I had never experienced love at first sight until I saw To All The Boys. The first film adaptation of Jenny Han’s YA trilogy, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, premiered on Aug. 17, 2018, and I’ve been hopelessly devoted ever since. Three years and two movies later, I’m still just as infatuated, but I know that my relationship with TATB has, sadly, run its course.
The release of To All The Boys: Always And Forever, the last film in the franchise, marked the end of an era in the romantic-comedy genre. Who knows if we’ll ever see a trilogy about a teenage girl who isn’t living in a dystopic future ever again? But it’s also the end of one of the best (and only) representations of Asian American teenagers in Hollywood.
Watching Lara Jean Song Covey (Lana Condor), a rare Asian American heroine, fall in love with Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) made me feel bubbly, giggly, and light. It made me happy in a way no other rom-com ever had — until the subsequent release of To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You in 2020, and To All The Boys: Always And Forever in 2021 — because Lara Jean didn’t just represent me as an Asian American, she made me feel understood. For the very first time, I wasn’t just represented, I was seen.
It’s why, in the fall of 2018, I dressed up as Lara Jean for Halloween — the very first time I dressed as an Asian pop culture figure. After 28 years of not feeling Asian enough to cosplay as Mulan or Lucy Liu in Charlie’s Angels, finally there was a biracial character that reflected my own heritage. I didn’t have to pretend to be white or Asian to be Lara Jean, I could actually be both.
To be clear: I don’t look like Lana Condor. The actor, who stars in all three films, isn’t Hapa herself — she’s Vietnamese American — but the actors who play her sisters, Anna Cathcart (Kitty) and Janel Parrish (Margot), are. And together the three actors show that not all half Asian people look like a clean 50/50 split. It might seem obvious, but the world of people who interpret race in absolutes is surprisingly large. The reality of existing as a multiracial person in America is to constantly be asked, “What are you?” By casting three Asian women with varying degrees of stereotypical “East Asian” features, To All The Boys made that question a little easier to answer for Hapa girls like me while, hopefully, making it a harder question for others to ask.
And it’s not just Hapa people who feel seen by To All The Boys. It’s also Asian Americans who don’t have a strong cultural connection to their heritage. Lara Jean’s character is specifically Asian, but her story isn’t. She drinks Yakult, but she doesn’t speak Korean; she celebrates Korean new year, but she’s not constantly in the kitchen cooking traditional Korean dishes. Her ethnicity is an important, vital part of who she is, but it’s also not the heart of her identity. And that allows her to eclipse Hollywood stereotypes. It also allows for the trilogy to explore the realities of being a second or third generation immigrant. When Lara Jean visits Korea in Always And Forever, she’s a tourist. She even tells Peter about the disconnect she feels, being in Korea but not being able to communicate in Korean when spoken to by locals. It’s an experience countless second generation immigrants have, and it’s been explored in films before. The difference with TATB is that this identity crisis doesn’t control the entire arc of the story. It’s just a part of Lara Jean’s life.
It’s like I’m breaking up with my first love: I’m afraid I’ll never find anything like it ever again, but I’m also so thankful I got to experience it at all.
The To All The Boys trilogy also validated my Asian American identity in a way that Hollywood movies about East Asians rarely do. In mainstream studio movies, stories about East Asian Americans are often about characters discovering their Asian ancestry or going to Asia. And when you’re not connected to that immigrant experience, watching those films can feel like you’re the middle sliver of a Venn diagram between “Represented” and “Not Represented.” On the one hand, you feel represented because you don’t see yourself on screen in any other context. On the other hand, it’s not your story, and it can be othering when every Asian protagonist you see on screen has to connect to their heritage to move forward in their story.
It’s not that these movies are bad or not representative of the Asian American experience. Movies like The Joy Luck Club, Tigertail, and The Farewell, which tell stories about Asian immigration or first generation Asian Americans exploring their ancestry, are extremely important. Even Crazy Rich Asians, a rom-com, fits into this set. But, contrary to what Hollywood might have you believe, these kinds of stories are not definitive of the Asian American experience. Neither is To All The Boys, but that’s kind of the point.
One movie cannot define an entire ethnicity, but what the To All The Boys trilogy has done is to expand the spectrum of Asian identities on screen, bringing us one step further away from the otherness by which we are often depicted. For me, Lara Jean isn’t just a character that looks like me, she’s a character I actually could be. I can’t be an overly horny Asian exchange student — like Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) in Sixteen Candles — or the school obsessed sidekick — Nelly Yuki (Yin Chang) in Gossip Girl — but the hopeless romantic who gets the boy? I can be her. I want to be her. With To All The Boys, I can imagine myself as the girl that gets the guy without having to erase my entire Asian identity.
This trilogy normalizes a new version of the Asian American experience in a time when we desperately need it. To All The Boys: Always And Forever, the last installment of the franchise, was released at the start of 2021, when hate crimes against Asian Americans are at an all-time high. The othering of Asian Americans has facilitated the vilification of Asians in the COVID-19 pandemic, and now communities are dealing with the dangerous fallout. One movie can’t fix this problem, but I have to believe that it can help.
I’m grateful that the To All The Boys series gave me the chance to see myself on screen in all my Asian American glory. To see it come to an end now is bittersweet. It’s like I’m breaking up with my first love: I’m afraid I’ll never find anything like it ever again, but I’m also so thankful I got to experience it at all. To All The Boys gave me something I didn’t know I was missing. Now, I just want more.