To All The Boys We’ve Loved Then & Now: Reliving Our Asian American Adolescence

To all the boys I've Loved before contract scene
Signing the fake relationship contract. TATBILB Screenshot/Netflix, 2018

When the film To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, based on the best-selling YA novel by Jenny Han, was released on Netflix in August of 2018, it became clear that it struck a particular nerve. Not just for its intended audience of teenagers, but also particularly for a lot of our friends and colleagues, all of whom are Asian American women in our 30s and 40s. We didn’t just love the film; we were obsessed with it. “I’ve watched it once every day for the last eight days,” one confessed. While waiting eagerly for the sequel, To All The Boys 2: P.S. I Still Love You, which comes out on February 12, 2020, we’ve been pondering the question: What do these educated, professional women, straight and queer, some married and some not, satisfy in watching this film on repeat? We’ve come to realize that these films, as well as the books they are based on, were recapturing for us an adolescence that we wish we’d had. What follows is a conversation between two such women, writing from opposite coasts, who have relished TATBILB as an opportunity to reflect on the loves of our lives. 

Marguerite Nguyen: I first watched To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before because I felt like I had to. To be honest, I thought I would hate it. In my experience, rom-coms always sidelined girls and women of color. I loved these films, but they were unbearably white. TATBILB didn’t fit this racial profile because Lana Condor was its star, but I couldn’t imagine how it would be different. Planning to watch about 15 minutes of the movie for a work break, I settled onto the couch and began watching TATBILB on my iPhone. Within the first minute, the film subverted what I’d come to expect from rom-coms. I ended up watching the whole thing from my hand. The next day, I watched it again on a proper tv. That weekend, I listened to the Audible version until the wee hours of the morning. Then I ordered all the books in the series. 

Catherine Fung: I am the same age as Jenny Han, so like her, I was a teenager of the 1990s. I watched all the teen rom coms of that time: Clueless, She’s All That,10 Things I Hate About You… So when I watched To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, there was something strikingly familiar about it. It’s so clear to me that Han was writing Lara Jean’s world with those movies of our adolescence in mind, and that director Susan Johnson was taking that cue. The film’s drama is anchored on the delightfully archaic premise that Lara Jean writes love letters (on paper!) to the five boys she’s secretly had crushes on but doesn’t intend to send, and then her life is turned upside-down when they mysteriously do get sent. The movie is filled with throwback fashion: combat boots, chokers, satin bomber jackets. It takes me to a more optimistic time, before mass shootings, financial meltdowns, and climate apocalypse would fill me with existential dread, when it seemed possible to fall in love with someone by talking with them for hours on the phone. 

MN: TATBILB’s throwbacks thrust me back to my teenage years, which took place in Virginia Beach, Virginia. While I love TATBILB the film, I connect more deeply with the novels because their mid-Atlantic setting resonates with my own background. Han was born in 1980 in Richmond, Virginia, and I was born in 1976 in Norfolk, Virginia. My district’s high schools competed against schools mentioned in the novel. Han went to UNC Chapel Hill. I went to Duke (go ACC!). Virginia has deep progressive and conservative pockets, as recent clashes in Richmond and Charlottesville centered on race and gun control show.

My family ended up in Virginia because they were Vietnam War refugees who resettled there. They left loved ones behind when they fled in 1975, and their pasts were full of mysterious gaps that made me feel like I had no history. We knew only a handful of other refugee families in the area in a state where lacrosse, histories of English settlement, witch trials, and FFVs (First Families of Virginia) formed a large part of our education, while our own pasts were dimmed and faded (along with those of slavery and Native American genocide). The Episcopalian church that sponsored my family’s resettlement has a history that dates to 1637. It lies on a path that Grace Sherwood, the “Witch of Pungo,” took to her trial. The neighborhood that my family lived in during my high school years lies on land that had been home to the Powhatans. Today, parts of the area are known for paranormal activity. 

CF: The thing is, the world of To All The Boys is better than the high school experience I remember! Because, really, I kind of hated high school. And when I revisit those ’90s teen movies now, I am also reminded that, as much as they represented a fantasy I could escape to, I found them alienating, even then. I went to high school in San Jose, California. We had Latino kids whose families had been there for generations, as well as old money white kids, newly arrived Bosnian refugee kids, as well as plenty of Chinese and Indian American kids whose parents worked in Silicon Valley. None of the teen movies I devoured came close to representing my school or the students in it. I didn’t actually want to be like Alicia Silverstone or Jennifer Love Hewitt, even if I could aspire to their brand of white femininity. And as a sheltered teenager with strict immigrant parents, I always found the teen social scene represented in movies foreign and intimidating. Never was I interested in the rite of passage that is the high school party, in which boys egg each other on to get drunk, seduce a girl, and then tell their friends about it. I did not aspire to lose my virginity at prom. 

MN: When I was in elementary school, life became more precarious when my dad almost died due to a misdiagnosis of a rare disease. That’s a story for another time, but the point is that by the time I was Lara Jean’s age, joy coexisted with melancholy, and I developed a penchant for stories where things just didn’t work out. Even if I lived my adolescence in pigment, this intersection of personal, social, and political factors led to my memories of adolescence manifesting in a mostly muted palette, with occasional bursts of color. It was the ’80s after all — the era of Reagan and AIDS, while white flight and deindustrialization were common backdrops in MTV music videos. The Cold War bleakened our lives with visions of nuclear annihilation at the same time that hot wars across the global south continued to be fought. 

My friends and I were mostly POCs who bonded over being minorities who somehow ended up in mid-Atlantic suburbia. Much of what we learned about teenage life in the U.S. came through American pop culture. TATBILB’s twenty-first century message of care and possibility for Asian Americans was not something that ’80s culture promoted. 

CF: I’ve been thinking about all the boys that I’ve loved before. I didn’t have a Peter, but, like Lara Jean, I did have a Josh. He was the first boy I ever loved, and he was also the first boy friend (boy who was a friend, space between words) that I ever had. In the eighth grade, he sat behind me in our early morning Algebra class. I don’t remember what sparked our friendship — Perhaps he made me laugh, or perhaps he was the first boy who would talk to me without wanting to copy my homework. He had brown curly hair, blue-green eyes, and freckles. He was short, like me. He stole my eraser once, and my insistence that he give it back became my excuse to sit next to him in Science class.

Talking with Josh on the phone after school became a regular occurrence, and one that I had to hide from my parents. Oh, and of course we exchanged letters throughout our relationship. Usually silly ones, with inside jokes that only we would understand. When I did muster up the courage to ask Josh on an actual date, for Homecoming our freshman year of high school, he said he’d think about it, and then ended up taking another girl, a friend who had encouraged my flirtation and acted as a go-between between me and Josh. And so my first love also resulted in my first heartbreak and propelled me, at the age of thirteen, into a jadedness about boys and an insecurity about my own lovability that, in retrospect, plagued my relationship with the boy I actually did end up dating in high school: a shy, sweet boy who confessed that he liked me by signing my yearbook.

I don’t think I believed his feelings or understood my own. When we unceremoniously drifted apart after several months, after having gone to junior prom together and met each others’ parents, I didn’t know how to ask him what was going on or why he wasn’t calling me anymore. Only many years later did I learn he was struggling with his own insecurities. If only we were both smarter, braver, and more confident in dealing with our feelings.

For me, To All The Boys is precisely about that “if only.” The film is about what happens when repressed feelings are thrown into the open, when we have the chance to practice our wishes and desires before they become real. How thrilling it is for me to see a shy and bookish Asian American girl who describes herself as “invisible” break through her fear of telling people how she feels and is rewarded by having her love requited by not just one, but two dreamy boys who openly vie for her affections.

MN: The scene that surprised me the most was Lara Jean’s walk across the lacrosse field to tell Peter that she’s down for their fake dating plot. In so many teen romances, kids spike figures of difference with name calling and cruel accusations. I was sure that Lara Jean would be humiliated in front of Peter’s teammates as they practice on the field. Peter would reject her or degrade her in locker room gossip, which is what 80s racism and rape culture had taught me. I was completely surprised when Peter smiled with relief at Lara Jean, his own body relaxing as she gives their scheme a thumbs up. Not a peep is heard from Peter’s teammates, whose clunky athleticism suggests they do not take themselves or their masculinity too seriously. It is all Lara Jean here. She is a desiring and desirable figure—no longer a girl who only experiences desire through fiction (the pretend part doesn’t really matter, but I don’t want to spoil anything). 

Things get more poignant with the contract that Lara Jean and Peter cook up to set their boundaries, which gives Lara Jean center stage to specify what she wants and refuse anything less than what she is comfortable with. Her rule that Peter not kiss her while they fake date sends a meaningful message of what constitutes genuine experience in a social media age: “I don’t want all my firsts to be fake.” Surprised at first, Peter’s face softens as he takes it to heart. It’s tragic that I would be taken aback by the possibility that Lara Jean can voice her feelings with such clarity and that Peter would take her seriously. 

CF: Perhaps as a teen movie amidst #MeToo, To All the Boys offers representations of a different kind of teenage boy than the kind I grew up seeing on the screens and fearing at school. The boys Lara Jean loves know to take off their shoes when they step into her house and know how to be polite to her dad. They respect Lara Jean’s boundaries, but are also unafraid to request conversations about their feelings, of writing her love notes. Never do they humor the idea of embarrassing her or using her as a conquest to feed their own ego. She doesn’t need to undergo a makeover for the boys to like her. 

So it isn’t just that I wish that I could have dated Peter Kavinsky in high school; I wish I could date Peter Kavinsky now! Or, rather, I wish I could date John Ambrose McClaren, who, unlike the popular jock Peter, is an old soul. In both the book and film versions of the sequel P.S. I Still Love You, John and Lara Jean first become friends in Model U.N., and later reconnect when they’re both volunteering at his grandmother’s retirement community. I wonder if there is something generational at work here, in that the movie is allowing us to project what our older, wiser selves would have wanted for our younger selves.

As a high school teacher, I project a lot of my own wishes onto my students. While I don’t envy my students for the world that they are growing up in, I admire them for how they are navigating it. The boys I teach talk about “mansplaining” and “toxic masculinity.” I don’t recall such vocabulary existing when I was in high school. If my students are any indication, then perhaps there is hope that the misogyny that continues to plague my generation will eventually be a thing of the past. I am optimistic for the kind of men these boys will become and wish that there were more men like that in my generation. 

MN: TATBILB is not without problems. Why are there not viable love interests of color, despite how diverse Lara Jean’s high school is? Why does the story seem so unaware of its upper classness and heteronormativity, its privilege? If TATBILB foregrounds an Asian American love story, it also risks repeating the marginalization of bodies of color, especially in Lucas as a queer, black character who doesn’t get his own love story or dynamic literary life.

Happiness for Lara Jean is partly made possible by economic security. When I recently taught this film, several students said that it could have replaced the Asian American characters with white ones, and it wouldn’t have mattered because of the lack of attention given to Asian Americanness. They even called me out when I told them that I didn’t catch on to the whole fake dating plot. “That’s the oldest trick in the book!” they said. “I know, but it isn’t supposed to work out for Lara Jean!” What was a series of “firsts” for me were all “meh” for my students, exposing our generation gap. I betrayed my own assumption that girls of color don’t get romance based on the toxicity of popular films and societal norms of my teenage years.

CF: My high school students also like the movie well enough, but they’re not obsessed with it like I am. They also seem to be less forgiving of it for things that they critique it for, such as the fact that all of Lara Jean’s viable love interests in the first film are white, and that though Lara Jean Covey is biracial, the actress playing her, Lana Condor, is not. This is enough for my students to say that film is cute and entertaining, it’s not anything groundbreaking. It is perhaps because of these critiques that the filmmakers conspicuously recast the role of John Ambrose McClaren in the sequel with Jordan Fisher, who is multiracial and African American, undoubtedly in response to the critique that Lara Jean only seems to love white boys. 

MN: In my view, situating the film in the Pacific Northwest rather than the novels’ original setting of Virginia loses some of Han’s important social commentary. For me, Han recalls and reimagines what I know the mid-Atlantic to be and shows how intricate desire is. We’re so starved for content that we rejoice when we see a happy Asian American couple, as in Always Be My Maybe. But plenty of high schools, like mine, were mostly white. How does a young person of color experience desire in these contexts? What would proper desire be, desire that isn’t whitewashed and refuses to abide by Eurocentric standards of beauty? If young POCs have few or even no subjects of color around them, should they simply refuse desire? 

CF: So my impulse is to shake my fist at my students, lecture them on the scarcity of POC representation, and yell, “Do you have any idea what a big deal this film is?” But maybe it’s okay that they have no idea. After all, they are a generation whose first president in their memory is African American, who are now spending their high school years watching movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther. Maybe it’s okay that they take all the things that thrill me about the film for granted. 

MN: The mundane details in TATBILB that younger generations may take for granted are details that I never got. They also broaden the romance plot to suggest that when it comes to navigating race and desire, what else is going on in a life matters a lot. In TATBILB, Korean American culture and the Song Covey sisters’ support are continuous threads in Lara Jean’s daily life that refract white presence. The rice cooker in the kitchen might be ethnic tokenism to some, but it also exists in the same way that it does in my apartment — a given of daily life. The siblings are each energetic, lively, and opinionated. Combined with the powerful absent presence of the mother, this distribution of Asian American narrative and energy makes it difficult for the white characters to overpower the storyworld. Asian American points of view are a premise of the film, rather than something that the film must strive for. Peter’s friends also welcome Lara Jean into their group, and her father actively helps his daughters understand them while backing off when he intuits their discomfort. As one of my students said, it’s refreshing and necessary to be able to see someone like Lara Jean experience genuine happiness, period.

CF: So many of us are still waiting for that happiness! After watching To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, I hungrily read the Jenny Han’s trilogy, and am now eagerly awaiting the second installment of the films, as if following Lara Jean’s journey will guide me in understanding my own. I love seeing how she sorts through the ups and downs of her relationships, how those relationships evolve as she grows up. If I were to write a fanfic version of Lara Jean, she would be a smarter and braver version of myself. She would go to college, take some Asian American Studies classes, encounter more boys (and girls, too!) to love, make plenty of mistakes, but would also learn to repair just as much as she breaks. And regardless of who she ends up with, if she ends up with anyone at all, she will look back on her life without ever needing to ask the question of, “If only?” 

MN: TATBILB reminds me how much women of color’s emotional lives have been disciplined by American law, society, and popular culture, especially through genres that many of us enjoy, like the American rom-com. I’m sad for those of us who didn’t have stories like Han’s when we were adolescents trying to figure it all out and incensed that cultural power brokers have tried to dupe women of color into thinking that subpar anything is all we deserve and will ever get. I certainly internalized some of these messages and, even now, continue to work to unlearn them and the harm they may have caused. Race, in other words, changes how genres work. But Han suggests that sticking to certain generic conventions potentially alters the racialized history of a genre and its impact on real lives. This is probably why TATBILB strikes me viscerally and durably, like a song I want to put on repeat.

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