‘When You Wish Upon a Lantern’ Tells a Magical Chinese American Story

If you had a chance to wish for one thing, what would it be? For Liya, a young Asian American teen who just lost her beloved grandmother, her one wish is to grant others’ wishes to save her family’s store to preserve her grandmother’s legacy. Gloria Chao’s latest novel, When You Wish Upon a Lantern, tells the story of Liya and her childhood friend, Kai, as they try their best to save the store, and perhaps gain the courage to go after their own personal dreams, too. Adding a unique flair to the story, this novel also weaves in elements of Chinese and Chinese American culture, creating a distinctive and engaging read that invokes emotion and nostalgia.

Immigrating to the U.S. alone when she was younger, Liya’s grandmother worked tirelessly to establish herself in Chicago’s Chinatown. She eventually opened up When You Wish Upon A Lantern, a small storefront selling tiāndēng (sky lanterns), used for festivals and making wishes, and an array of other trinkets. Raising Liya throughout her childhood and adolescence, the two formed a tradition of secretly granting wishes that were shared with them through these tiāndēng together, but when Liya’s grandmother fell ill and passed away, Liya gave up the tradition temporarily.

Aside from her grandmother, Liya’s other trusted companion is Kai, whom her father heavily disapproves of because of his family and their bakery, Once Upon A Mooncake. Despite this, the two are best friends, helping each other through life’s hurdles and understanding one another better than anyone else. While both are still grieving the loss of Liya’s grandmother, however, a small misunderstanding leaves the two of them in a cold war, not willing to speak to one another, until Liya discovers her grandmother’s precious store is at risk of eviction. Enlisting Kai’s help, the two work together to reignite the magic that once floated throughout the tight-knit Chinatown community, and along the way, the two also reignite the sparks between them. Following the official release of the book in February, APA spoke with author Gloria Chao to explore the novel and her personal journey as a writer.

When thinking back on her purpose for writing the novel, Chao’s “why” is simple, yet meaningful. “I wanted readers to feel a little bit of the magic that I felt when I wrote it. This book idea came about in October of 2020, which was a very tough time for almost everybody, and I needed to remind myself that there was hope in the world.” Wanting to share that hope and magic with her readers without delving into fantasy or speculative genres, the two-month writing process for the book was spent weaving a tale that embodies everyday magic using the concept of wishes. “We as a society have this love of finding time to make wishes – on our birthday, eyelash wishes, and more. There are all these fun little traditions, and there’s something so innately magical about that.”

Aside from spreading magic, When You Wish Upon a Lantern also exists to embrace the idea of celebrating both sides of the Chinese American experience. “Liya lives in Chinatown, and they really embrace this melding of cultures. Her grandma decided to hold Qixi (七夕) on July 7th every year, no longer [basing off of] the lunar calendar, and Liya’s dad has the box over the family store that plays the old classic song “Yuèliàng Dàibiǎo Wǒ de Xīn (月亮代表我的心),” but using new technology.” Chao also showed this off with specific details and dialogue throughout the book, with the biggest one being the use of both Mandarin and English. With many Asian Americans growing up bilingual, it becomes natural to speak in a combination of both languages. Rather than translate the commonly used Mandarin words and phrases, Chao opted to use pinyin instead, with a glossary at the end of the novel to explain each one. “It’s just such a part of my life. I grew up in a Mandarin-only home, and I still only speak Mandarin to my parents. For me, it almost makes sense that at least one of my characters should speak this kind of “Chinglish,” because that’s how I think. There are certain words I especially love, where there isn’t a good translation for it, or it takes a lot of words.” Giving an example, Chao mentioned the word “rè nào (热闹).” “The phrase shows up in a lot of my books because I love that one. You hear that and just picture this hubbub of lively excitement and happiness, but there isn’t quite an [English] equivalent for that.” Choosing her words carefully, she believes using pinyin and keeping specific words and phrases in Mandarin in her novels is just natural.

Chao initially felt a lot of pressure when writing from the Asian American perspective while knowing each individual is different. “Before my first book, I worked very hard to make sure that it was a very honest representation of my experience. I thought, I will never be able to represent all experiences, but I can represent one honest experience – my own. Because of that, the book ended up being a little bit more autobiographical.” Taking bits and pieces of herself and putting it into the novel also resulted in similarities between herself and her characters, and to her, it’s quite obvious how much she relates to Liya and Kai specifically. “I have a little bit of Liya’s earnestness in the way she views the world with her hopefulness, and I have some of Kai’s funnier qualities. In the book, when he calls himself ‘Shameful Kai,’ that’s actually something taken from my real life,” she said with a laugh. “I used to joke to my husband every time something happened and I said something I didn’t actually mean, calling it ‘Shameful Gloria.”

Penning novels with non-white leads who unapologetically revel in their Asian culture, Gloria Chao is one of the early pioneers of Asian American contemporary romance, alongside other authors such as Jenny Han and Maurene Goo. For her, these stories and novels are her own love letters to her upbringing. “I wanted to include all of my favorite things, like my favorite holidays, traditions, and folk tales, from my childhood, and I just wanted to share those pieces with readers. I wanted some to be able to connect with it, who have had similar experiences growing up, and I also wanted to just share it with people who aren’t familiar.” Although she grew up hearing stories such as The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl (牛郎織女), Chao knows it isn’t commonplace and searched for a way to bring these stories to life while learning more about them herself. “At first, I actually had a little bit of hesitation [because] I was worried about getting it right, but the more research I did, the more I realized that there are so many traditions, and every family celebrates these holidays in a different way. Even Qixi (七夕) itself spans dynasties, and in every dynasty, the traditions would change. I had this epiphany, which Liya also has in the book, which is that we get to make it what we want.”

Growing up in a fairly strict household, Chao didn’t have much exposure to pop culture, television, or film as a child, turning to reading for fun instead. The author enjoyed a variety of books, but names “The Baby-Sitters Club,” “Calvin & Hobbes,” and “Garfield” as some of her childhood favorites. “I loved reading as a kid, [but] by the time I got to high school, I was really pushed toward math and science by my parents, teachers, and society. I stopped reading for a very long chunk of my life, [but] I was so miserable in dental school that I started again for fun. That was the only thing that kind of got me through the week. I was so miserable, but books were an escape.” Eventually getting into writing, too Chao decided to take the leap from dentistry to becoming an author, despite disapproval from her family. “I really discovered it late, and as much as I hate to admit it, I do wonder if I would have found my way here if I wasn’t that miserable.” Although she was firm in her decision, the road was not easy. “I was coming from something that was so tough for me that it did make it a little bit easier in some ways, but it was scary. I think having something that I loved after having something that I was miserable with really helped me keep pushing forward.”

Despite Chao making the decision to switch career paths in her adulthood, her parents and family had a very hard time accepting it. “It took me a little while to realize that part of the problem was that I wasn’t communicating very effectively, and they didn’t really understand why dentistry was so miserable for me, and why I loved writing.” Reminiscing about her first novel, American Panda, the writer believes this book helped her understand her family a little more, particularly her mom. “I was trying to write from the mom’s point of view in the book, and it forced me to have conversations with my mom that I was too scared to have before. And because I was trying to understand the mom’s side of the story in the book, I started asking [my own mom] questions, and that was when I realized that all of the reasons she was scared of me becoming a writer were not what I had just assumed. By actually having the conversation, things started to change. It’s been a long road for us, but a lot of my family has come around, and they’re supportive now,” she shared.

Chao’s yearning for helping others and bringing more representation goes beyond just her books, as she became a mentor in the We Need Diverse Books program just last year. “I love the organization. They’re doing such important work, and I was honored to be a part of their mentorship program.” The author highly recommends the program for anyone who might not know how to get started, as they offer mentorship programs of all kinds, with the mentor authors being able to curate their own curriculums. “There’s been a lot of improvements [with representation], and I love seeing how many more Asian American books and movies there are now [compared to] when I started and when I was trying to get an agent, but I think there’s still so much room to grow, and there’s still a long way to go.” Hoping her success can also inspire others, the author shares a piece of advice for those who may feel stuck: “There are people out there who want to hear your story, who want your voice. If you want to write, we want your story. Don’t be afraid to go for it. I really feel like, if I can do it, anyone can. It never occurred to me that I could get to be a writer, but once you find something you’re excited about, I think it’s worth at least giving it a shot.” In regards to When You Wish Upon a Lantern, Liya is the perfect example of gaining the courage to go after what’s important. “There is magic in this world, but sometimes, you really do have to make that magic happen for yourself.”

Closing out the conversation, Chao had to take a minute to think about the answer to our final question: what would she wish for if she had a tiāndēng? “For me personally, it’s the same goal that I set out to have when I first decided to switch careers. I really just hope I get to continue writing these stories, and that some of them will be able to reach their readers. When I first [switched careers], I asked myself, you know, if this doesn’t happen, would I be okay? When I realized the answer was yes, I knew I wanted to have tried. I feel very lucky now that I’ve had four books out, and I hope I can continue to write what I want to,” she shared with a pause to laugh, realizing she was on book number four, which is known as a bad luck number in Chinese culture. Continuing on, Chao also shared one more broad wish: “I guess it’s the same as when I wrote When You Wish Upon a Lantern, which is that I hope people can remember that there’s magic in the world. I hope that people go after their dreams, and that their wishes find the light.”

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