Almost American Girl

by Robin Ha
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.