“Love, Dance & Egg Rolls” explores teen’s struggle to embrace cultural identity
When Jason Tanamor created the protagonist in his most recent novel, he imagined someone who struggled to identify with his ethnic heritage — something Tanamor experienced growing up as well.
“It was so much easier for me to just adopt white culture instead of promote Filipino culture, because that was who everyone was,” he said in an email, noting this was a time in his life about 30 years ago.
“Love, Dance & Egg Rolls,” published Tuesday, May 10, is a young adult novel that tells the story of Jamie Santiago, a Filipino American high school student in Portland who wants to become the next Tinikling dance master. As the story unfolds, Jamie finds himself faced with a tough decision: to attend the last ever Asian Folk Festival or Homecoming. Both events take place on the same day, and he has to choose between honoring his heritage and saving his social life.
That difficulty of embracing cultural identity is central not only in the book, but in Tanamor’s life. One moment in the book that was particularly meaningful to him was during a mahjong scene where Jamie comes to a realization: “When I’m around Filipinos, I feel very white. When I’m around white people, I feel very Filipino,” Tanamor said. It’s something he still feels in his mid-40s.
Yet despite that struggle, Tanamor remembers dancing Filipino folk dances as one of the more enjoyable periods of his life. And just like Jamie, nobody in his school knew about it.
“It’s like I was living two different lives,” he said.
It’s something Tanamor had always wanted to write a story about, but was reluctant to do so because he didn’t see characters that looked like him represented in media. When he got around to writing “Love, Dance & Egg Rolls,” he drew from that time in his life to give Jamie the desire to become the next Tinikling dance master.
While Tanamor has written several other books before, most of the stories featured white or faceless characters because he didn’t think people of color deserved to be main characters.
He said it was important for him to center the story on Filipino American cultural identity because the group is often lost Asian Americans as a collective. “Love, Dance & Egg Rolls” revolves around a Filipino American protagonist and family, rather than writing them as supplemental or stereotypical secondary characters, he noted.
“The cover has Tinikling on it,” he added. “How many YA books can you tell me [have] a Filipino dance on the cover? I’d argue few.”
Tanamor said he hopes that people of color, whether or not they are Filipino, will be able to relate to Jamie in this book.
“The truth is, people of color look at the world through a different lens, and that lens is what shapes their perspectives, which may be vastly different than our white counterparts, despite growing up in the same neighborhoods, schools, and environment.”
He added that with the division in the United States, it’s important for young kids, especially those of color, to know that they belong equally in a society that should be composed of different races and cultures.
“This book reinforces that idea that people of color can be the main character in their own life,” he said.