Written by Maddie Chia
Graphic by Paris Robson
Lara Jean Song Covey and Me was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
CW: Internalised racism.
In 2016, I picked up Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series, and was irrevocably changed. This series has been pivotal in shaping how I view myself as an Asian-Australian.
I stumbled across the series by accident while perusing a bunch of indie book review blogs. They all raved about this revolutionary book staring a half-Korean, half-American protagonist. The photos posted with the reviews featured a beautiful Asian girl on the front cover.
I was awestruck. One might even say I was in love.
It was beautiful. It was everything I needed during that time in my life – I had just never realised it.
Ever since I was a little girl, I dreamed of having my own love story (I still do – albeit with some differences). I dreamed of having a handsome prince sweep me off my feet on a white horse and ride off into the sunset. I grew up surrounded by Barbie movies and Disney Princesses, and I wanted to be them – it was all I wanted. I believed that to have my own love story, like in the fairy tales, I needed to look like them. I needed to be blonde. I needed to have blue eyes. I needed to be tall. I needed to be beautiful. I needed to be white.
As a third generation Asian-Australian, I never saw myself as conventionally attractive, let alone beautiful. To this day, I am still insecure about what it means to be beautiful and to be Asian-Australian. I remember begging my mum to let me dye my hair blonde. I used to dream I would wake up and magically become white.
Undoubtedly, the media’s portrayal of Asians – particularly Asian girls – influenced my self-esteem growing up.
As I got older, I found that young adult fiction and the media around me was empty of anyone who looked like me, or even had a similar background to me. The media boxed us into a stereotype of what an ‘Asian girl’ should be. Throughout history, we have never been given a proper storyline. We are fetishised. We are always the sidekicks. The nerdy girl who is weirdly good at maths. The person who has just arrived from overseas with the strange accent. The kid with the strange-smelling food. We are never developed any further. We are devoid of personality. Devoid of any non-stereotypical characteristics.
We are never the protagonist.
Never the star.
Never the one who gets the guy.
This is why I remember being awestruck by Lara Jean. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve read the books since. They sit on my bookshelf to this day and were one of the first things I packed to take to university. Lara Jean isn’t just another two-dimensional, stereotypical Asian character in a book, and her story makes a conscious effort to highlight the Asian experience and the struggles of identity. Her story throughout the trilogy is one of maturity and finding her own voice, and Han does not shy away from taboo subjects such as sex, lust, divorce, death, and relationships.
Han’s novels have shifted the way we view teenage Asian girls in the media. The To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series is a refreshing take on what self-discovery and relationships mean. These books have shown that yes, Asian girls can have their own storylines and yes, we do in fact have personalities. They have filled a gap in the media that society has been so complacent about. We finally have representation. A voice.
I vividly remember the day Netflix announced they would be bringing To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before to the screen. When my little sister ran into my room and showed me the announcement on Instagram, I cried, and am unashamed to admit it. Our favourite, amazing Lara Jean would be coming to life. This was a huge moment. This was the first time a romantic comedy about an Asian teenage girl would be featured on our screens. It was a win for all East Asians out there – we were finally going to have a love story made about us.
At this point, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before had already become a huge part of my life and allowed me to realise many things about myself, as well as who I want to become.
Yet, in saying that, Han created a world that, while relatable, is at the same time intangible. Sometimes, when there is really only one ‘role model’ or media image for you, you can start to unhealthily try and emulate them. I know I did.
It didn’t help that my friends would highlight the similarities between Lara Jean and me. I am Asian. I have long hair. I love clothes. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I am an avid baker. I used to unironically write love letters to the boys I had crushes on.
As a result, I would always wonder why my life wasn’t like Lara Jean’s. Why didn’t I have the same experiences as her? I was jealous. I wanted a stable relationship. I wanted to be loved. I wanted my Peter Kavinsky and I was desperate for it to happen. As a huge romantic, I so badly wanted to experience that typical romance you see in movies.
I think it’s easy to superimpose yourself onto a character from books or movies, and this idolisation can often have negative consequences. It was only recently that I realised how toxic my own idolisation was. There is no such thing as ‘perfect’ representation, though it may certainly seem perfect when it’s the only representation that you have. For me, it came down to the fact that there is a lack of readily available Asian characters in the media. We are given a handful of characters to relate to, whereas mainstream media provides white people with a diverse range of characters to identify with. I tried to fit my unique personality into Lara Jean’s box because I believed that she was perfect – but I have since realised that I am my own beautiful individual. I have my own thoughts, my own brain, my own feelings. I’m not Lara Jean and that’s okay. I’m Maddie.
Thankfully, I have grown up greatly since finishing the series, and instead of seeking life advice from the books, I go to my family, my friends, and myself for it. As women, we are strong and amazing and have the power to do whatever we put our minds to. I think the message that is lacking from this series is that you do not need a boy to make you feel whole. Throughout the series, we see Lara Jean becoming more confident and coming out of her shell because of Peter. Before she started dating Peter, she was shy, timid, and meek, and this sends the wrong message to teenage girls. Changing your attitude or your personality should not be because of a boy – it should be because you want to. Boys do not validate our existence. We have the power to be our own catalysts for change. We are our futures regardless if we are in a relationship or not.
I have since realised that I am me. I am not Lara Jean. Yes, I am an Australian born Asian, but I have my own personality. My own relationships. My own story.
I am different.