spaces, the anger is often focused on humiliating media representation or the disproportionate frequency of white man/Asian woman couples. These topics dominate because they are some of the most everyday manifestations of this feeling of invisibility. With regards to the dating issue, there is certainly a set of misogynistic Asian men who simply want to rage at women (as they exist in all racial groups). But the vast majority would rather just be heard. Most people would agree that Asian American men and women have very different experiences. If that is the case, Asian American men have every right to tell our side of the story.

Screenshot of "Frankly In Love" trailer
From the book trailer

That is not to say that the Asian American male perspective has to exclude or denigrate Asian American women. The beauty of Frankly In Love is in its generosity of including as many segments of Asian America as possible. Asian American women and girls are irreplaceable in this narrative. Frank’s mother isn’t killed off or neatly caricaturized as an unassimilable horror. Frank’s older sister is held up as his omnipresent role model. And most crucially, the Asian American girls of Frank’s age are not presented as obstacles on his path to self-actualization. Even though he doesn’t immediately see Joy in a romantic light, that isn’t her only relevance. She exists as someone with her own dreams, thoughts, and relationships.

This generosity is also extended to the parents. Frank and his fellow 2nd-generation Asian American friends characterize their parents as racists, but this is never presented as fact. Yoon deftly includes a scene where Frank’s parents show genuine respect and care for their working-class black and Latinx customers, including employing an ex-con whom they feel got a raw deal from the courts. Yes, they have flawed generalized views on other minorities, but for all of Frank’s lofty views on racial equality, the only black people he knows are his best friend Q (a proud nerd who realistically aims for a perfect SAT score) and his professional-class family.

Frank’s dad is also a passionate lover of English poets like John Donne. There are depths to his parents that Frank realizes he’ll never know. During a bitter argument between his parents and the Songs (a sequence that is amazingly presented in untranslated Korean, which I was unduly proud to have understood), Frank can’t even understand what’s being said. Later, he realizes that if he has children of his own, he will never be able to tell them much about their grandparents.

I’m not sure if it’s an encouraging sign or an indictment that a YA novel is the one to take such a careful and nuanced exploration of Asian America. I’m just glad that such a book exists, especially for young Asian Americans. Yes, we 2nd-generation Asian Americans are a lost generation. But let’s embrace that and find comfort in those that share our experiences because we are not alone.


Follow Chris on Twitter: @JesuInToast


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Chris Jesu Lee

Published 9 months ago