How I Grew
I grew up in a small town in northern Minnesota -- the same town where Bob Dylan grew up. I was the only Asian teen -- minority teen -- in my high school. I didn't think about being Asian very frequently; perhaps if someone threw a racial slur at me, that was about the only time. More than anything, like most adolescents, I just wanted to fit in.
When I was growing up in the 70s, all my friends and I read Seventeen magazine religiously. Seventeen had these fabulous models that they dubbed "All-American girls." They were almost always white -- and more often than not, blond. Since the area in Minnesota where I come from is predominantly Scandinavian, a lot of my friends were blond too. Thus when we tried all of Seventeen's beauty tips -- pastel blue eye shadow, highlighting our hair -- my friends looked great, and I looked, well, sort of the way you feel when you force your feet into a pair of shoes that you love but that don't fit. There was something wrong here, but all the cues I had -- my friends, commercials, Seventeen, young adult novels -- said this is the way it's supposed to be.
So I kept on buying blue eye shadow and perming my hair. The moment I thought was going to be my crowning glory was when I was in Minneapolis for the state high school hockey tournament. A local department store offered to do a Seventeen-sponsored makeover on me since I was the captain of the hockey cheerleaders from our school.
At last, I thought. Seventeen was going to turn me into one of those all-American girls! They gave me a haircut, did my makeup while my friends oohed and aahed.
However, when I looked into the mirror I was in for a little surprise: they'd given me a "China chop" haircut -- the kind that looks like a bowl with a heavy curtain of bangs -- and they'd applied Cleopatra-like eyeliner around my eyes, way out to my hairline.
The worst thing about it was that my friends sincerely thought I looked great. I was humiliated.
Looking back to that time, I can see that there was definitely a sort of two-way cognitive dissonance going on: I thought of myself as culturally white, or at least All-American; other people -- even my friends -- saw me as a China doll. I really was neither.
I wasn't all-American by Seventeen standards or by the generalized Christopher Columbus/revolutionary war/manifest destiny/Proposition 187 version of all-American, but neither was I Asian. America was the only country I'd every known, and I'm sure at the time I hardly even knew where Korea was on the map.
My first young adult novel, Finding My Voice, tries to address some of these issues. Ellen Sung is growing up in an all-white town in northern Minnesota just as I did. Her big problem is that, while kids are calling her racist names, her immigrant parents avoid any talk about her Korean heritage because they want her to assimilate. Ellen is well into the free fall of adolescence where all of a sudden she doesn't know who she is, compounded by the fact that she is somehow different from her friends. Having lived in her small town all her life, she feels she's just the same as her friends; yet her friends don't have to worry about a bully calling them "chink" in the hall, or a chemistry teacher wisecracking about Koreans eating dogs.
Let me say that this novel is not autobiographical per se, but that I'm very very close to the material. In some ways, this is the book I wish I had had in high school. While Ellen isn't me, being able to read about a person like her would have let me know that I wasn't going through this alone -- it would have given me something with which to put my own experience into context.
My second novel, a middle-grade book called If It Hadn't Been For Yoon Jun, explores the predicament of a Korean girl adopted by white parents. She basically thinks of herself as white, until a Korean boy transfers into her junior high and her world is turned upside down. This is another analogue to my experience when I associated white with what was normal and Korea with everything that was weird, foreign, and embarrassing. It took me a long time to realize that my love for American culture and my Korean background could coexist peacefully.
My next novel, Saying Goodbye, is a sequel to Finding My Voice that follows Ellen to college, where her friendship with her African-American roommate and a Korean-American boy who becomes her boyfriend hangs in the balance when black/Korean tensions flare up on campus in the shadow of the L.A. riots.
I have been asked more than once when I am going to be through with the "race thing" and go onto more "universal themes." I always answer that with a "probably never." Toni Morrison has gone so far as to say that she's never ever really felt she was an American. I don't take that extreme a view, but I do feel that growing up as a person of color in this country, one that traces its history back to Anglo-European foundations, has had the effect that my perceptions of American life are inevitably filtered through a prism of race. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, a writer has to know herself first, or her work won't be honest; and for me, being an American of Korean descent and being a writer are inextricably linked.
But I think it's important to keep in mind that multicultural literature is just that -- reading the works of writers who come from a diversity of backgrounds, writing about a diversity of experiences. While there's a special place in my heart for Asian-American readers who tell me how much they related to Finding My Voice, I hope that non-Asians will read it too. I gave a reading at Bates College in Maine, and one woman approached me afterward, saying that her parents also grew up in northern Minnesota and her father had told her stories of how his Finnish family was looked down upon because Finns were considered to be the bottom of the barrel of all the Scandinavian immigrants. She said that my reading had brought all those stories back to her and she felt she could perhaps understand her father's situation better.
So I daresay that multicultural literature can contain so-called "universal" themes. I also believe that it has the capacity to illuminate, inspire, and educate. I wrote Finding My Voice with the hope that it would be interesting not only to the teen who has ever felt different and/or been a victim of harassment, but also the teen who might potentially be the harasser. I want readers to know, through the character of Ellen, that behind every racial slur there's a person, and in this light, I believe books have the capacity to educate. In fact, shortly after the book was released I received a fan letter from an old classmate who didn't quite tell me he was sorry for the names he'd called me, but that he had "no idea" that I was so hurt by that experience. While it was kind of depressing to think that guy had felt no remorse until a decade later when he read the book, at least here the book did what I as a person couldn't do. So I figure better late than never.
I'd like to close by sharing an excerpt of a recent fan letter -- a happier one. It's from Laura Goldberg in Brooklyn, New York. She writes:
In Finding My Voice I really felt I could relate to Ellen and the experiences she went through... The plot was very realistic and I felt like I understood Ellen's hopes and her fears and just her life in general... Another thing that was good about the book was that you addressed the issue of racism without making it a really heavy topic. You didn't preach about what was wrong and what was right, but there was a hidden message in the story, and it did teach a lesson. That lesson was that nobody deserves to be treated like anything less than the next person, nobody should be discriminated against. Your book said that no matter how popular or unpopular a person is, they should always be treated with respect. I think this is very important, and you managed to tie it into the story without taking the fun out of reading the book.
It's letters like that that tell me I'm doing my job -- that Ellen is doing her job -- and I'm inspired to work even harder on the next book. I'd like to add that I'm always pleased to hear from readers who tell me that their teachers introduced them to my work, so I'm particularly grateful to you teachers, scholars, and administrators because I just write the books, and you're the ones who help to inspire the students to read and to lead them to books. Keep up the good work.