I was in 8th grade when Jeremy Lin suddenly came on the scene as the first Chinese or Taiwanese-American NBA player, but I wasn’t surprised at all. A couple years ago, Stanford Wong had already set the precedent of the California-bred Asian-American basketball bro in my head. Lisa Yee’s Millicent Min trilogy was well-circulated in my elementary school class.
It might be a radical choice (though increasingly less so) to feature a non-stereotypical Asian kid on a television show today, but in the depths of my competitive Orange County neighborhood, it was absolutely commonplace for the most popular kid in class to be an athletic Taiwanese boy gifted in math and wit. After I moved to a less diverse town in New Jersey, it occurred to me that casual representation like those of Lisa Yee’s Stanford Wong, Millicent Min, and Emily Ebers, were so essential.
Lisa Yee’s “Millie Trilly” all take place during a summer in the suburban Rancho Rosetta, California. Millicent is a prissy child genius who befriends Emily, who just moved to her neighborhood after her parents’ divorce. Over the summer, she is assigned to tutor her nemesis Stanford, who in turn develops a crush on Emily.
All three were formative in cultivating my sense of humor, but Stanford, to whom I had been introduced first, made the biggest impression on me. He was a middle school heartthrob, academic underachiever, third-generation Chinese-American, and an excellent basketball player, poised to be the first 7th grader to ever make the A-team.
There’s a complexity and desperation to his character that I had overlooked as a fifth grader.
Although his earlier life rising from the depths of unpopularity and Star Trek fandom through his basketball talent represents a classic sort of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” assimilation narrative, something that struck me reading the book this time around is the emotional toll this ascent takes on him. There’s a complexity and desperation to his character that I had overlooked as a fifth grader.
But I always understood his plight of failing to live up to the expectations of his parents and the fact that it’s so difficult to be an Asian kid who isn’t academically gifted. The kinds of discrimination Asian people in America are subject to are different from those suffered by the black or Latinx community, but still pervasive enough to warrant discussion and anger.
Stanford Wong is kind of living the American Dream. His parents made it. (One more thing about revisiting children’s literature as an older person is being able to fully appreciate the adults who populate the protagonists’ lives.) They’re Stanford University graduates living a solidly upper-middle class life. His mom works at a think tank while his dad is a lawyer; they can afford elite basketball camps and probably chose Rancho Rosetta specifically for its good public school system.
In his stand-up special Homecoming King, Hasan Minhaj, known as the Zayn Malik of comedians, discusses his childhood growing up in Davis, California as a Muslim Indian-American and having the “audacity of equality” as someone who was born in the US. “I’m in honors gov! It says it right here: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!” Stanford is insulated by that inherent sense of equality and has been protected by the meritocratic system of basketball.
There’s something about watching him be the popular kid and date the girl he likes and learning to love SE Hinton’s The Outsiders and secretly knit when he’s stressed (screw toxic masculinity!) that makes me so happy. It’s not like he abandons his culture; he’s plenty connected to his “heritage,” helping his grandma make wontons and shu mai, but this isn’t another story about the toil and hardship of an immigrant’s life.
Revisiting children’s literature as an older person is being able to fully appreciate the adults who populate the protagonists’ lives.
I enjoyed the general wholesomeness of Stanford’s nature and the small Easter egg kindnesses committed by the people who surround these kids’ lives. There’s so much subtext to be mined from this series, from the red flags raised by Emily’s well-meaning but ultimately irresponsible father, to a tiny gesture of solidarity that suggested that Stanford’s friend Gus is a genuinely good guy.
This time around, I was particularly impressed by Alice, Emily’s mother who struggles to recover following a messy divorce with Emily’s father. I finally understood the cultural references brought up by child genius Millicent Min. And yes, Millicent, Rothko nails would look really dope; I’m impressed by Emily’s skills. My discomfort regarding the lack of fiscal responsibility on flagrant display in Emily Ebers reminded me that financial literacy should be taught to children as well as adults.
After watching Hasan Minhaj’s special, there’s a part of me that wonders if there will ever be a day when Stanford goes on a date with a girl whose parents tell him something along the lines of “you’re a great kid but not marriage material. We don’t have a problem with you, but you know…her grandparents…” Or if Millicent will come across an insidious figure in the heavily male-dominated world of academia who keeps making strange references to how “docile” and “doll-like” she is.
I like to imagine that Stanford and Emily are the one-in-a-million middle school couple that makes it. Maybe Stanford plays basketball at USC while Emily studies at UCLA to become a counseling psychologist who also dispenses advice and wisdom through her newsletter or blog. Millicent wins the Fields Medal and later depends on Emily’s emotional intelligence and expertise to do groundbreaking research in psychology.
Sure, the generations before them willingly gave up their comfort and toiled to create a new future for their lineage, but once we’re in the future, can’t we just enjoy it? Let’s just sit and appreciate the fact that they have the luxury of pedestrian conflict.