Summer Reading Recommendations: “What We Were Promised” by Lucy Tan

Happy July, Generasian Readers!

The worlds of Asian literature and media seem to have collided this summer, exploding onto the international stage with new film adaptations of Asian-authored books. From Netflix’s production of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before written by Jenny Han, to the big-screen debut of Crazy Rich Asians written by Kevin Kwan, Asian-authored literature is on the move.

In the age of Netflix deals and digital specials, book adaptations definitely aren’t going anywhere, which is especially exciting as we witness a new crop of AAPI writers bless the literary world with riveting books to fill up our summer reading lists (especially with YA Fiction).  

Don’t know where to start? We recommend an author whose debut novel has not only just been released, but whose writing has been shaped by her time right here at NYU: Lucy Tan!

Stick around at the end of this article for the rest of our AAPI author recommendations.


Lucy Tan’s What We Were Promised, published on July 10th, asks readers: What happens when you are forced to pick up your hopes and dreams, move thousands of miles away to a new land, and forge a new life with fire in your eyes – all to ship this new life back to a country that is no longer the home you knew it to be?

Wei and Lina Zhen, along with their young daughter Karen have returned to Shanghai after years of chasing the American Dream, only to find that the happiness they found in the United States has not followed them back in the way they had hoped.

Wei, an advertising executive, confronts the dissatisfaction and frustration that comes with his career shift, while his wife Lina struggles to find fulfillment in the affluent life of a taitai. Faced with the sudden return of Wei’s brother Qiang–whose past is deeply intertwined with both husband and wife–and the impending adolescence of American-raised Karen, the Zhen family learns what it means to be a third-culture family in the 21st century.

Tan’s humorous and poetic prose is not only a joy to read but an apt expression of the distinctly reserved yet emotionally charged outlooks of Asian ex-expats. Watching Wei and Lina grapple with the shift in their roles in both marriage and parenting tugs at your heartstrings while listening to their housekeeper-turned-ayi Sunny simultaneously position herself in their world and her own paints an equally heartfelt picture of self-identity. Add to this the mysterious history that links Wei, Qiang, and Lina, and you have a gripping read.

As college readers ourselves, Tan communicates the simultaneous past and future of those saddled with both American and Non-American cultures. We are in the middle: already introduced to American collegiate life, but not yet old enough to picture where this experience will lead us as professionals, parents – as adults.

As a collective consisting of many third-culture kids, this book strikes an even deeper chord: one that forces us to question how major shifts in both culture and wealth attach themselves to a family as it evolves.

Born in Shanghai and raised in New Jersey herself, Tan depicts a stunning all-around picture of third-culture families while executing an emotional story of past and present, putting her book at the top of our list of summer must-reads.


If you blow through WWWP like we did and are itching for more, consider some of our favorite Asian/AAPI debut authors of recent fiction books:

On Asian-American Identity:

–          The Leavers by Lisa Ko

–          Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

–          The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

Looking at Love:

–          The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

–          Chemistry by Weike Wang

Intersection – Asian Identity and Feminism:

–          Three Sisters by Bi Feiyu

–          The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Following Family – Historical Fiction:

–          The Storm by Arif Anwar

–          The Boat People by Sharon Bala

–          Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Let us know what your favorite Asian/AAPI reads have been below! We’d love to hear your recommendations.

Happy reading!

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