Welcome to my Taiwanese American Heritage Week feature series! Taiwanese American Heritage Week is celebrated every year in May starting on Mother’s Day and ending the following Sunday. Each year during TAHW I spotlight Taiwanese authors and books in some form or fashion on my blog. You can find all of the past features in my Post Index.
The fifth author interview in my 2021 TAHW series is with Jennifer Yen on her debut YA novel A Taste for Love.
To her friends, high school senior Liza Yang is nearly perfect. Smart, kind, and pretty, she dreams big and never shies away from a challenge. But to her mom, Liza is anything but. Compared to her older sister Jeannie, Liza is stubborn, rebellious, and worst of all, determined to push back against all of Mrs. Yang’s traditional values, especially when it comes to dating.
The one thing mother and daughter do agree on is their love of baking. Mrs. Yang is the owner of Houston’s popular Yin & Yang Bakery. With college just around the corner, Liza agrees to help out at the bakery’s annual junior competition to prove to her mom that she’s more than her rebellious tendencies once and for all. But when Liza arrives on the first day of the bake-off, she realizes there’s a catch: all of the contestants are young Asian American men her mother has handpicked for Liza to date.
The bachelorette situation Liza has found herself in is made even worse when she happens to be grudgingly attracted to one of the contestants; the stoic, impenetrable, annoyingly hot James Wong. As she battles against her feelings for James, and for her mother’s approval, Liza begins to realize there’s no tried and true recipe for love.
Q: Food is such an essential part of Taiwanese culture. What is your favorite Taiwanese food (or one of your favorites since I know how hard it is to choose), and what memories or feelings do you associate with it, if any?
A: A lot of my favorite Taiwanese foods are street snacks (or derived from them). Some of my most vivid childhood memories come from eating and sharing them with my family. Stinky tofu is still one of my go-to guilty pleasures, but it’s definitely an acquired taste—or rather, smell—for most non-Taiwanese.
There was also this fried chicken stall in the day market my mom would take us to for groceries. It was run by an elderly man, and it was his family business. There was something about his batter and spices that made his chicken out of this world. Sadly, his children opted not to carry the recipe on after he retired.
My favorite sweet street snack were these soft animal-shaped waffles. They were made from a batter very similar to Hong Kong egg waffles, and the vendors would cart around their iron molds and make them on the spot for you. What I wouldn’t give to have them again!
Q: It seems to be a common thing for second generation Taiwanese writers to first try med school or some other STEM field before becoming writers (this was a thing for Gloria Chao, Livia Blackburne, and also me). What advice do you have for Taiwanese and other Asian youth who are thinking about venturing off the beaten (and often expected) path of the doctor/lawyer/engineer trifecta to write or do other creative work?
A: This is such a tough question, because I went down the same path you did (and am still in STEM to this day)! To me, the key is compromise. Many immigrant parents drive their children towards STEM because of the perceived financial stability in those fields. Mine were definitely that way, and it stung to have them dismiss anything they didn’t consider worth my time. Now as an adult, I understand their point of view, but there’s also a middle ground. Pursue your passions, but do your research and know how to deal with the financial ups and downs of creative work. That could be a “fallback” career, or a job that at least helps you to pay the bills. It’s also important to remember that it’s never too late to be creative. There is no age limit to your imagination!
Q: If you were to pick a combination of a baked good and a bubble tea mix (base+flavor+topping) to represent Liza, Grace, James, and Ben, respectively, what would you choose for each of them, and why?
A: Hmmmm this is another great but challenging question! I would say the following:
Liza is probably charsiu bao and jasmine green milk tea with boba, because she’s sweet and salty (haha) and your go-to person for any occasion!
Grace would be egg tart and cheese foam peach oolong tea! She’s well-loved, looks impeccable, and always on trend.
James is definitely boluo bao and Japanese matcha. He’s crusty on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside. While he isn’t for everyone and takes getting used to, there’s lots of perks if you give him a chance.
Ben would be milk custard bun and brown sugar black tea with boba, because he’s sweet outside and in, but has layers you might miss if you only fall for his looks.
Q: Your story mentions Taiwanese and Korean dramas. Did you draw inspiration from any of these while you were writing? What other sources served as inspiration for the story (aside from Pride & Prejudice and GBBO)?
A: I would say that I draw inspiration from the themes and tropes we see in all dramas. However, there’s obviously cultural complexities that I weave into A Taste for Love that fall more in line with what you see in the Asian ones. One of my favorite things is the multi-layered twists Taiwanese and Korean dramas throw at their audience, and I tried incorporating a small version of that into the story (if you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about).
Q: A lot of Asian immigrant parents don’t necessarily show love through “I love you”s or physical affection. If you were to analyze Liza and her mom using the 5 Love Languages model (https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/the-5-love-languages-explained), how would you rank the two characters for each “language” on a scale from 1 to 5, 1 being the least important, 5 being the most important?
A: Funny you mention that, because I feel a lot of immigrant families struggle with communication because the generations have different love languages.
For Mrs. Yang, she’s definitely acts of service (5), quality time (4), gifts (3), words of affirmation (2), and physical touch (1), though the last three are fairly equal (and minimal).
For Liza, I would say her primary love languages are words of affirmation (5) and gifts (4), followed by quality time (3), acts of service (2), and physical touch (1), though again, the last three are fairly equal.
One thing to keep in mind is that you’ll see Mrs. Yang and Liza switch between their love languages depending on who they are with. It’s not uncommon to see that, because all relationships involve common ground and compromise!
Q: I love how this book pays tribute to Houston and its Chinatown. Did you base any of the locations in the story on real places?
A: The majority of the places in ATFL are based on real places. Mama Lee’s is loosely based on 85C Bakery, while Mrs. Yang’s bakery is an amalgamation of the smaller, local bakeries in Houston’s Chinatown. Yin and Yang came from a joint restaurant-and-bakery my family used to frequent up in Plano (I am not sure if it still exists), and all the boba and shaved ice shops are also a combination of the many wonderful places you can find here!
Q: Since the pandemic started, a lot of East and Southeast Asian restaurants across the US have seen decreases in traffic due to racism and xenophobia. What E/SE Asian restaurants and bubble tea shops are your favorites to visit in the Houston area? (Note: Hyperlinks redirect to Google Maps!)
A: Oh my goodness! Honestly, there’s so many I could write a whole essay on them. I tend to go to restaurants for specific dishes or specialties, so it really depends on my mood! Some of the ones I’ve been eating at lately are:
- San Dong Noodle House – Taiwanese cuisine, also the inspiration for Dumpling Dynasty…and yes, their leek dumplings are to die for (note from Shenwei: I also love this place, they have amazing dumplings!)
- Mein – I’m obsessed with their wonton noodle soup, Sansai egg tofu, and shaking chicken/beef (along with so many other things)
- Tofu Village (yup, it’s Tofu City in the book) – Korean BBQ
- Pepper Lunch – Japanese DIY teppanyaki steak and seafood
- Banana Leaf – amazing Thai food (note from Shenwei: it’s a Malaysian restaurant with different Asian regional dishes from East, Southeast, and South Asia)
As for boba shops or dessert shops, the ones I go to the most are The Teahouse Tapioca & Tea (they singlehandedly fueled ATFL while I was drafting), Sharetea, Tiger Sugar, Modern Tea, and Gong Cha. I also love the red bean soups at Meet Fresh, as well as the shaved ice there (try their brown sugar boba one—it’s heaven) and at Bing Su and Snowy Village!
About the Author:
Jennifer Yen began her writing career in the fourth grade, when her teacher took the detective story she wrote and turned it into a printed book as a gift to her. The encouragement of her teacher, as well as her love for reading and telling stories, kept her writing about the worlds that exist in her imagination.
While Jennifer’s penned everything from poetry to fanfiction, her passion lies in young adult and adult fiction. Drawing from her own experiences growing up as an Asian American, she especially loves writing about family, food, and of course…love!
Jennifer now lives in Texas with her adorable rescue dog. She spends her days healing the hearts of others, and her nights writing about love, family, and the power of acceptance. She believes in the magic of one’s imagination, and hopes her stories will bring joy and inspiration to readers.
If you find Jennifer wandering around aimlessly, please return her to the nearest milk tea shop.