Stand Up, Yumi Chung!

by Jessica Kim
First sentence: “I should have known better than to think anyone would listen to me at the Korean beauty salon.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There are some awkward moments and second-hand embarrassment. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Yumi Chung is the youngest of two daughters of Korean immigrants. Her parents run a Korean barbecue restaurant in LA, and they expect Yumi — like her older sister, Yuri — to be excellent. The problem is that Yumi wants to be a stand-up comedian, which is something her parents neither understand or respect. Instead, they send her to hagwon — a Korean summer tutoring program — that will help her get a scholarship to the best private school in LA. Yumi is miserable until she discovers a new comedy club is running a summer camp for kids, and the person teaching it is Yumi’s favorite YouTube comedian! She ends up going — pretending to be Kay Nakamura (which gives some interesting, if subtle, insight into how white people lump all East Asians together) — until things all fall apart, including her parent’s restaurant being on the verge of closing. Can Yumi fix the mess she’s made for herself?

Oh, this was so very delightful. It addressed so many things — from not living up to your older sibling’s achievements, to finding your own space int the world, to owning your mistakes — without ever being heavy-handed. Yumi was a totally believable character with completely understandable parents. The conflict came from not just the immigrant to first-generation divide, but their honest desires that their kids wouldn’t have to slave away in a restaurant to make their living. I liked how Kim never made the parents out to be villains, and how Yumi (and Yuri) was able to figure out how to balance her parents’ wishes with her desire to follow her own path.

And excellent middle grade book.

Almost American Girl

by Robin Ha
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Content: There is some mild swearing and a lot of bullying. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

When Robin Ha was 14, in 1995, her mother married a Korean man in America and uprooted their life in Seoul, moving them to Alabama. Robin was shocked and upset (partially because her mother told them they were going on vacation, and then sprung it on her when they were already there) because she liked her life in Korea. She had friends, she liked her neighborhood, she liked her school. She fit.

And suddenly, she doesn’t. She doesn’t know much English and the kids in Alabama are cruel to an outsider. In this graphic memoir, Robin tells the story of the year she learned to adapt and learn and try to fit in. It’s an interesting immigrant story, but it’s also the story of how her mother didn’t fit into the conservative, patriarchal Korean society (she was a single mother who had never been married, and that’s looked down upon) and wanted not only a better life for her daughter, but a freer one for herself. Ha reflects on the dual nature of being Korean and living in America, and eventually not quite fitting in either place.

A customer at the bookstore pointed me in the direction of this one. She’s on a bit of a Korea kick, and she said this was one that helped her understand what life is like in Korea. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it did delve into Korean cultural mores, and it really portrayed how Ha often felt like she was in over her head. I liked Ha’s artistic style as well. Everything was written in English, but she color coded the text bubbles: blue for Korean, black for English. She used color and framing to help portray young Robin’s feelings of helplessness and anger, and in sepia-toned flashbacks, gave readers her mother’s story and Robin’s history in Seoul.

It’s an excellent graphic memoir, and definitely one worth reading.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

by Cho Nam-Ju, translated by Jamie Chang
First sentence: “Kim Jiyoung is thirty-three years old, thirty-four Korean age.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 14, 2020
Content: There’s some swearing, including a few f-bombs. It will be in the Adult Fiction section of the bookstore.

This is the story of one Korean woman, and how she get to the point, a year after giving birth, where she’s impersonating (but is she really?) other women. Something I didn’t know until the end: it’s told through the eyes of a psychologist/psychiatrist that Jiyoung goes to see, presumably because of her condition. She tells this psychiatrist about her life, from a childhood where she and her older sister were mostly neglected in favor of their younger brother, through school where she was often harassed by boys, to the workplace where she was often treated by men as a servant. She just decided it was her lot, and did the best she could, though there were women — including, eventually, her mother — who were telling her life could be different. Jiyoung gave up working when she had her baby, mostly because it was too hard to juggle daycare and a full-time job and her husband wasn’t terribly supportive.

This was just a portrait of one life, albeit one that had quite a few run-ins with the patriarchal system of Eastern Asia. It was a sad little book — sad that Jiyoung was never really encourage to do much of anything, sad that the lives of women still revolve around the men and boys. It’s odd too, it had footnotes (which makes more sense knowing it’s psychiatrist notes) and an odd cadence. It’s not a story I read to really connect with the characters, though much of that Jiyoung went through was relatable. But, even though we got the facts of her life, I felt like we never really got to know her. Although I appreciated the insight into contemporary Korean culture, I just felt disconnected through the book.

Oh, and the author got epidurals wrong, which is a small thing, but an annoyance all the same.

I do appreciate that this book exists, if only to highlight the sexism and misogyny in countries other than the United States. But, no, I didn’t find it enjoyable.