After two difficult years of anti-Asian racism and violence, one thing the Asian community needs is joy. Now, more than ever, there is this deep-rooted desire to celebrate being Asian and cultivate a sense of pride surrounding racial identity.
The picture book, which is illustrated by Sophie Diao, is a moving ode to the immigrant experience, and a manifesto of self-love for Asian American children. It tells the story of Mei, a young girl who recently emigrated from China to New York City with family. It’s written in the form of a love letter from Mei’s parents, who are adjusting to life in America with their daughter’s help. Meanwhile, Mei feels as though she’s in between two worlds, an experience Chen herself felt growing up as a first-generation Chinese American in New York City.
“I would say [of all my books], this one reflects my personal experience the most…it’s the closest thing I’ve done to an autobiography or memoir so far,” she tells The RepresentASIAN Project. “[Mei] helps translate for her parents, which I still do, and she is bullied, which I experienced when I was younger.”
Chen wrote I Am Golden shortly after the Atlanta spa shootings which killed eight people, including six Asian women.
“I wrote it as a kind of antidote to all the Asian hate and rhetoric that was being spouted,” she says. “I wanted to write a book that celebrates the experience of being a Chinese American child and celebrates the bravery it takes for people to be immigrants. Immigrants risk their whole lives sometimes to come to a place where they don’t speak the language…the bravery it takes to do that is just unbelievable.”
Writing I Am Golden was not only a way for Chen to put to words the “jumbly feelings” she was having surrounding the pandemic and anti-Asian hate, but also a way for her to connect and engage more deeply with her parents and her three children: Ren, Tao and River.
“My parents do not openly talk about their experiences, but this book was [a way] for me and my parents to [have a conversation around it],” she says, noting the personal photos of her mom and dad included in the book.
She hopes the story can help non-Asian children and families better understand the Asian experience, as well as spark conversations surrounding race and identity within Asian families.
“I feel a lot of families need learning tools and conversation starters,” she says. “I hope this book opens the door to conversation for families that may not emote or share family history as openly due to the sacrifice and suffering around their experiences.”
When it comes to conversations with her own children, particularly around difficult topics like racism, Chen tries to weave the subject matter into the daily narrative.
She recalls a time when her children were goofing around making silly faces. At one point, they pulled their eyes back, not realizing what they were doing.
“I saw it and I said, ‘Hey, don’t do that and let me tell you why,’” she says. “I was just really upfront. I said ‘Some people who want to bully people who look like mommy, people who look like Poh Poh, that’s what they do. People used to do that to mommy and it made mommy feel bad, so don’t do that.”
Instilling a “sense of Chineseness” in her children is also very important, as they’re biracial.
“I feel like it’s not always going to be immediately obvious that they are half Asian,” she explains. “That’s what I want to make sure they speak Chinese, they have to understand the culture and the food and the respect to parents.”
With I Am Golden, Chen hopes children can learn the art of self-celebration, self-love and validation, and feel empowered by their differences.
“Children are very literal and I do think it’s important for them to read books that celebrate them,” she says. “It is important for them to hear from grownups that they are amazing, but some kids might not be hearing that. They might live in a family where outward emotion is less common, so if they can get that from a book, I think that’s wonderful.”
All in all, Chen hopes Asian American children will celebrate being “golden.”
“There’s a glow to the word ‘golden’—a joy to it, a respect to it, and a strength to it. And those are the associations I would love my children and other children to see in themselves,” she explains. “I want it to feel like self-celebration, which is more than self-acceptance. Rather than it being ‘This is who I am’ and that’s it, it’s more about being ‘This is who I am, and it’s wonderful. This is who I am, and I’m amazing.”
I Am Golden is available for pre-order and will be published February 1, 2022.