Gossip Girl meets Crazy Rich Asians in Not THAT Rich, a dramatic debut YA novel by about a group of friends at a prep school in an affluent L.A. suburb. An excerpt plus Q&A with the author about how her title touches on issues including Asian-American profiling, class and privilege at the core of our socio-political reckoning.
TRISHA, HUNTER, AND SIERRA
Hunter: You know those AP retakes?
Trisha: Uh, duh.
Hunter: Yeah so obv still pissed, but I thought Winchester let it go cuz of the new school year…
Hunter: But they didn’t.
Trisha: What do you mean they didn’t?
Hunter: It’s a police case now.
Trisha: WTF why?
Hunter: No clue. Angry parents wanting revenge I guess.
Trisha: That’s so extra!
Hunter: Yep. It’s Winchester after all.
Trisha: True. BTW, why are you texting me? I’m literally across the quad from you.
Hunter: Can’t you see I’m with Sierra 😉
Trisha put down her phone and nudged her best friend, Pamela, who was taking selfies on her phone.
“Trish!” Pamela exclaimed. “This better be good. Incredible lighting doesn’t last forever. It took me four tries before I was happy with my winged eyeliner this morning!”
“Pam, the AP thing is a POLICE case now!”
Pamela arched one of her well-defined, perfectly threaded eyebrows. “What? Seriously? Doesn’t the Pasadena police have anything better to do than to hunt down some random high schooler who screwed over the AP nerds?”
“It’s Pasadena. What do you expect?” Trisha smirked and wondered for the hundredth timewho had stolen the AP exams last spring and forced a quarter of the school to retake their exams over the summer, including her brother and her.
“No idea. My brother just texted me about it,” Trisha responded with a shrug. She stretched out her slim, sun-kissed legs and leaned back to bask in the Californian sun. It was the first day of school at Winchester High, one of the most prestigious college preparatory high schools in the San Gabriel Valley, or SGV for short. Trisha glanced across the quad at her brother and the “it” girl of the sophomore class, Sierra Jones, nuzzling each other.
I wonder what it must be like to be that tall, that beautiful, and that popular. Trisha looked down at her flat, shapeless body with dismay.
“Of course you got the information from Hunter.” Pamela interrupted her thoughts, tossing her thick, waist-length hair behind her shoulder. “Hunter knows everything now that he has joined the Tree People. He probably got it from Stacy Williams.”
“Did you just nickname Hunter’s new friend group Tree People? They’re not tree huggers or elves, just popular.”
“Trish, honey, isn’t it obvious? There isn’t any popular crowd just called ‘the popular group.’ They always have a clique name. Just think of the Plastics, the Pink Ladies, and the Pretty Little Liars. I think the Tree People perfectly suits them. They’re always under that big oak tree anyway.”
Trisha pursed her lips. She wasn’t a fan of putting people into categories at school, partially because she already hated being labeled the sophomore class’s overachieving perfectionist. However, she could also tell this was an argument she wasn’t going to win. When Pamela made up her mind, it was made up.
“Pam, what’s your schedule like today? Do you have a third block?” Trisha asked, changing the subject.
“Nope. How about you?” Pamela mumbled, preoccupied with her phone again, swiping through photo filters for her latest round of selfies.
“None too! I love this new block schedule.” The start of the new school year also meant a new and improved class schedule. In an effort to help its students adapt to college life early on, Winchester adopted a three classes a day, eighty minutes each block schedule.
“Slow down, girl. It’s only sophomore year. We’ve still got PSATs, SATs, SAT IIs, and APs—not to mention snatching boyfriends to break our hearts.” Pamela winked at Trisha before returning her attention back to her phone.
Trisha’s new smartphone dinged. She swiped it open and began giggling instantaneously.
“Your vids are always so good.” Trisha continued to laugh while staring at a brief video of Pamela surrounded by multi-colored glass and dancing zebras. Video Pamela, with her eyes the color of rich honey and light brown complexion, bashed her long, false mink eyelashes seductively.
“Of course. I finally reached one million followers this summer. I have to keep everyone on their toes,” Pamela said matter-of-factly.
“I still don’t understand where you find time for making all of this.” Trisha shook her head in a mixture of disbelief and jealousy. Trisha rarely used social media. She told everyone it was because she barely had enough time to sleep, let alone scroll through pretty pictures and funny videos, but in reality, she simply never felt like she was interesting enough or pretty enough for that. Instead, she lived vicariously through Pamela.
“Want to grab boba after our second block finishes?” Trisha asked, tearing her eyes away from her phone. “I have a massive craving for Tiger Sugar or Half and Half.”
“Babe, you know I never say no to boba, despite the fact that it may or may not be Halal. Plus, there’s been this boba challenge floating around.” Pamela began imitating holding a straw with her eyes closed and stabbing the air. “I’m sure my followers would love to see me try to stab a boba cup with my eyes closed.”
“Great. It’s a plan then,” Trisha snickered, ignoring her best friend’s usual antics. “I’m going to head to AP Calc now. I’m trying to grab the back seat.”
“Trisha Wang in the back row?” Pamela raised her eyebrows in melodramatic astonishment. “What is this? New year, new me?”
Trisha rolled her eyes. Despite what the rest of her classmates thought, she didn’t like to sit in the front row of class—unless it was crucial material that required neat and color-coded note-taking, of course. “You know how much I hate math. I need to get away from it as much as possible, including physically.”
Pamela laughed. “Right, and that’s exactly why you’re in an advanced math class, huh?”
“I still need to uphold my Asian model minority stereotype, ‘kay? Anyway, see you at one-thirty by my car.” Trisha swung her backpack over her shoulder and began to walk away, understanding how ironic it was that she hated math but was still good at it. It was hard to be bad at something when your parents had you in private tutoring since elementary school.
“Mkay, see ya!” Pamela’s focus glued back to her phone screen. She began swiping through online dating profiles of boys who looked questionably older than their advertised teenage years.
Across the quad, Hunter Wang watched as his sister walked toward the Zhou Center, a recently remodeled state-of-the-art building named after a very wealthy donor to the school. He looked down at the girl with platinum blonde hair and piercing blue eyes leaning against his right shoulder.
“Sierra, how many APs are you taking this semester?”
She propped herself up against the bench. “Three—AP Chem, AP Lang, and APUSH. Why?”
“Nothing, just curious.” Hunter watched a brave squirrel skitter across the quad with a stolen potato chip in its mouth. “Ugh, I miss being a carefree sophomore—when you only had to worry about your grades and extracurriculars. You should enjoy it while it lasts.”
Sierra glanced at Hunter; her mouth curled into a frown. “It’s only the first day of school and you sound more stressed out than usual already.”
Hunter rubbed his short, black hair nervously. “Yeah, sorry. I feel like my schedule is going to be insane this year. I signed up for five AP classes and all the college essay writing has been awful. Having to retake four AP exams last month didn’t help either.” Hunter let out a tired exhale. “My last chance to max out my SAT score is only a month and a half away. I’m going to be so MIA this semester.”
Sierra put a perfectly manicured, reassuring hand on his arm. “Hunter, chill. It’s going to be okay. Didn’t you get a fifteen-forty last spring? That’s an incredibly good score!”
“Sierra, you don’t understand. I’m Asian. That means I need to get at least a fifteen-eighty on the SATs to be truly competitive for Stanford. Did you know Asians have to get at least one hundred and forty points higher on the SAT to be considered on equal footing with a white applicant?” Hunter grimaced as if his own words had just stabbed him. “I need to be in the top twenty-five percent scoring zone to mean anything to HYSP.”
Sierra furrowed her eyebrows. “I get that you’re Asian, Hunter, but you shouldn’t always use that as—”
“How are my two favorite love birds doing?” A boy with warm, brown eyes wrapped his lanky arms around the couple from behind. He looked between the two of them and took a step back. “Sorry, am I interrupting anything?”
“Nah, you’re fine, Matt.” Hunter waved his hand dismissively. “How was Korea? It was weird not seeing you for an entire month.”
“Ugh, it was incredibly boring. What’s the point of owning an apartment in Itaewon, the nightlife district in Seoul, when you’re not allowed to go out after nine p.m.?” Matt dramatically threw his hands up in the air. “On top of that, my grandma wanted to see me all the time. I don’t even understand what she’s saying half the time!”
“Aww, Matt. Your grandma just wants to spend more time with her precious grandbaby,” Sierra teased.
“Yeah, I get that, and I feel bad for not knowing Korean… but what am I supposed to do? I’m a quarter Chinese and half German. Am I supposed to learn Chinese and German too?”
“Yes,” Hunter deadpanned while giving Matt a deep, sarcastic stare.
Matt shot Hunter a glare. “You’re one to talk, Hunter. You can barely speak Mandarin and you’re full Chinese.”
“Fair enough,” Hunter grinned and gave Matt a fake punch on the shoulder. “You’re right. Despite Chinese school every Saturday, I can barely write my name in Mandarin. Any other highlights?”
“Nope, unless you count being forced to watch K-dramas with my mom,” Matt shrugged. “You know, SKY Castle was actually pretty good.”
“I love that show! Stacy introduced me to it last year,” Sierra flashed a mischievous smile.
“All the upper-class moms quite literally killing each other to help their kids get into top colleges made me have crazy Winchester vibes.”
“Yes, I got the chills,” Matt squealed.
“Okay, I’ve officially lost you both,” Hunter said, breaking up the conversation. “Anyway, I’m going to drop by the dining hall for coffee before AP World. Anyone want to come—”
“Me!” Matt interjected before Hunter could even finish his question. “Coach Bron was brutal this morning. I get that he wants us to get to CIF Waterpolo regionals this year, but man, you would think he would know that muscle is built over time and not in two hours at five-thirty a.m. on a Monday.”
“Tell me about it,” Hunter agreed, swinging his black leather backpack behind him. He turned to Sierra. “See you for lunch?”
“Yep, I’ll be here,” she leaned in toward Hunter and gave him a peck on the cheek. Her comforting strawberry scent lingered as she pulled away from Hunter. “By the way, I think the dining hall is attempting to make sushi again.”
“Gross. Why do they always attempt ethnic food with all the wrong recipes? I’m all for sushi, but not Winchester dining hall sushi.” Matt buried his head into his hands.
Sierra chuckled, “They’re just trying to adapt to all the different ethnic tastes on campus!Anyway, see you both later.”
“See ya,” Hunter waved goodbye. He tilted his head in a silent “let’s go” to Matt, and the two began to walk toward a tall wooden building surrounded by palm trees.
Sierra looked at Hunter walking away and sighed. She felt like the college admissions process brought out the worst in people. For Hunter, the stress manifested by making him this high-strung ball of anxiety. For her older brother, Paul, he used bullying everyone around him, including their little brother, Felix, as a form of stress-release.
Am I going to be like this in two years when I’m a senior too?
Out of the corner of her eye, Sierra saw her best friend, Stacy Williams, emerge from the school parking lot.
Did she leave to get an oat milk latte again?
Sierra wasn’t sure. Stacy was still a dot out in the distance. Winchester’s 120-acre campus was open and vast, which gave students and faculty full views of everyone from afar, but that also meant it was a workout to get anywhere on campus.
A few minutes later, Stacy barely got within earshot of Sierra before launching into a gossip tirade. “Guess what? I heard from Steven, who heard from Tracy, who heard from Omar, who heard from Ji Woo, who heard from Ren that there are two new junior boys in town.” Stacy, with her hourglass figure and densely braided hair, stopped abruptly in front of Sierra.
She continued, “One is this epically hot, quiet guy named Ray Martinez… rumor is he is a genius on top of being delicious, and the second guy is this dude named Jack Zhou. He came to school today driving a Lexus LFA. I just saw it in the parking lot. I googled it, and the car is, like, at least three hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars! Can you believe it? Not to mention he was dressed head-to-toe in Armani.”
Sierra burst into laughter. Stacy looked like she was about to faint from excitement.
“Haha, okay, Gossip Girl. Got anything else?”
“Sierra, you know I always have more,” Stacy said with a wink before taking an exaggerated breath.
“Jack strolled up to Dean Rand’s office this morning, and no one knows what happened inside, but next thing everyone knew, Dean Rand came out with a hand on Jack’s back, smiling from ear to ear. Besides at your brother, have you ever seen Dean Rand genuinely smile at someone?”
Stacy stared intensely at Sierra. She had barely shaken her head no when Stacy spoke again.
“After he shook Jack’s hand profusely, Jack marched away from the office, almost forgetting that he had left his Hermés backpack behind.” Stacy crouched down next to Sierra, who was sitting on the grass as she whispered in her ear, “The best rumor of all—Steven’s dad, who is on the board of trustees, says it was Jack’s family who donated the fifty million dollars over the summer.”
Sierra raised her eyebrows. She wasn’t too fazed by Jack’s clearly extensive luxury collection. She was in a simple Alexander McQueen mini dress herself at the moment. Everyone always came to the first day of school dressed in luxe and driving (or, for the freshmen, chauffeured in) a shiny brand-name car. It felt like some nonsensical show to see whose family could buy out the other’s. But this $50 million donation was something new. Yes, Winchester had plenty of donations every year, but none as big as the $50 million anonymously gifted over the summer. She wondered if Hunter had met or heard about Jack yet, given how fast the Asian moms of Winchester spread news amongst each other.
“So, how good is this gossip?” Stacy dropped her oversized Louis Vuitton tote down next to Sierra with a clatter, sending a myriad of blushes, mascara, and eye shadow rolling out of it.
“Stacy, I think it’s going to be quite a year,” Sierra responded with an amused smile.
1 AP exams, otherwise known as Advanced Placement courses, offer college-level curricula and examinations to high school students. There are many nicknames for AP courses such as APUSH, which stands for AP US History. The more AP exams you take, the more of an overachiever you are.
2 As of 2020, the SAT is based on two sections—evidence-based reading and writing (EBRW) and math for a total of 1,600 possible points on the SAT. The ETS, or Evil Testing Service as students call it, changes it up every so often for “improvements” *cough*.
3 Acronym to represent some of the most competitive, prestigious, and private (oh, and of course, expensive) colleges—Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton.
4 CIF, or the California Interscholastic Federation, is the governing body for high school sports in California.
Excerpted from Not THAT Rich with permission from the author
Mirabel Raphael: What inspired you to write Not THAT Rich?
Belinda Lei: Not THAT Rich is inspired largely by the experiences that I had growing up in the San Gabriel Valley as a daughter to Chinese immigrant parents and interviews with friends, family and acquaintances about their own experiences growing up in LA. As a fictional story, Not THAT Rich is clearly dramatized, but all the character struggles, interests, backgrounds were based on real-life people, experiences and settings. For instance, a lot of the on-campus Winchester settings, like the dining hall, classroom and quad, were inspired by the campus of the Webb Schools of California, of which I’m a proud alumna!
MR: Yes! As an aside, as a freshman at Webb, it was fun to read about my school and learn more about it beyond what my mom has shared from when she was a student there in the 80s, since I haven’t been able to experience life on campus yet because of the pandemic. For other readers, is there a message that you hope they’ll take away from your book?
BL: If I could sum up my message in one sentence, it would be: “Everyone has their own story.” I wrote Not THAT Rich with the hopes that it would be an easy and page-turning novel for readers. As readers switch between the different character perspectives and personalities, I hope they realize that upbringing, identity and experiences shape our direct and indirect actions, for better or for worse. In the case of Hunter Wang, one of the main characters of the book, his decision-making process when it came to his relationship with his girlfriend, Sierra, collided directly with the way he was brought up to understand fulfillment and happiness (getting into a top-tier college). Some people might support his actions, and others might disagree with them. I hope readers can reflect on why characters are the way they are and why readers themselves might react in different ways to the characters.
MR: How do you feel your book connects to the racial reckoning America is undergoing today?
BL: This question can really be an hourslong conversation! I’m going to start this off with a disclaimer: Not THAT Rich only represents a tiny sliver of the extremely diverse and dynamic racial, socioeconomic and cultural diversity of the L.A. region. It’s merely based on the world that I grew up in. I highlight a variety of backgrounds, thoughts and experiences in the novel, but it doesn’t represent the 20 million Asian Americans who can trace their roots to more than 20 countries.
Asian Americans are an extremely heterogeneous group. Unfortunately, many people see us as a homogenous one. I was starkly aware of this “othering” while writing Not THAT Rich throughout 2020 and consuming reports about the increase of anti-Asian hate crimes due to COVID-19. How is it that my racial identity can brand me as someone who should “go back to my own country” when the only country that I was born and raised in is the United States? In my work as a Managing Director of Act To Change, a nonprofit that is dedicated to ending bullying, especially among AAPI [Asian-American and Pacific-Islander] youth, I constantly think about how biases and prejudices can negatively influence the minds of the next generation. I hope that the stories that I weave can help subvert these misplaced prejudices by highlighting how being culturally American and culturally connected to another country should not be mutually exclusive.
Lastly, think about who is not represented in the novel. Yes, Not THAT Rich is fictional, but it does reflect the demographics of the area that I grew up in and the access and opportunities that I was surrounded by. Not THAT Rich is very much a book about privilege. While it does not tackle issues of racism and classism head on, this “fun, juicy and dramatic” world unfortunately does show how socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity and educational opportunities are intimately intertwined in America. The Black Lives Matter movement, which I unequivocally support, should push and inspire all of us to grapple with systemic racial and social inequalities.
MR: You’re an MBA candidate at Yale. Did you find that helped you to self-publish your book, and what was your experience with self-publishing like?
BL: When I first decided to write this book, I had a lot of doubts, which included, “How does my professional experience match up with this book?” Turns out, there’s a lot of overlap. I luckily was able to get connected to an editor, layout designer and cover designer through my hybrid publisher, New Degree Press, but that was only just the beginning! I’m not only my own writer, but also my own marketer, graphic designer, project manager, accountant and even web designer for notthatrich.com. Business school, along with my software engineering background, has helped a lot with being able to wear many different hats. This clearly can become exhausting, but once the physical book lands in your hands and you realize, unlike in traditional publishing, that you own 100% of the rights to the book, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience.
MR: Not to spoil anything, but it seems like your book has the potential for a sequel. Are you planning on writing one?
BL: Short answer-yes! I initially planned for Not THAT Rich to be a standalone novel. It wasn’t until I began writing the final section of my book, “Spring,” when I realized that there was still so much more left unsaid. It’s funny, but in my head, my characters have become real people, and I feel like their stories and personal growth have only just begun. In the sequel, I want to introduce readers to the world beyond Winchester High (college!), and dive deeper into the lives of old and new students at Winchester High. Of course, I still have plenty of “Aunties of Winchester High” drama up my sleeve!
Belinda Lei is a Southern California native and an avid reader of all genres from thriller to fantasy—but especially young adult novels. She is a Yale MBA candidate, proud Georgetown Hoya, Managing Director of Act to Change, an anti-bullying non-profit, a software engineer, and a former strategy consultant. In her spare time, she can be found cooking, spoiling her chubby cat and grumpy dog, and binge-watching dramas. NOT THAT RICH is her first, self-published YA novel.
Mirabel Raphael is a freshman at the Webb Schools of California. Her hobbies include beading, reading and debate (which sadly doesn’t rhyme with the first two things). Other pursuits include being short and Jewish, as well as reading X-Men comics.