So a little while ago I began organizing all the books I’ve read into where they take place, and I noticed a small trend. I’ve read a lot of Asian-American books.
Considering I am Asian-American, specifically adopted Chinese-American, I guess I just gravitate towards these novels without realizing it. There’s something familiar in all these stories even if they’re all also so very, very different from each other and even from my own story. I guess it feels like I’m finding kindred spirits while also discovering new definitions of “Asian-American Pacific Islander.”
Anyway, this one is for my fellow AAPIs as well as anyone curious about our experiences!
Reading Tips: As always, I highly recommend utilizing your local library and/or bookstores before resorting to Amazon. If you have an e-reader (I have a Kindle), then most libraries team up with the Libby app which lets you borrow e-books easily.
14 Must Read Asian-American Books
1. The Joy Luck Club (1989)
Why Read: It’s the OG of Asian-American literature
If Asian-American books had a matriarch, it would be The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. Published back in 1989, it was on The New York Times bestseller list for six (SIX) months, and the 1993 movie was a significant moment for Asian-American cinema. At least a few authors on this list will tell you The Joy Luck Club inspired them!
The novel itself is about four different Chinese families in San Francisco and is laid out like a mahjong game. It specifically features four mothers, how they came to immigrate to the US, their four American-born daughters, and the culture clash that ensues.
2. Crazy Rich Asians (Trilogy)
Why Read: Highlights the reverse culture shock of an Asian-American experiencing Asian society
Crazy Rich Asians and its sequels are fun romps into the ridiculously rich world of Asia, and the first novel takes place mostly in Singapore. Our “every man” character is Rachel Chu, a first generation Chinese-American, attending the wedding festivities with her boyfriend, Nick Young, unaware of the crazy rich world she’s about to enter.
While the book and its sequels feel very frothy and even absurd at times, I found there’s a lot of heart laced throughout that really comes together in the final installment, Rich People Problems. One underrated aspect to the whole first book is how it contrasts the AAPI experience vs the Asian experience in the form of Rachel and her surroundings. An important distinction not many are willing to make.
3. Everything I Never Told You
Why Read: Highlights the challenges of a mixed-race family in 1980s Ohio
Marilyn wears her feelings of being an outsider as a badge of pride. She scorns her mother’s homemaker wishes as she pursues becoming a doctor at Harvard in the 1950s. James, a first generation Chinese-American, has spent his whole life just wanting to fully assimilate into the only country he’s ever known. In James, Marilyn finds what she thinks is a kindred spirit, an outsider like herself. In Marilyn, James finds his chance to feel fully assimilated into white American culture.
And so starts a relationship of assumptions and poor communication, which comes to a head when their seemingly popular, smart daughter, Lydia, shows up drowned in a lake after going missing days earlier.
SUCH a good read and a great way of highlighting a number of situations – being Asian-American in academia in the 1950s, the struggles of a mixed race family, passing on generational trauma and fears… Also just a good reminder that in real life, communication is key to relationships!
4. Girl in Translation
Why Read: Highlights modern day sweatshops hidden away in the US
Kimberly Chang and her mother move to Brooklyn from their lives in Hong Kong before it returns to China. Hoping for a fresh start via her Aunt Paula and buying into the American dream, they’re shocked by the immense poverty awaiting them. Their apartment is barely livable and the job Aunt Paula promised her mother pays pennies at a sweatshop hidden within the city.
By day Kimberly attends school and by evening she comes to the sweatshop to help her mother and earn some money. As they settle into their lives in the US, Kimberly finds herself struggling between the promise of something more with her natural gift at academia and what she knows within the small, impoverished Chinese community.
Of all the Asian American books I can recommend, this is the only one that covers modern day sweatshops. You’d think they were a thing of the past, but CBS literally covered an LA one in 2021.
5. Interior Chinatown
Why Read: A cleverly written book highlighting the issues AAPI face(d) in Hollywood
Written as a screenplay for a Law & Order-esque show, “Black and White,” Interior Chinatown is about Generic Asian Man, Willis Wu, who just wants to be Kung Fu Guy one day. Through him, Yu highlights the way cinema and television often pushes Asian actors to the side (some background generic characters with generic accents) and how that represents what the United States has historically done since the first Chinese man immigrated in 1815.
This book took me a minute to get into, but once I got used to the style of storytelling I was hooked.
6. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
Why Read: It’s Mindy Kaling!
I’m not a big non-fiction reader, but I will read, watch, and listen to anything Mindy Kaling puts out. I know she’s not perfect, but she’s basically my idol. I feel like growing up on the early 2000s as an Asian-American kid surrounded by mostly white and black kids is a very specific experience that she captures well.
She’s written three books about her life so far, and Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is her first. Published in 2011 covers her time growing up as an Indian-American kid in Massachusetts through working on “The Office.” Told with her classic humor, it’s an interesting look into the life of one of Hollywood’s most famous AAPI celebrities right in the middle of her becoming the icon she is today.
7. Miracle Creek
Why Read: Mystery novel where the parents’ immigrant status affect how they’re viewed
Two people have died from an explosion at an experimental treatment center known as the “Miracle Submarine” run by Korean immigrants, Young and Pak Yoo. The ensuing murder trial does two things 1) ask who caused this explosion and 2) exposes just the racism the Yoos face in their small rural community in Virginia.
I over all liked this book! I think I got it as part of an Audible sale. It took me a while to get around to listening to but once I got into it, I had to know what had really happened.
8. Shanghai Girls
Why Read: Highlights the 1900s immigration from China to the US
- Author: Lisa See
- My Rating: 3.5/5
- Setting: 1930-50s Shanghai, China & Los Angeles, CA
- Shop Local // Buy on Amazon
Shanghai Girls is about sisters Pearl and May Chin through major events of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s in both Shanghai and Los Angeles‘ Chinatown. Their relationship is tested severely as they navigate world changing events that take them from living privileged lives as socialites in Shanghai to young wives to “Gold Mountain” men in LA.
I will say while I liked this book, it’s not See’s strongest writing, so it’s a good one to read before her more recent novels where I feel like she’s firing on all cylinders.
9. The Bride Test
Why Read: Sweet, steamy romance novel that shows the culture shock of moving to the US as an adult
I truthfully don’t know what I expected when I borrowed The Bride Test from my library. I was looking for a new book to read and I was intrigued by the cover.
While Mỹ (Esme) is scrubbing toilets at a fancy hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, she winds up in a conversation with a Vietnamese-American woman who’s been interviewing woman to try and find a suitable wife for her romance-avoidant son. When this woman takes a liking to Mỹ, she finds herself on a plane ride over to San Jose, CA, hoping that this will be the fresh start she’s looking for for herself, her mother and her daughter.
Meanwhile the potential husband himself, Khai Dep, is absolutely horrified at what his mother has done. He’s convinced himself long ago that his autism means he lacks the ability to feel big emotions like love and grief, and he’s better off on his own. When his mother forces him to take Mỹ into his home for her three-month stay, all sorts of hijinks ensue as she does her best to seduce him and he does his best to avoid the growing attraction he feels for her.
This book has such a silly premise, I did NOT expect it to be good in the least bit. But it’s such a cute book with so much heart and character AND the chemistry Hoang creates is insane. Like I was not expecting it to get so steamy!
There are other books that go with The Bride Test, including The Kiss Quotient (Book 1) and The Heart Principle (Book 2), though this is the one that feels the most about the AAPI experience. As I read this book while living in Vietnam, I loved seeing the reverse culture shock!
One fun detail I noticed is that every time the chapters are from Mỹ’s POV, Hoang uses all the proper Vietnamese letters and accents.
10. Searching for Sylvie Lee
Why Read: Delves into a lesser thought of aspect of – having to give your child to relatives to raise
This is actually one of my favorite books, full stop. Jean Kwok is one of my favorite authors. She has three books out and all three are on this list haha.
Anyway, as the title might suggest the core question of this book is, “Where is Sylvie Lee?” It cuts between three narratives – that of Sylvie in the days before she goes missing, that of her younger sister, Amy, who goes to Amsterdam determined to track her sister down, and that of their mother who offers an insight that both sisters miss in each other.
I loved, loved, loved this story. It broke my heart in so many ways, and Sylvie is the kind of person I could have seen myself turning into if I had stayed in the rat race of high achievement and “having it all.”
11. The Last Story of Mina Lee
Why Read: Highlights the gap between immigrant parents and first generation kids
This is another heartbreaker of a story that cuts between Margot Lee in the present and her mother as a newly arrived immigrant to Koreatown in LA in the 1980s. Margot, who’s spent her young adulthood running away from her childhood, drives back to visit her mother, wondering why she hasn’t picked up her calls. It turns out there’s a good reason – Mina Lee has died.
This sends Margot on a search to find answers into her mother’s death which lead to more questions about her parentage in general.
I’m not going to lie to you guys, this book is Depressing with a capital D. Can’t give away too much, but it’s worth the read if you’re in the right headspace.
12. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
Why Read: Delves into the effects of adoption and highlights an Asian minority experience
- Author: Lisa See
- My Rating: 5/5
- Setting: China & California
- Shop Local // Buy on Amazon
Li-yan is part of the Akha people, an ethnic group found around Myanmar, China, Laos, and Thailand. She and her family’s lives are ruled by the farming of tea and they are largely left isolated from the modern advancements of the outside world. That is until a stranger visits via a jeep, the first anyone’s ever seen.
Meanwhile, Li-yan winds up sleeping with a boy she thinks she’s going to marry until their union is foretold to be unlucky and therefore not approved by either family. When she gives birth, she winds up leaving her baby with an orphanage, and from there the story splits between mother and daughter as Haley is adopted and raised in California.
Guys, when I say later Lisa See novels are firing all cylinders, this book is what I mean! The pacing, the writing, and the emotions… it’s all there. I had no idea there would be an adoption element, and as you might guess, that section gave me an absolute existential crisis.
13. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Trilogy)
Why Read: It’s a sweet, light-hearted YA novel
- Author: Jenny Han
- My Rating: 4.5/5
- Setting: NYC
- Shop Local // Buy on Amazon
Funnily enough, while I relate to some level to every book on this list, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is probably the one I read where I thought, “This was me as a teenager.” Heck, even one of my friends read it and immediately texted me to tell me it was like reading about me lol.
Laura Jean Song Covey is just your average teen girl in suburban Virginia who has an unrequited crush on her neighbor and older sister’s now ex-boyfriend, Josh. Her very normal life is upended when someone finds the love letters she wrote to all her crushes over the years and actually sends them. In order to make sure Josh doesn’t think she harbors any feelings for him, she makes a deal with another letter recipient, Peter Kavinsky, to be fake boyfriend and girlfriend.
All three books are really too cute! You know sometimes representation in literature can mean sweet, light reads where the main character’s identity isn’t the main focus of the book. Han weaves in Korean culture almost as an aside. Often it’s the sisters’ white father who’s making Korean food or incorporating it into their lives in some way or another as a way to keep them connected with their mother who passed before the novel.
This book is more reminiscent to how I grew up. A pretty much a normal American kid with some Chinese culture weaved in and out as best as my parents knew how.
14. Mambo in Chinatown
My final read on this list and my last Jean Kowk novel! Mambo in Chinatown features Charlie Wong, a 22-year-old wall flower who’s entire universe is her small community within New York City’s Chinatown. Her mother, who passed before the novel begins, was once a preeminent ballerina in Beijing and her father is noodle maker.
At the beginning of the novel, Charlie is working as a dishwasher and lives her with father and 11-year-old sister in a tiny apartment. Her life is pretty dreary and doesn’t exactly look like it’s going to get better. That is until she manages to land a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio. And while she, frankly, sucks as a receptionist, the studio’s owners see potential in her as a ballroom dancer.
Soon Charlie’s worlds are split between her life in Chinatown where she struggles with her father as her little sister suddenly becomes increasingly ill and this new life of beautiful dancing, new characters, and a non-Chinese love interest.
If Girl in Translation was the story of new immigrants and Searching for Sylvie Lee was a story that relays the trauma immigrant children face, then I’d say Mambo in Chinatown represents the struggle of first generation Asian-Americans between East and West. I loved seeing Charlie blossom even as I grew frustrated with their father for refusing any sort of Eastern medical care for Charlie’s little sister.
10 Asian-American Books Still on My To-Read List
Here are some books I either have in physical copy and thus waiting at home for me to read or books I’ve added over time to my Goodreads wish list!
- Crying in H-Mart: A Memoir by Michelle Zauner
- How Much of These Hills is Gold? by C Pam Zhang
- Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
- The Leavers by Lisa Ko
- All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
- The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee
- The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
- Severance by Ling Ma
This is by no means a comprehensive list! So far it’s just Asian-American books I’ve read and want to read. There’s SO much literature out there, I’m sure this list will only grow over time. Do let me know below if there’s a book I’m missing and that you’d recommend!