Belinda Lei and I started out as colleagues in early 2019. The first month we met, we became fast friends over Japanese kit kats, banh mi, and ice skating. While we no longer work together or even live in the same city, I’ve loved keeping in touch and having a front row seat to all the amazing things she’s done. Belinda’s book Not THAT Rich came out earlier this week. Make sure to check it out and leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads — reviews really make a difference for books with smaller publishers!
Here we talk about her book, growing up Asian American in the San Gabriel Valley, and how she learned early on to be comfortable with being weird.
Rebecca: Can you start by telling everyone a little about yourself?
Belinda: So I was born and raised in Southern California, in this area called San Gabriel Valley (SGV) that’s part of LA County. A lot of people like to call it the Asian American bubble, or the capital of Asia America and that’s because the area’s predominantly Asian American.
I grew up in a household that was pretty stereotypically Chinese American; education was highly valued and I took a lot of music lessons and art classes. I went to Georgetown for undergrad and spent time interning for the White House Initiative on Asian American Pacific Islanders. I had the opportunity to work on the foundation for an anti-bullying social awareness campaign in the Obama administration that eventually spun out to Act To Change, a nonprofit that I’m now the managing director of.
In undergrad I was an Asian Studies major, but I decided to go to business school and am part of Yale’s Silver Scholars program. I spent a year at business school, tried a lot of different things, and ended up in strategy consulting for a year. I had been coding on the side and it had always been a dream of mine, but I never fully pursued it. I decided to take a leap of faith and went to a coding boot camp in New York City. Now I’m a software engineer at Citi in Dallas. I still have one year left of business school and I wrote Not THAT Rich on the side.
Rebecca: Wow, that’s such a great, eclectic range of experiences. What inspired you to write a book?
Belinda: It really started out, because I’ve always loved writing, I’ve always been a part of journalism clubs and I wrote while I was at Yale to make some money as a side gig. I really missed writing once I started coding, and I had this opportunity come up to join a virtual writing club that a Georgetown professor was holding. One thing led to another and I ended up just loving what I was writing about and exploring my identity.
I started off with an idea for a nonfiction book about the development of SGV, because I do think it’s such a unique and diverse area that is a hidden gem. Not that many people know of it outside of Asian Americans, and I wanted to share this world. However, I also thought about my own high school experiences and talked to others about theirs. I realized that when we were in high school, we didn’t have a book that we really wanted to read that was about Asian Americans. That’s how I came up with Not THAT Rich as a young adult novel that is satirical, juicy, and dramatic. Because let’s be real — if you’re a teenager, you’re not going to pick up that nonfiction book analyzing the development of the Asian American identity. You’re going to grab that book that has drama and is something to pass the time. Teenagers have SATs and eighty other stressors, so I wanted to write a fun book for them that lets them think about themselves without overwhelming them.
Rebecca: Why the focus on high schoolers for your book?
Belinda: I wanted to start with high school, because I think that’s when a lot of stressors are happening: you’re hitting puberty, there’s young love, you’re still under your parents’ thumb, you’re trying to get to college, you’re juggling a million things, and your hormones are raging. Teenagers are so fascinating to me. There’s always something going on and there’s this “end of the world vibe” where if things don’t go as planned, it feels like the world is literally ending for you. I think that’s something that you really can’t capture with any other age group.
Rebecca: Throughout the writing process, did you learn anything about yourself that surprised you or made you view your upbringing any differently?
Belinda: It’s helped me come to terms with a lot of the different personalities and perspectives that I’ve seen and helped me become a more empathetic person. In my book, there are some very extra and ridiculous situations that were inspired by things that I have observed. I always wondered why people would do these ridiculous things, but once I started building out the world and really diving deep into some of these characters, I started considering their stories and motivations more. I have a really extra auntie in the book. She’s always saying the wrong things and being very judgmental, but she also has her own story of why she is the way she is and why that makes her so successful as a person and businesswoman too.
Rebecca: In a similar vein, as you’ve grown older, has the way you view or think about your Asian American identity changed?
Belinda: 100%. Because I grew up in the SGV where I was surrounded by Asian Americans, I think I actually always took my Asian American identity for granted. I was definitely called fobby when I was in middle school, because I loved and embraced everything that was culturally Asian. When people called me fobby, it wasn’t an insult because we were all Asian Americans enjoying our school lunches with rice and stinky tofu together. I didn’t have any of those stereotypical bullying incidents that would happen if I grew up in a predominantly white community.
I do think that I left my bubble actually when I went to boarding school for high school. That was when I really started thinking that my Asian American identity is kind of a weird blend. I’m American and there were a significant number of international Chinese students in my high school, so I started wondering where I fell on this spectrum. And I think high school is a formative time, so that’s really when I started diving deep into thinking about what makes me who I am.
This is something that’s still evolving daily, and I’m still trying to figure out who I am. Someone told me a few days ago that my Chinese has gotten worse, and that blew my mind. I started wondering if that makes me less Chinese and if I need to improve my Chinese. But on the other hand, I’m also American so does it really matter? These are the things I still think about on a daily basis.
Rebecca: What are some of the things that happened that made you stand out as fobby amongst other Asian Americans?
Belinda: So I had no qualms about totally loving everything that there was to do with Asia. I was raised by my grandparents and I loved all types of Asian dramas and did Chinese dancing really intensively where we wore crazy costumes that other people weren’t used to seeing. I also learned something called bian lian, which is this ancient art in the Sichuan province of China
Another example is that whenever I would go out to eat with my friends, they’d want to go to Applebee’s or In-N-Out. And even though we’re all Asian American, I’d want to go to these hole in the wall places that had authentic Chinese food.
Rebecca: Why do you think they wanted to go to Applebee’s and In-N-Out? Was it just what was cool at the time or did they deliberately not want to go to Chinese places?
Belinda: I think it was a mix. Part of it is that those places were where a lot of the high schoolers went after school, but there were definitely those who just completely shunned the idea of being Asian. Sometimes people would actually say, oh, that person is so fobby, so we don’t want them coming to eat with us. And in that context it was seen as an insult. It would feel like they were the other and we were actually the inner group. And that’s so interesting to me now, because we more commonly see Asian Americans singled out in predominantly non-Asian American communities. But in my community, Asian Americans were singling out other Asians and Asian Americans that were different from them, so it was a very specific microaggression.
Rebecca: Yeah, I think it’s really interesting. I’m from the Midwest and didn’t grow up around that many other Asian Americans, so for awhile I just assumed that was the default Asian American experience. It wasn’t until college that I started surrounding myself around other Asian Americans and learning more about their different experiences. It took me awhile to be proud of my Asian American identity, whereas I feel like you were almost a step ahead.
Belinda: Yeah, I’ve always wondered what would have happened to me if I grew up in a predominantly non Asian American community. Growing up, my friends were totally okay with being as Asian as possible. They saw my obsessions with Chinese dramas, Taiwanese dramas, Korean dramas, and my Chinese dance classes and were like, that’s cool — you do you. But if I was in a place where people didn’t understand it, they might have laughed at me for my crazy costumes and I might have been like a completely different person.
It got harder in high school, because our entire school population was 400 people. We were all living together and people were from all over the place. There weren’t that many Asian Americans in my class, so I had a harder time figuring out where I fit in. I felt like I was too Asian when I was with the non-Asian students and then too “white-washed” when I was with the international students.
Rebecca: I love that. It sounds like you had a unique Asian American experience that I haven’t experienced and that wouldn’t have been intuitive to me. There’s so much more we could talk about here, but I want to talk a little more about your book. What was the most challenging part of writing?
Belinda: The most challenging part was making sure that I was capturing all the perspectives from my character identities. I have a gay biracial character and as someone who doesn’t identify that way, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t stereotyping them and truly representing their story. I wanted a very diverse cast, but the last thing I want is to tokenize anyone’s identity. Luckily I have a lot of friends and people who do identify in those ways who would give me advice. Ultimately I can’t fully capture everyone’s experiences, but hopefully I’ve been able to capture at least slivers that will help different types of people feel a little less alone.
Rebecca: What advice do you have for people who are interested in writing a book, but don’t know how to get started or are intimidated by the process?
Belinda: Just go for it. It sounds cliche but when I first started writing I thought you had to start from chapter one and write chronologically. Along the way, I realized it doesn’t have to be that way. The first scene I wrote was a bullying scene because that was when COVID was at its height and Asian Americans were getting a lot of racist comments. Writing that scene made me think about who the characters were as people and why they were reacting in certain ways.
Breaking things down into chunks really helps. Even now, it’s hard to believe I actually wrote a book, because I did it in so many chunks. Writing a book is challenging, but you just have to take it one step at a time.