In Ed Lin’s young adult novel, David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets into an Ivy League College, a high schooler named David dreams of getting into an Ivy League school and becoming a doctor. But his parents have enforced a strict rule: “I’d been told in no uncertain terms by my mother that I couldn’t date in high school. Not until I got into an Ivy League college. My father may not have thought the same way, but he said nothing.” Throughout the novel, David must navigate this restriction as he gets asked to a dance and figures out how to express his romantic feelings for Betty, a girl in his Chinese school, to not only her but also his parents. Through these hoops and obstacles, David becomes a heroic figure when he learns just how crucial it is to use his voice to advocate for others. Lin’s novel speaks on class disparity, racial representation, and explores adolescent identity within the conflict of balancing outside pressures with one’s own desires.
David is completely entrenched in the academic rivalry ingrained in his New Jersey high school’s culture: his goals are to take the seventh spot of his class ranking from his foe Christina Tau, receive a more impressive score on his SATs, and obtain a prestigious internship at his local hospital. “About 80% of the students are Asian American, mostly Chinese, and many with immigrant parents,” David says about Shark Beach High. “About a quarter of the student body are immigrants themselves, and immigrants have one hell of a competitive streak in them.” But when he clocks out of being a 4.0 student, he clocks in to work at his parents’ restaurant. David and his family work every single day to stay financially afloat, and throughout the novel, David’s working-class status keeps him from opportunities that most of his wealthy classmates are fortunate to experience. When Christina, who’s also the most popular girl at their school, asks him to go to the Dames Ball, he can’t afford to rent the tuxedo Christina wants him to wear.
But David eventually comes to realize that he, too, holds a certain level of privilege. Every Saturday, David attends Chinese school in New York City, where he is more financially privileged than his classmates who live in the heart of New York City’s Chinatown. One weekend, he helps one of his Chinese school friends move out of his parents’ apartment and into his grandparents’ due to an unlawful eviction from the landlord. During the move, he and Betty have a conversation about money in which Betty reveals to him the financial disadvantages she and her father have. It’s only then that David comes to terms with the financial privileges he has compared to his Chinese school friend group—which ultimately enables David to grow into his heroism as an advocate for those who lack the privileges he has.
David skillfully balances the two worlds that are pressing against him: the academic pressures of Shark Beach High School and the physical demands that come from working at his parents’ restaurant. When he goes to Chinese school on the weekends, he doesn’t have to worry about the expectations to excel, since Chinese school is viewed as an extracurricular activity and not a requirement: “To me, it signaled that I could step into my Saturday persona: One of the cool kids who didn’t worry about grades and was prone to mischief.” For David, Chinese school is a chance for him to have the high school experience that he can’t have at his regular school, which reflects the dichotomy of who David was raised to be and who he actually wants to be.
I appreciated the ways Lin gives David a witty, humorous voice. He describes the ever-present whiteness of his high school, despite the large percentage of Asian students: “Some of the teachers, for fear of mixing us up, kept a seating chart on their desk and referred to it the entire year.” He also depicts another high school in the area as a “small Catholic school that was as white as we were Asian.” David’s humor is also shown through his physical actions, particularly when he is accosted by his gym teacher at Shark Beach, Mr. Scanlon, for not taking his lesson on the effects of drunk driving seriously. “I wonder, though, about your inability to take the subject matter seriously, Tung. How can you laugh during my class about drunk drivin’ when people are dyin’?” To which David replies, “If we had settled into a serious tone, Mr. Scanlon, I wouldn’t have laughed.” Mr. Scanlon—annoyed by David’s answers to his questions —asks David to teach the lesson instead, but with his lively engagement with his peers and the laughs he stirs up, it is David who teaches the lesson more effectively than his own teacher. Though the insurmountable pressure to succeed and make his parents proud is overwhelming to him, David continuously finds levity in these obstacles, which goes beyond the trope of an overachieving high schooler who’s glued to his studies. Even in moments when he’s expected to perform well on his studies at Shark Beach, he finds ways to tap into the person he is at his Chinese school and abandon the overachieving persona his parents expect him to be until he becomes a doctor.
Throughout the novel, we see how David navigates conversations around race with his friends. When Betty is paired up with David and his friend group (Chun, YK, and Andy) for a class project at the Chinese school, David witnesses all the ways his friends, and even Christina, criticize Betty for being mixed-race. For instance, Christina and her best friend Jean confront David about the pictures they took of him and Betty when they helped YK and his family move out of their apartment. Out of jealousy, the girls ridicule David for spending time with Betty: “‘That’s your girlfriend, right?’ asked Jean. ‘I didn’t know you were into white girls, David.’” Even Principal Gao, the new principal at the Chinese school, suggests that Betty isn’t Asian enough.
Toward the end of the novel, Principal Gao announces that he’s planning to create a chain of Chinese schools for white kids and proposes that David be featured in the school’s video advertisements, in an attempt to use David’s “suburban, middle-class presenting” image to appeal to the white masses. Confused and alarmed, David suggests to Principal Gao that he should feature Betty instead, since she’s half white. Principal Gao refuses: “White people want the real thing,” he tells David. But after a heated exchange, Principal Gao eventually decides to feature the entire student body of the Chinese school rather than just David. At the end of that scene, David’s mother praises him and perfectly sums up who he is as a character: “[Principal Gao] thought you were going to be the superhero of the school, but now he knows that everyone there is a superstar.”
David also sets the same tone with his friend group as well, encouraging both Christina and his friend Chun to apologize to Betty: “I told him that he had to apologize for the racist things he said to Betty, and he actually did, copying me on the email.” The ways in which David speaks against these simplistic notions of race contributes to his heroism as a main character.
There were times where I questioned the depiction of the female characters in David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets into an Ivy League College. There wasn’t a sense of camaraderie between any of the boys and girls at either school, and if a kinship did appear it was most likely tied to a romantic connection. David’s motivation to stand up for Betty and defend her Asian background seems to stem from his attraction to her. However, Lin does bridge this gap toward the end of the novel, when David and Christina make amends with each other. After Christina acknowledges how she negatively responded to David’s biggest achievement in the novel, David’s reply also helps break down the gender rivalry: “Hey, now that we’re both on our way to the Ivy League, maybe we can meet up in the cafeteria and go over MCAT questions. If they’re not too hard for you.”
I also question the depiction of David’s parents, and their relationship to him, outside of the academic pressures they instill in him. David’s mother is mainly the one who enforces these restrictions. When David finally asks his mother if she’d possibly let him attend the dance, she reacts just the way he imagines: “How many times have I told you? You’re not allowed to have a girlfriend until college…And you’d better get into an Ivy League school!” However, during this altercation, the father seems somewhat distant. We mostly see David and his father interact with one another on the days they go to New York City to take David to Chinese school, and after school when the two of them ride with their family friend Mr. Yeung to the family’s restaurant to work the Saturday night shift. We do not see David’s mother in the same light. Though David’s parents have different approaches on how to raise and discipline him, his mother seems to be the parental figure whose voice remains clear yet static. The most change we see in her characterization is toward the end of the novel, where she has no choice but to confront her conservative rules head on: “My mother loosened her restrictions on me a little bit after having a long talk with Mr. Yeung.” Though we start to see her change her perspective toward the end, she still seems to be left out of significant character growth, which strikes me as ironic given how blatantly her voice echoes in the title and throughout the novel. I found myself wanting a more nuanced portrait of David’s mother and not just a glimpse of a caricature that the novel seems to be actively working against.
That being said, I adored Lin’s masterful precision in capturing the specificity of the Chinese immigrant experience while making a space for a diverse main character to rise to the heroism we don’t see enough of in literature. Lin uses the young adult genre to dispel the harmful stereotypes and monoliths of what it means to be within the Asian diaspora, all the while advocating and making space for a more nuanced depiction of race, identity, and the power one’s voice has when speaking for change.