Tag Archives: Korean American

Review for Archer’s Quest by Linda Sue Park

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My Summary: Twelve-year-old Kevin couldn’t care less about centuries-old history or his Korean heritage. They’re boring and irrelevant to him. But then the mysterious Archer appears in his bedroom. Kevin soon learns that Archer is a legendary king from Korean history who has mistakenly traveled to 1999 from the First Century B.C. Now, Kevin must rely on his wits, his math skills, the Chinese zodiac, and some Korean history research to deliver Archer back to his time before it’s too late.

Review:

Korea has an extremely long and rich history and folklore, so it’s a shame that not many authors have written fantasy based on Korean culture because it tends to get eclipsed by Chinese and Japanese cultures, which are more familiar to most people. This is the only book I know of besides the three in Ellen Oh’s Prophecy Series that is an #ownvoices Korean fantasy.

Rarity aside, I really enjoyed the book for itself. The math puzzles, the references to the zodiac, the incorporation of Korean myths, and the research that Kevin did at the museum made it fun for me as a puzzle-lover, a mythology nerd, and a frequent patron of museums/zoos/etc. (I’m That Person who reads everything on the exhibits until I realize there’s not enough time for me to get through everything if I do.)

Not surprisingly, the theme of the book centered on a sense of appreciation for one’s history and culture. I was lucky in that I grew up with parents who instilled in me pride in my heritage, and I was privileged to be able to visit Taiwan frequently (until recent years) so that I never really lost that connection to my ancestral homeland. Yet even though my experiences are different from Kevin’s in many ways, that doesn’t mean I can’t empathize, having grown up as second generation kid with the pressure to assimilate and been forced to learn white people’s history in school, often with less-than-engaging methods.

Kevin is lucky in that he lives in a fictional world, and he gets to learn through epic adventures that actively incorporate knowledge of history and myth into them. What I wouldn’t give to be able to meet legendary figures in the flesh! Even with a pre-existing interest in Korean culture, reading this book piqued my interest even more. It only really mentions one historical/legendary figure from one time period in any detail, which is barely scraping the surface of the thousands of years of Korean history and gives you an idea of how much more there is to learn and explore. It’s like an appetizer for a twelve-course meal.

Another reason I enjoyed the book is that I really love archery as a sport/art and actually joined my university’s archery club for a semester but was forced to drop it because I got too busy to keep up. Archery may not be as dynamic as, say, team sports, but it’s so cool to me (also probably appeals to my sense of laziness, oops). So this book was practically made for me and my interests.

Yet another thing that made the book a good read was the humor. The culture clash Archer experiences as a time-traveler from the distant past make for peak comedy. I literally busted out laughing a few times. But maybe that’s just me?

Lastly, this book actually got the language stuff mostly right, re: time travel. Archer was born in China in 55 B.C. and speaks Chinese, but a very, very old variant that’s not intelligible to modern-day speakers of Chinese languages, and the book actually points out that fact. Whatever proto-Korean language Archer speaks would likewise be incomprehensible to modern-day Korean-speakers, as a large percentage of modern Korean vocabulary is Sino-Korean and wasn’t borrowed into the language until around the Tang Dynasty and later, well after Archer’s time. Though the book doesn’t mention this particular detail, it does have an in-narrative explanation for why Kevin and Archer can understand one another despite their native languages being completely different. So my inner linguistics nerd is fairly satisfied.

Recommendation: If you have little to no knowledge of Korean history/culture, this is a very accessible book that introduces you to it in an engaging fashion.

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Review for Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park

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My Summary: Julia Song forms a team with her best friend Patrick with the goal of winning the state fair. Although she’s hoping to do something American for their project, Patrick convinces her to follow her mother’s idea of raising silkworms like her family did in Korea. The journey to complete their project presents unexpected obstacles and discoveries.

Review:

This book is an oldie but goodie. I first read it years ago, sometime around 2006 or 2007, because my younger sister had borrowed it from the library. It’s stuck with me because it was one of the first books featuring an Asian American protagonist that I’d read. Last year, I bought it and reread it.

To start off, let me just say that Julia has a very real voice. The narration is written in first-person, and I really felt like she was sitting there talking to me. Her personality showed clearly.

As you can probably guess from the summary, this books involves Julia digging into her Korean heritage a little. Although she’s not completely out of touch with her Korean background, nor is she actively wishing to be white, she’s still internalized certain ideas about what qualifies as “all-American.” She also lives in a town where her family is the only Korean family, so their differences stand out. This is why she’s initially turned off to the idea of the silkworm project, because she’s worried about being othered by her peers for doing a project that’s “weird” and Asian.

Over the course of the project, Julia learns a lot and takes us along for the learning, showing us the fascinating details of the laborious process of silkworm farming. Gradually, she starts to embrace the project and enjoy it, against her prior biases, and realizes that her Korean American identity is part of what makes her interesting.

Aside from this intrapersonal conflict, there is also an interpersonal conflict subplot regarding intra-POC tensions, specifically between Korean and Black people. Julia realizes her mother harbors antiblack biases through the way she talks about her Black teacher, Mrs. Roberts, and interacts with their Black neighbor, Mr. Dixon, who offers them access to his mulberry tree to feed the silkworms.

What results is a thoughtful exploration of implicit biases and how they affect interracial interactions. In Julia’s case, her mother’s uneasiness around Black people is given historical context; because Black soldiers fought in the Korean War, that was likely her mother’s first exposure to Black people, and it likely left a negative impression on her. Julia’s reflection on her own experiences with facing and perpetrating racial prejudice lead her to understand how even people with good intentions can be complicit in racism.

Aside from touching on race, this book also focuses on family and friendship and the conflicts that arise in those relationships. While some of the conflicts are resolved, some linger. It may not be the most satisfying end to some because of the unanswered questions, but the fact of matter is that some conflicts are ongoing processes. This is especially true when it comes to complex, systemic issues like race relations. Therefore, the somewhat open ending felt realistic to me.

The last thing I want to comment on is the “conversations” between Julia and Ms. Park in between each chapter. Not only did they contribute to developing Julia’s character voice and personality, they also provided a fun and informative window into the behind-the-scenes work of writing a book. They’re also potential jumping points for starting conversations about the themes of the book.

Recommendation: This book is kind of a classic, so go read it if you haven’t!

Review for Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung

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My Summary: Chloe Cho is tired of being treated like an alien for her Asianness. When Chloe’s English teacher who is new to town turns out to be Korean American, she’s excited to finally meet someone who shares her heritage. However, when she investigates her family history for a school project, she unearths a mind-blowing truth about her parents.

Review:

Honestly, I will probably never get tired of books that focus on an Asian American character’s ethnicity, even though it’s important to have plenty of books featuring Asian/Asian American characters that aren’t about their ethnicity, because they are cathartic. Mike Jung adds to the growing canon of Asian American kid lid with a book that portrays the experience of being “othered” perfectly while throwing in an extra twist (or two).

I related to Chloe’s experience quite well, especially as a fellow East Asian American. Getting mistaken for Japanese, Chinese, Korean, etc. (I’m Taiwanese) was a regular part of my childhood, and when I was in middle school, some seventh grader I didn’t even know went out of his way to say “konnichi wa” to me multiple times in passing. Also, the part where she questioned whether her friendship with Shelley was rooted in Shelley’s fetishization of her culture was very real. Because of the popularity of Japanese and, more recently, Korean pop culture abroad, there are white people (as well as POC, unfortunately) who fetishize Japanese, Korean, and East Asian people in general. It’s extremely uncomfortable to have to wonder whether someone’s motivations for being interested in you, platonically or romantically or otherwise, are based on these ridiculous idealizations of your culture and people that homogenize you and treat you as interchangeable.

Chloe is a great protagonist because she’s so unapologetically sassy. The book is written in first-person, and her voice jumps off the page. You can feel her frustration, her excitement, her shock, her rage, and so on very acutely. Moreover, she’s not afraid to voice her opinions or express her emotions. She may get good grades and be good at the violin, but she is 3000% not here to be your model minority. Take this glorious passage (some parts omitted for brevity):

“He told Jeremy that you always win first chair because Asians all have a violin-playing gene, and how’s he supposed to beat that?”

I could almost feel the surface of my eyeballs giving off steam as Shelley’s words sank into my brain.

“Oh, that weasel-faced little preppypants,” I said, not bothering to whisper. “I don’t care how expensive his violin is, he’s going DOWN.”

YOU GO, CHLOE CHO!

(For the record, I told that seventh grader who said “konnichi wa” to “f**k off.”)

While a lot of books that explore ethnic identity have the parents teaching their child about their heritage while the kid resists because they’ve internalized the stigma of being Asian in a white-dominated society, this book is the opposite. Chloe is extremely interested in learning about and exploring her heritage, and her parents are the one who refuse to have anything to do with it.

And it turns out there’s a very good reason for it. That’s where the big twist comes in and takes the feeling of being “othered” to a new level and makes this book a creative spin on a familiar story. Then, just when you think you know what’s up and things seem to be settling down, the ending features another twist that makes the book end with a bang.

On top of the other stuff I already mentioned, Mike Jung finds ways to throw in scenes and conversations that encourage you to think critically about cultural elements that are often viewed superficially. Or initiate important dialogues about representation, such as this one (also edited for brevity):

“I’m reading this book. It’s about aliens who come to Earth, they introduce an alien virus into the water supply, and you know what, the heroes in these movies, the people who save the world, they’re all white people, ALL OF THEM and when there are human-looking aliens, they’re also all white people! Why don’t any of the aliens who look like white people get killed? Where are the Korean people? Why is it always a white person who saves the world? Why are the aliens always the bad guys??”

If I ever encounter someone who treats kid lit like a throwaway genre that doesn’t require/entail depth or thoughtfulness, I will shove this book at them.

Recommendation: I love this book and even if you’re not someone who usually reads middle grade fiction, I’d highly recommend it!

Review for The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon

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My Summary: Daniel is a dreamer on his way to a Yale interview that he doesn’t actually care about to please his Korean parents. Natasha is a science geek who is about to be deported to a Jamaica she barely remembers. The lives of these two teens who appear to have nothing in common collide, and both are changed in ways they never would have imagined during the course of a single day.

Review:

First of all, can I just talk about how groundbreaking this novel is? A YA romance novel with a Black girl and Asian boy as the main characters/pairing? This kind of pairing is as rare in real life as it is in fiction. Studies looking at data from dating sites and marriage records have found Black female/Asian male as the least common match among heterosexual couples, and this has a lot to do with the way normative ideas of sexuality are gendered and racialized in our society.

Historically, Asian men have been portrayed and viewed by white Americans as sexually inferior and even asexual. This stereotype came about as a result of early Chinese immigrant men taking on jobs that were considered women’s work. This did not happen naturally or by accident. In order to appease white laborers whose job security was threatened by the cheap labor of Chinese immigrants, the government passed laws restricting the types of work that Chinese men could legally pursue, thus relegating them to “feminized” jobs like laundry, cooking, etc.

For Black women, the stereotype goes the other way: they are hypersexual. This stereotype has its origins in the days of slavery. Under slavery, Black people’s status was a function of their “utility” as laborers. Black women were not only agricultural laborers but also responsible for the reproductive labor of producing more slaves, so they were treated as “breeders.” In general, the stereotype of Black people as hypersexual was used to dehumanize them and compare them to animals, thus justifying their oppression and exploitation by white people.

So, between these two extremely loaded stereotypes, the Asian male/Black female pairing becomes the ultimate “mismatch.”

Thankfully, The Sun Is Also A Star turns racial and gender stereotypes on their heads. Daniel is not the science person, Natasha is. He’s the one who’s idealistic to the point of being naive, and she’s the one who’s practical to a fault. Instead of him mansplaining stuff to her, she gets to be the one who educates and impresses him. And she’s a tough sell on the ideas he peddles on love. But miraculously, yet also believably, these two starkly different teens start to connect and appreciate each other over the course of the day.

So, I’m usually the type who doesn’t buy insta-love type romances (because it’s usually just insta-lust), but this book was different. Well, first of all, they didn’t go gaga for each other at first sight. Secondly, the circumstances under which they met were unusual. And more importantly, they had reasons to fall over the other person, given their respective personalities and situations.

Here’s my take on it: Natasha is usually a practical person, but she’s in a very desperate situation in which she needs hope and faith to give her strength to face the future. Daniel, the idealist, provides that, and he makes her laugh, which is therapeutic for her in her time of high stress. On Daniel’s end, he’s used to keeping his head down and going along with what his parents expect of him while hoping for a way out to pursue what he really enjoys. Along comes Natasha, who is unapologetic about who she is and is willing to do anything possible to get the thing she needs and wants the most. Her example inspires him to be more true to himself. They both learn something from each other.

So what makes this book work for me?

Characterization is a major component. Natasha and Daniel really jump off the page at me. Nicola Yoon really has characterization and narrative voice down to an art. All of the little details: the things they like, their appearance, their speech patterns, their body language, their thoughts, their quirks, their habits, their ways of responding to different situations, etc.–all of these build them into unique and believable and real characters. And they make very real teenagers. They’re smart and thoughtful but also young and inexperienced, and it really shows in their narration.

I also enjoyed the structure of the book, which isn’t the typical linear, single point-of-view narrative. Aside from the alternation between two first person perspectives, there’s also intermittent passages from other characters’ point of view and a third person omniscient narration that provides background information on subjects relevant to the story. The snippets from the minor characters’ viewpoints function to connect the dots between the lives of the characters and illustrate how much of an impact people can have on one another. Cause and effect aren’t just a straight line but rather a complex web of events that are inextricably linked, even for total strangers. The more factual passages are informative but also entertaining. What I really appreciate about these passages is that they render knowledge that seems esoteric more accessible to a general audience because of its relevance to characters that the readers are emotionally invested in.

Another thing I liked about the book was the way race was handled. Natasha and Daniel were not token, throwaway diversity props. Their race and ethnicity informed their identities in important ways but didn’t constrain them, so they felt authentic without being stereotypical. The narrative also explicitly addressed the existence of stereotypes, and how it feels to be stereotyped by someone or stereotype someone. There was unflinching recognition of antiblackness in Korean American communities, despite the history of economic interdependence between Korean Americans and Black Americans in cities like Los Angeles and New York City.

In particular, I appreciate the fact that race is historicized and contextualized through the informative factual passages. The sociopolitical history and symbolism of natural hair is explained, and the origins of Korean American domination of a market catering to Black communities is also revealed. These passages show that what is personal to these characters is also political, implicated in systems larger than themselves, with repercussions beyond individual interactions. In an era where race is increasingly viewed and taught through a superficial, decontextualized lens, thus allowing institutional racism to go unchecked, stories like this are an important educational tool for the younger generation.

My other reasons for loving The Sun Is Also A Star are more personal. Daniel is a character I can empathize with well because I’m also a second generation Asian American. That pressure to achieve the American Dream is too real for people like us. Even when your parents don’t give you direct pressure, you still feel obligated to make their sacrifices and investment worth it. Although I didn’t mention it in my About paragraph because it wasn’t really relevant to my blog, I also completed a degree in aerospace engineering and it wasn’t until about 3/4 of the way through it that I truly confronted the fact that I didn’t feel passionate about it even though I thought I should (just as Daniel feels about being a doctor). It was interesting and challenging, for sure, but it wasn’t my One True Calling. And right now, even though I completed a degree in something else that I did enjoy, I’m still struggling to reconcile my practical and idealistic sides. I’m not a poet, but I write fantasy novels, so I’m in the same boat as Daniel.

Natasha, despite having a different racial background and relationship with immigration/generational status, is also someone I can relate to a lot. The reason I decided to major in aerospace engineering was not because my parents wanted me to but because I genuinely loved science as a kid. I was that person who dressed up as an inventor for costume days at school, checked out every book the library’s children’s section had on astronomy, and devoured biographies of people like Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and George Washington Carver. I was That Person who would undermine jokes by pointing out the technical inaccuracies in the setup. (And, to an extent, I’m still that person. I still find science fascinating and excel at technical work, I just don’t want to do it as my job is all.) On top of that, I have also known the desperation and despair of situation that’s out of my control.

The final reason I loved this book was the ending. It wasn’t a fairy tale ending, but it was satisfying all the same. It was at once realistic but hopeful, striking a perfect balance between the two. My inner idealist/romantic was crying with joy when I read the last page.

If there is one thing that I didn’t like about the book, it’s the part where Daniel followed Natasha to the store because that’s basically stalking, which shouldn’t be excused/romanticized. But barring that, The Sun Is Also A Star was amazing.

Recommendation: Read it, have your heart broken, feel the feels, go!

P.S. The cover is a Work of Art. Dominique Falla is a gift.

P.P.S. Did anyone else notice/find it cute that Natasha and Daniel’s names start with the same letters and Nicola and her husband David’s names? This can’t be a coincidence…