Emma Lovewell Reflects on Navigating Friendships as a Mixed-Race Kid: “I Felt Self-Conscious”

Getty / Jamie McCarthy / Ballantine Books / Photo Illustration by Aly Lim

Emma Lovewell is best known for her work as a Peloton instructor whose mantra, “Live, learn, love well,” is a mainstay of her classes. Now, she has just released a memoir – “Live Learn Love Well: Lessons from a Life of Progress not Perfection” – that reveals how she came to that ethos.

In this excerpt from her memoir, Lovewell talks about how her mixed-race identity has been a crucial part of her journey. Growing up biracial (she’s half Taiwanese), Lovewell had a hard time navigating friendships – a common theme for many mixed-race kids. Read the excerpt ahead, and explore all of our APIA Heritage Month stories centered on friendship.

Walk around New York City for five minutes and you’ll see that diversity is on full display everywhere. People move here from far-flung places all over the globe, and there’s a comfort to seeing faces of every color. Here, being different because of my mixed-race heritage makes me fit right in. I’m just one of many. Growing up on the Vineyard I felt self-conscious about being Chinese. There weren’t a lot of people who looked like me, and it was undeniable that culturally we were “different” in my house. As far as I knew, none of the other mothers had meditation pillows or Buddha statues on full display in the living room. None of my friends ever mentioned having fermented vegetables for dinner or hot pot for a celebration. Those same things that made me feel like our family was weird meditation, gardening, fixing things – those became the foundation of a balanced life and a successful career. The journey to embracing who I was at my core took years, and when I think about this period of my life it makes me realize the growth that can happen when you release the struggle to be like everyone else and recognize you are enough.

Every day in the school cafeteria I felt like my differences were on display for everyone to see.

Every day in the school cafeteria I felt like my differences were on display for everyone to see. I would open my lunch box with equal parts fear and anticipation. I always enjoyed what my mom packed me for lunch, but the truth was, being the only kid with a bento box full of traditional Chinese food could be embarrassing. My lunch was the polar opposite of what was contained in the Hello Kitty and Spider-Man lunch boxes of my peers. As I opened the box each day, the heads at my lunch table turned toward me, wondering, What freaky food does Emma have today? “Emma, what is that? A rotten egg? Why is it all brown and white? Gross. And is that a pile of dirt on your rice? Are you actually going to eat dirt?” I looked at my lunch, a tea egg, rice with rousong (also known as meat floss), and pickled vegetables, all foods I liked to eat, lovingly made from scratch by my mother. Tea eggs were a favorite of mine. They’re soft-boiled eggs cracked just slightly, then boiled again in a mixture of tea, star anise, and soy sauce, which makes them look like big marbles (sometimes they are called marbled eggs). I knew how delicious the egg would taste and I wanted to eat it right away, but I felt too self-conscious. Powdered pork (a dried meat that’s a light and fluffy topping for things like rice and tofu) was another common food in my house, but something about the fluorescent light of the cafeteria made it look like it was from outer space. Sitting there surrounded by Wonder Bread sandwiches and individual bags of neon-orange Cheetos, I wished I could transform my lunch into something more “normal.” As I picked up my chopsticks, I knew my bento box and I stuck out like sore thumbs.

When a friend stayed for dinner, I felt a flush of anxiety before we sat at the table. I knew my mom’s cooking was delicious, but I never knew how a friend would react when they realized dinner at my house wasn’t going to be meatloaf or spaghetti and meatballs. When my friend Amanda stayed for dinner, I was happy to see that she didn’t balk at the Chinese dishes my mother had set out. She looked intrigued. Amanda dug right in. “Wow, this is really good.” She was happily chewing away when suddenly her face turned bright red. She started coughing and her eyes were watering like crazy. Then came the sweat, pouring right down her now inflamed face. “Amanda, are you okay?” She nodded awkwardly, waving her hand in front of her face like she had a mouthful of fire. Which, essentially, she did. A bell went off in my head, ding ding ding. I knew exactly what had happened. “Oh, no! Amanda! Did you eat one of the dried hot peppers?” Her face just got redder. “Mom, Amanda ate one of the dried peppers!” Mom rushed around getting her a cold glass of milk and a plain bowl of white rice, anything to quell the heat. The dried peppers were supposed to flavor the dish but weren’t meant to be eaten. I had never actually eaten one, because I had been warned that they are hotter than the surface of the sun. Pushing those peppers off to the side was second nature to me, but it didn’t occur to me to warn Amanda. Amanda’s face turned back to its normal color soon enough, and she was a good sport about it. But I felt so embarrassed that this had happened. Things like this wouldn’t happen if we ate spaghetti and meatballs like other people! No one ever set their mouth on fire eating meatloaf!

From the book LIVE LEARN LOVE WELL: Lessons from a Life of Progress Not Perfection by Emma Lovewell. Copyright © 2023 by Emma Lovewell. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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