This novel is filed under my WOULDN’T IT HAVE BEEN NICE category. As in, WOULDN’T IT HAVE BEEN NICE to read a book about being the only Asian in your small-town high school while actually being the only Asian in my small-town high school? WOULDN’T IT HAVE BEEN NICE to be able to identify with a protagonist with strict grades-obsessed immigrant parents who kept smelly jars of kimchi and daen jang in the fridge, to the puzzlement of visiting friends? And WOULDN’T IT HAVE BEEN NICE to read about a teen who is confused and ambivalent about her ethnic heritage and anxious to hide her differences in order to fit in?
Well, thanks a lot, collective libraries of my hometown, for not allowing me to discover Marie G. Lee’s story until long after it was useful.
Although the book was published nearly twenty years ago, I think it is still likely to resonate with YAs of colour. Ellen Sung is a Korean-American high school senior growing up in Arkin, Minnesota, where 99% of the population is whiter than Santa’s beard. Her parents (blissfully unaware of their Asian clichédness) want her to get good grades and become a doctor. At school, Ellen has to contend with various instances of racism, including a boneheaded math teacher who asks her if Koreans “wok their dogs” and a gymnastics teammate, Marsha, who likes to refer to her as “Ching-ding-a-ling”.
Ellen quickly decides that the best way out of redneck Arkin is to be accepted into a school like Harvard or Wellesley—just like her older sister—and move far, far away. Only her post-graduation plans are not enough; she still has to get her through the school year without killing herself out of boredom or her overprotective parents out of frustration. Complicating things are her close bond with her best friend Jessie (who has no plans to move away from Arkin or attend college, and you can just see these two drifting apart as the years go by) and her new romance with football hunk Tomper Sandel. The denouement of the novel, as Ellen prepares to leave behind her hometown with all its flaws, is unexpectedly heartrending.
My main quibble with the storyline is Ellen’s final, dramatic confrontation with Marsha the Racist—it just seemed too over-the-top, as though the author wanted to establish Marcia’s evil intentions beyond a shadow of a doubt. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that most East Asian female teens in small, predominantly white communities are not victims of racially motivated assaults with a broken bottle. Instead, I wish the story had focused more on the subtle, everyday instances of racism and ignorance that Ellen experiences, and which Lee depicts so skillfully in the novel’s early chapters. Being continuously singled out as different, or being ching-chonged by douchebags in the street, are more complex forms of micro-aggression that also leave deep scars.
We also see Ellen beginning to learn about her parents’ experience as immigrants and to understand the sacrifices they made. This is accomplished in a not-so-subtle way, using the old “Here’s a mysterious photograph of my dad when he was younger, maybe I’ll ask him about it” device. But I like that the author hardly scratches the surface of her parents’ immigration narrative, and that the whole story of Ellen’s acceptance of her Korean-American identity remains unfinished. Fortunately for readers, there is a sequel.
N.B. The fact that Ellen got into Harvard on the basis of her 4.0 GPA and an interview without having a zillion extra-curricular activities on her application requires a huge suspension of disbelief. Just sayin’.
N.B. 2: Isn’t “Tomper Sandel” the greatest name?
Reading Age: 11-15