Belinda Lei’s ‘Not THAT Rich’ exposes competition among Asians
By May S. Ruiz
Asians are often stereotyped as the ‘model minority’ – overachieving, law-abiding, non-complaining people who soar above whatever challenges and obstacles are thrown at them to attain financial and personal success. That their accomplishments sometimes come at great cost to their mental well-being isn’t openly discussed.
This is what Belinda Lei explores in her young adult book called “Not THAT Rich,” which follows the lives of senior high schoolers as they navigate the stressful, highly competitive college admissions period.
The daughter of immigrants from Mainland China, Lei was born and raised in Walnut and Hacienda Heights in the eastern San Gabriel Valley. And while she says she’s grateful that her parents brought her up in predominantly Asian American communities where she wasn’t made fun of and bullied for what she ate and how she looked, it also meant being in a pressure cooker environment.
From her typical Asian upbringing – multi-generation family members in one household – she knows how Asian kids have to strictly adhere to the path their elders set out for them. “I also grew up with my grandparents, from whom I learned traditional Chinese values and an immigrant work ethic from a young age,” relates Lei. “My family promoted what they deemed best for me based upon what they thought would secure me a happy future – financial success, a reputable profession, and a devotion to family. As a teenager, I admittedly resented the expectations that seemed so unachievable and felt like I was simply following a mold – that of the model minority.
“However, having recently turned 26 and now looking back, I empathize with why my family pushed me so hard when I was younger. Though I do believe there is a balance to everything (something I explore a lot in the book). With generational and cultural gaps, a lot of communication and understanding can be lost. And with mental health issues on the rise amongst adolescents and young adults too, it’s now more important than ever to try to bridge these gaps and develop common ground on this definition of ‘success’ and ‘happiness.’”
Asked if the title of her book is a reference to Kevin Kwan’s “Crazy Rich Asians” book series, Lei replies, “Yes and no. Originally, ‘Not THAT Rich’ was going to be called ‘SGV’ as a nod to the San Gabriel Valley, where the fictional Winchester High is located in. But over time, as I tailored the book to a young adult audience, I began to think about the books I loved as a teenager, like ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’ For ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ I was incredibly excited for not only the book series but also its fully Asian and Asian American cast in the movie adaptation.
“At the same, I also understood the stereotype that might be reinforced with it – that Asians are crazy and rich. Coming up with ‘Not THAT Rich,’ was a sarcastic response in some ways to ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’ What does being rich really mean? What are the sacrifices and struggles that it entails to achieve what we stereotypically deem as rich? Why do we pursue wealth in the first place? These are all questions I was hoping to address in the book although admittedly, I’m still trying to figure out all the answers myself!”
“I wrote ‘Not THAT Rich’ through the lens of being the book that I wish I had as a high schooler,” Lei describes. “Growing up, there wasn’t much Asian American representation in pop culture, and even when there was an Asian American actor on TV or in a book, I felt like it didn’t reflect my own experience of being a second-generation daughter of Chinese immigrants. I wanted to write a book that encompassed the glitz and glam I sought out in books growing up (like ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘The Clique’) but also gave readers a glimpse into the diversity of perspectives and experiences that can be found in the world of being Asian American (like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ to a certain extent, despite it being set in Singapore).
“Most importantly, I wanted the book to be fun. Young adults already have so much on their minds these days from juggling family, friends, education, and just being a teenager. The heaviness cast in 2020 by the pandemic and political turmoil made it even more important for me to write a lighthearted and juicy book that helped readers escape into a satirical world and, at the same time, draw out reflections about identity, motivations, and consequences.”
But while Lei writes about high schoolers and their experience, her book is centered on her truths and others may not relate to them at all. She clarifies, “’Not THAT Rich’ only represents a tiny sliver of the extremely diverse and dynamic racial, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity of the L.A. region. It’s merely based on the world that I grew up in. I highlight a variety of backgrounds, thoughts, and experiences in the novel, but it doesn’t represent the 20 million Asian Americans who can trace their roots to more than 20 countries.”
“Asian Americans are an extremely heterogeneous group,” continues Lei. “Unfortunately, many people see us as a homogenous one. I was starkly aware of this ‘othering’ while writing it in 2020 and consuming reports about the increase of anti-Asian hate crimes due to COVID-19. How is it that my racial identity can brand me as someone who should ‘go back to my own country’ when the country that I’ve been born and raised in is the U.S.? I hope the stories that I weave can help subvert these misplaced prejudices by highlighting how being culturally American and culturally connected to another country should not be mutually exclusive.
“Lastly, think about who is not represented in the novel. Yes, ‘Not THAT Rich’ is fictional, but it does reflect the demographics of the area that I grew up in and the access and opportunities that I was surrounded by. It is very much a book about privilege. While it does not tackle issues of racism and classism head-on, this ‘fun, juicy, and dramatic’ world, unfortunately, does show how socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, and educational opportunities are intimately intertwined in America.”
Spoiler alert – to say that “Not THAT Rich” depicts Asian parents in unflattering light would be a kindness. While they realize in the end how they have created a toxic environment for their children and redeem themselves by righting the wrongs, it could have happened sooner. And Lei is preaching the moral of her story by launching the Chinese version of her book so non-English-speaking parents can read it and, through it, develop self-awareness.
“I would like for the book to reach a worldwide audience, but my goal from the very beginning has always been that if I can reach only one youth out there and make them feel heard, then it has been worth it,” adds Lei. “In that sense, I’m already proud of how far it has come, and seeing it continue to rise in popularity is the icing on the cake. Target recently began carrying the English edition of my book online and as businesses are opening up more, I’m hoping to get it into more brick and mortar bookshops.”
In January, Lei will be returning to Yale to finish the final year of her MBA degree and will graduate next December. Since her first year there, though, she has been a strategy consultant, software engineer, and is currently a product manager at Citibank. She is also the managing director of an anti-bullying non-profit called Act to Change, which focuses on Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
“The organization first started out in October 2015 as a national public awareness campaign on bullying prevention among youth under President Obama’s White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI),” Lei explains. “I had been a senior intern at the White House Initiative to help spearhead the launch of the AAPI Bullying Prevention Task Force – a coordinated cross-agency effort to address bullying amongst youth. The report released by the task force resulted in the creation of Act To Change and when it officially became a non-profit in 2018, I joined as a founding board member and now I’m the Managing Director.
“I wear a lot of different hats in my role – I’m responsible for various initiatives like our Homeroom with Tan France series where Tan France conducts virtual school visits to talk about bullying and our most recent bullying survey in collaboration with Next Shark and Admerasia. I can also be hopping on calls about fundraising or making TikTok videos. This doesn’t include being our in-house developer where I help manage the website, acttochange.org, or our digital campaigns. It is like my second job.”
With Lei’s multitasking abilities and various pursuits, it’s difficult to foresee where she’ll be a decade from now. In fact, when queried about that, she confesses, “It’s a tough question that I never know how to answer for interviews! Being in my twenties, I feel like my life is constantly changing and with all my different interests I can see myself in multiple different situations in ten years. If I had to choose a dream state for me in my thirties though, it would be being in the entrepreneurship space and continuing to create products or experiences that make a positive impact on communities.”
We can predict, though, that we might see a sequel to “Not THAT Rich” in the not-too-distant future; Lei’s already brainstorming on it. Hopefully, in it the kids will have gone on to university and beyond, and are on the road to living fully realized versions of their younger selves.
But that ideal isn’t limited to Asians – it is something we all aspire to.