Category Archives: Korean American

L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food by Roy Choi with Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan, photographs by Bobby Fisher

L.A. SonCheck out this toothsome battle-cry: “The kimchi revolution: How Korean-American chefs are changing food culture” by Paula Young Lee for The article’s first paragraph introduces a bi-coastal feast: Momofuku‘s NYC bad-boy David Chang (his signature cookbook is posted here) and L.A.-based Roy Choi. [The second paragraph judiciously adds southern Master Chef Edward Lee and his temptingly Koreanized Smoke and Pickles]. In case Choi’s name isn’t part of your household culinary vocabulary, he’s “best known as the L.A. Korean taco truck guy.” Now you’re nodding, I’m sure.

“I had to write this book,” Choi explains in the “Introduction” to his memoir-in-recipes (seemingly a growing genre for 21st-century celebrity chefs). “To tell the story of my journey from immigrant to latchkey kid to lowrider to misfit to gambler to a chef answering his calling.” He invites you to join him “through the crooked journeys of my life,” and along the way, “Let me cook for you.” How can you resist an invite like that??!!

Born in Korea to parents who originally met in L.A., Choi was destined to return to the City of Angels. By age 2, he was a southern Californian. By 5, he was a latchkey kid wandering the city streets “until I put holes in my soles” while his parents worked whatever jobs they could find. By 8, he was helping out in his family’s Anaheim restaurant where for the “first time I picked up on the feeling that food was important and not just a meal to fuel yourself to do something else.”

By the 1980s, his parents were millionaires, re-introduced to the jewelry business by Uncle Edward (as in the legendary Swodoba – “it really was like having Indiana Jones for an uncle”) who married Choi’s maternal aunt. The family moved into Major League Baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan‘s old house in an Orange County enclave – “I didn’t see another Asian, Latino, black, or Indian kid. For days. Literally.” In his new middle school, the 13-year-old Choi joined “all the Asian kids in school. All three of them” in honors classes. Then came high school with the Grove Street Mob, violently losing a buddy, commuter college, and a broken heart that led him to NYC and crack. From that low point (with worse to follow), Choi re-invents himself again and again … until he has plenty to fill this nourishing memoir. [If I tell you any more, you won't buy the book!]

The food, of course, need few words. Everything from “Perfect Instant Ramen” and “Ghetto Pillsbury Fried Doughnuts,” to “Seared Beef Medallions with Sauce Robert” ["This just sounded fancy, so I decided to make it for y'all"] and “Seared Scallops with Chive Beurre Blanc” ["If you can pull this off, then you can start to understand the first step to becoming a French chef"], to how to have a “kinky” spiritual moment washing rice, is included here. As skilled as he is with pots and pans, Choi proves he knows how to wield pen and keyboard, too – his words are as well-seasoned as his cooking. So make sure to grab napkins before you begin: you’ll need them for laughing and crying, not to mention the salivating!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Korean American

Digging to America by Anne Tyler

Digging to AmericaA few months ago when I came upon this fascinating article, “The One Thing White Writers Get Away With, But Authors of Color Don’t” by PolicyMic‘s Gracie Jin, I started trolling around for authors venturing into unexpected ‘color’-ful fictional territory. I was fascinated to find two bestselling writers who each took on transracial adoption – with vastly disparate results.

I read Ann Hood’s The Red Thread first; it had an irresponsible glibness about it … a sense of ‘hey, it’s just fiction!’ Transracial adoption was presented with a disturbing tinge of entitlement and commodification. Thank goodness that in Digging to America (energetically read by the fabulous Blair Brown), transracial adoption becomes less a focal point than a plot detail used to bring three generations of two diverse families together.

On Friday, August 15, 1997, the Dickinson-Donaldson and Yazdan clans become inextricably joined when Jin-Ho and Sooki arrive on the same flight from Korea to join their respective waiting families. Jin-Ho Dickinson-Donaldson and Susan Yazdan are the reason their parents and grandparents become friends, neighbors, even lovers, as their stories intertwine over leaf-raking get-togethers, “Arrival” parties, new year celebrations, binky send-offs, and even illness.

Bitsy and Brad Donaldson are the quintessential politically correct, trying-to-be-culturally sensitive older couple with too-loud opinions and not enough nunchi. Their overwhelming exuberance provides welcome and warmth for the younger Iranian American couple, Sami and Ziba Yazdan, whose child-rearing practices couldn’t be more different, with their double careers, preschool enrollment at age 2, and plans for private education. Soon enough, the dual family ties become further entangled when Bitsy’s father Dave and Sami’s mother Maryam begin to (finally!) spend more time together … until they don’t. Quiet, restrained, ever the ‘outsider,’ Maryam nevertheless will eventually claim the protagonist role with transforming awareness.

Anne Tyler’s own long marriage to an Iranian (who died in 1997) and their two hapa Iranian American daughters (daughter Mitra Modarressi is a children’s book author and illustrator; mother and daughter collaborated on two kiddie titles) surely gives her intimate access to ‘the other’ – her own experiences as both an outsider daughter-in-law, and as the wife to an outsider immigrant. That said, experience doesn’t always guarantee an effective transfer to the novel; Ann Hood became the mother of a Chinese-born daughter years before she wrote Red Thread.

For Tyler, her literary strength is surely in the details. Into what might initially seem to be inconsequential, sometimes even comical, small moments in her story, Tyler manages to weave in life-altering history such as 9/11 and its effects, as well as small personal changes signaled by the purchase of a new bicycle helmet. Again and again, Tyler reveals her Pulitzer Prize-winning mastery, a magical metamorphosis of the tiny into something tremendous.

Tidbit: In a rare interview (she eluded the media for 35 years!), Tyler claims she’s working on what will be her ‘final’ novel (say it ain’t so!); the title, she reveals, will be A Spool of Blue Thread. Staying tuned …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2006


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Iranian American, Korean American, Nonethnic-specific

Tune | Book 2: Still Life by Derek Kirk Kim and Les McClaine

Tune 2Okay, so both Book 1 and Book 2 of this intergalactically stupendous series start out almost the same (Book 2 has an extra, well-placed, close-up “Gyaaaaah!” thrown in), but don’t be misled into thinking you’ve already read it, done that, check!

“What’s next for Andy Go?” the new chapter begins … well, he’s woken up in a faraway frontier with a splitting headache (a “dimensional jump” will do that to you), although it just happens to look exactly like the bedroom (complete with hidden porn stash under his mattress), living room, and kitchen where he’s spent most of his young life. The one exception is that his new habitat is missing the fourth wall … and on the other side of the invisible barrier are unrecognizable, definitely not human, faces who watch his every move. Welcome to the C.I.S. Zoo! “Yoiks,” indeed!

Enclosed as it might be, Andy’s new life is pretty good … at first. His zookeeping duo (Dad is belligerent, but 503(4)-0717.04.23.B101 – “Dash” for short – is rather sweet) keep him well fed with all his favorite foods, he has 500 home-y channels to keep him couch-surfing, and he’s got plenty of time to draw. When the mood hits him, he’s not above entertaining the masses, bonding through the barrier with the young ‘uns. He’s hoping his keepers will let him make a quick phone call to his beloved Yumi  (too late! he forgot to sign up for interdimensional service before his earthly departure), as he gleefully anticipates his first weekend off when he’ll finally be able to tell his one true love just how very requited their undying love is.

But then surreal reality sinks in: instead of going for the basic package, Andy Go apparently inked the “premium” contract. Somehow, he agreed to live in his Praxian cage for life. That smooth-talking voice beyond the vent (who is that?) confirms the worst. Uh-oh. Now what’s our lovesick young man to do? How is he ever going to hook up with the love of his short life? Dash reluctantly promises to help, but only if he can teach her about art in exchange. How do you teach an alien about something so … well … alien?

Disguised as giggles and guffaws, Andy Go gives us plenty of fodder to consider – all about life, love, and that elusive pursuit of happiness. So he’s a bit of a slacker with plenty of talent who gets waylaid by easy money with benefits he doesn’t even need (child support for the young and the childless?). What can he do? Frontal lobe maturity happens late for the XY-chromosomed, and our young hero is no exception.

The graphic triple crown-winning – EisnerHarvey, and Ignatz – Derek Kirk Kim has picked up a collaborator since Tune‘s 2012 debut. While Kim retains the text copyright, fellow comic creator Les McClaine gets the art credit; the illustrative hand-off seems seamless between volumes. Best of all, if partnering means “To Be Continued …” happens sooner than later, that’s definitely a happy (temporary) ending for us readers. Tune 3 soon, oh please!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Korean American

Smoke & Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen by Edward Lee

Smoke and PicklesIn case you haven’t planned your Turkey Dinner coming up in exactly a week (who, me? menu? what’s that?), here’s a collection filled with irreverently toothsome suggestions. Having grown up eating kimchi with every chestnut-stuffed bird or surreally spiraled pink ham (or both), I couldn’t help especially salivating over the Koreanized southern creations – how about Collards and Kimchi or Kimchi Rémoulade or Kimchi Poutine (“This recipe falls under the category of ‘everything tastes better with kimchi’”!)? Admit it … your taste buds are totally perking up!

Meet Chef Edward Lee. If you’re a television watcher, you may know him from Iron Chef or Top Chef. If you’re southern, you might have visited his James Beard Foundation three-time finalist-ed restaurant, 610 Magnolia, in downtown Louisville, Kentucky; if you’re a theater addict headed to the legendary Humana Festival of New Plays, perhaps you’ve imbibed at his smaller venue, MilkWood, installed in the Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Brooklyn-raised Lee grew up surrounded by multiple cultures – “The great thing about Americans is not the identity we’re born with but our reinvention of it.” His beloved grandmother who cooked daily at home “refused to make ‘American food.’” If he wanted a PB&J sandwich, he had to make it himself. Her ability to recreate “all the Korean dishes she had learned before she immigrated to America … [as] a Korean widow yearning for a homeland that had been destroyed before her eyes,” would become the foundation for Lee’s eclectic palate: his worldly culinary training led him right back to the memories of his grandmother’s meals and inspired Lee to create his unique brand of award-winning Asian-enhanced southern cooking.

Moving to Louisville in 2003, Lee “reinvent[ed his] identity, both culinary and personal, through the lens of tobacco and bourbon and sorghum and horse racing and country ham … Over time, Louisville, and by extension, the American South, embraced me as an adopted son … What I didn’t expect was how I would come full circle and rediscover myself as a child of Korean immigrants.”

Blended with family memoir (his own and his German Catholic Midwestern wife’s – his mother-in-law apparently makes killer sauerkraut which she hides in a secret cupboard!), tidbits and anecdotes from the kitchen and beyond, friendly neighborhood gossip, and, of course, the outrageous recipes, Smoke & Pickles is a cookbook to read cover-to-cover, word-for-word. The immense (shocking) variety of dishes (Grilled Lam Heart Kalbi in Lettuce Wraps, Beef Bone Soup with Kabocha Dumplings, Curry Pork Pies, Bourbon-Ginger-Glazed Carrots, Rhubarb-Mint Tea with Moonshine) are really just a delicious bonus to an already savory, delectable read.

One cautionary reminder: just in case you’re ever tempted, don’t ever use the word ‘fusion’ around Chef Lee! “I can’t stand the word … not only because it is dated, but also because it implies a kind of culinary racism, suggesting that foods from Eastern cultures are so radically different that they need to be artificially introduced or ‘fused’ with Western cuisines to give them legitimacy.” I’m just agreeing: ‘everything tastes better with kimchi’!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Korean American

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

Once revealed in context, this book’s title alone is an astonishing feat of encapsulated genius from the inimitable Chang-rae Lee. Control, individuality, nature, perfection, reality, society – all that and more fill this dystopic treatise about a not-so-futuristic, ruined America.

At the beginning, 16-year-old Fan simply walks out of her contained labor colony in search of her vanished lover; her epic quest takes her through the renegade “counties” and into a privileged “Charter” community and beyond. “New Chinese” descendants trade gated protection by providing halcyon Charter cities with their necessities; beyond the walls is a lawless free-for-all. Lee’s use of a never-named “we” as narrator proves to be a brilliant maneuver that allows him to be both observant bystander and discretionary judge and, at times, even admittedly unreliable.

Verdict: Versatility surely earned Lee a place on The New Yorker‘s “20 Writers for the 21st Century”-dais [June 21 & 28, 1999]; his literary voice has morphed constantly, debuting as a Korean American outsider (Native Speaker) and moving through a Japanese American doctor (A Gesture Life), an Italian American widower (Aloft), and Korean War survivors (The Surrendered). That versatility ensures Sea equal appreciation among readers who enjoy a heart-thumping adventure and doctoral students in search of a superlative dissertation text.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, November 15, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Korean American

Here I Am by Patti Kim, illustrated by Sonia Sánchez

Here I AmI haven’t seen Patti Kim‘s name on a book cover in quite a while … more than 15 years have passed since her still-resonating debut novel, A Cab Called Reliable, was published in 1997. But who’s counting – all the good things in life are worth waiting for, right?

In a most memorable example of ‘show, don’t tell,’ Kim’s so-worth-the-wait picture book has nary a word in sight. Whimsically captured in artist Sonia Sánchez‘s dazzling panels-in-constant-motion, Here I Am is an exquisite book to be savored again and again … each ‘reading’ promises to reveal yet another delightful, thoughtful detail.

A young boy boards an airplane with his family and arrives in a dark new city. When he enters a virtually empty apartment, he longs for his brightly lit family home somewhere far away. He treasures his one memento, a red seed that holds within its tininess all the wonderful, comforting memories of back home.

His new life is strange and unfamiliar, marked with words he can’t comprehend and conversations he doesn’t understand. One day, leaning out the family apartment window watching the world go by, he drops his precious seed, and watches with dismay as a little girl picks it up and skips away. He rushes out in a mad chase … and after a few moments of initial worry, he finally begins to glimpse the many delights of his new neighborhood: delicious smells, finding a lost coin, trying his first soft pretzel, laughing at a bullseyed pup, wandering through a vast new park … and best of all, finding his first friend and discovering the limitless joys of sharing.

Kim’s only words appear on the final page as a letter to “Dear Reader,” in which she reveals her own immigration story that began “almost 40 years ago.” Drawing on her memories – “I have to admit, moving was scary … But it was also exciting …” – Kim explains that Here I Am “is about leaving a beloved home, coming to a different place, and taking on the tremendous task of creating a new life for yourself.” Overcoming the fear of the unfamiliar was the turning point for Kim, which she duplicates for her young protagonist: “What happens to us when we forget to be afraid? We loosen our firm grip on what belongs to us. We open our hands. We share. We give.”

Surely, this is Kim and Sánchez’s gift … not just to recent immigrants, but as Kim says, to anyone “facing something new and different in your life.” Unfettered by specific language requirements, Here is truly a universal story for all. No translations are ever necessary, as Kim “encourages you to live out your own story of arriving to that place where you can say, ‘Here I am.’”

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Korean, Korean American, Latino/a

My Education by Susan Choi

My EducationSo I’ve been mulling over this book for a month-plus, and still remain rather conflicted. The one solid conclusion I can offer is this – if I were to rank Susan Choi‘s titles, my list would read thusly: American Woman, based loosely on the Patty Hearst kidnapping; The Foreign Student, Choi’s debut novel which draws partially on her Korean American father’s early immigrant experience; A Person of Interest, which was inspired by the controversial Wen Ho Lee case; and then this, her latest, My Education. But – always that ‘but’ – although Education may rank last in personal preference, it’s also the Choi novel to which I’ve had the most visceral, lasting reaction.

The story is not particularly complex, although the characters certainly are. Hapa Filipino American Regina Gottlieb is a 21-year-old graduate student at a prestigious upstate New York university. The school’s “notorious person” by reputation is an English professor to whom Regina becomes a teaching assistant. Despite his erudite charm, Regina’s object of obsession is not the campus “predator,” but his mercurial wife who has recently had their first child. Their volatile relationship is unavoidable. While Regina suspends her formal education by dropping out of school, her emotional edification proves to be a far more formative experience.

Education seems to be a considerable shift for Choi; above all else, the emotional potency here easily eclipses that of her previous novels. In between the various partner-swapping permutations, characters seem to be keening for an elusive stability even as they repeatedly upend their lives. So self-absorbedly excessive are the main characters, however, none are particularly likable, except perhaps brash Dutra, one of Regina’s early sexual cast-offs who eventually settles into being her best-enough friend.

The unrelenting emotional pitch of the first two-thirds of the novel is utterly exhausting; yet, in contrast, the final third which fast forwards 15 years with a mere turn of a page, presents a lulled, routine married life for Regina that verges on tedious after her impassioned youth. Her ‘aha’-moment by book’s end about Dutra and her need to suddenly orchestrate his happy ending (which conveniently allows her the opportunity to indulge in a final fling in spite of her enormously pregnant state) is a clumsy narrative twist that feels like quite the unnecessary final turn.

Perhaps sticking this novel in my ears was the erroneous initial decision. Narrator Tavia Gilbert, who has certainly voiced other novels (Little Century, for recent example) with resonating success, was a misguided choice for Education; her version of Regina is all grating, tantrum-prone whine. That said, even after aural abandonment, Regina’s mewling insistently followed onto the page – ironically, even as the narrative degraded, Choi’s crisp, imagistic writing (not to mention some of the most athletic sex scenes I’ve encountered in years) rarely faltered and those pages kept turning quickly of their own accord.

Would I recommend the title? With caution, perhaps. Would I read it again? Probably not. Will I read Choi’s next? That, at least, I can answer with a most definitive yes.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Hapa, Korean American, Southeast Asian American

eleanor & park by Rainbow Rowell

eleanor & parkWow, I sort of wondered … but now I don’t need to anymore, because author Rainbow Rowell has already answered a question (the question for certain readers like me?) that I hadn’t even gotten around to formulating just yet: “Why is Park Korean?” No spoilers here … you’ll have to read the book, then the post (preferably in that order), for yourself. In case you need more prodding to start already, here’s another recent affirming reason: eleanor & park just won the 2013 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award (one of the most prestigious kiddie book recognitions) for Fiction. And for those of you going aural, let me assure you that Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra take turns narrating this unlikely romance into heart-thumping, hand-wringing, convincing real life.

In 1986 Omaha, Nebraska, two very different 16-year-olds are about to fall in love for the first time in their young lives. Park, the local, is hapa Korean, gets embarrassed by his parents’ neverending displays of affection, loves punk rock, and used to date the school’s hottest girl back in middle school. Eleanor, the neighborhood newbie with the wild red hair and never-matching outfits, gets stuck sitting next to Park on the bus. She’s just been reunited with her mother and younger siblings, and must navigate through a crowded, unsettling new life trying to stay out of the way of her unpredictable stepfather-from-hell.

After a less-than-friendly start for the two forced-together seatmates, comic books – don’t ever let anyone tell you manga isn’t romance-inducing! – bring the odd couple together. But first love is never easy, especially when families – both inadvertently and intentionally – stand in the way.

Get ready to sigh and snicker, cringe and cry. Those awkward high school moments (decades later, why are they still so familiar??) are all in here, interspersed through an incongruously gorgeous love affair of swooning proportions. Rowell has written that versatile, ageless story with which teens will immediately identity, and oldsters will nostalgically recognize: to the final page and beyond, eleanor & park is one empathetic, adroit achievement.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Hapa, Korean American, Nonethnic-specific

Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

After surviving the Korean War, Yohan spends another year in a prisoner-of-war camp south of the new border that splits the country in two. Rather than return north, where no one awaits him, Yohan begins life anew in a faraway coastal Brazilian village as a Japanese tailor’s apprentice. As the years pass, “He wondered what choice there was in what was remembered; and what was forgotten.”

Damaged by war, Yohan’s life before and after is circumscribed by quiet relationships – first with his widowed father and a childhood friend, then with the tailor Kiyoshi, the church groundskeeper, and two parentless children: “that in their silences there had been a form of love.” Having already lost family, friends, language, and country, Yohan slowly sheds his solitude when gentle Kiyoshi dies and opens up to the possibility of attachment and love.

Verdict: Yoon’s debut novel began as a 500-page draft pared down to about 200 pages that reveal the same shimmering, evocative spareness of his 2009 collection, Once the Shore. The result is that rare, precious gem, with every remaining word to be cherished for the many discarded to achieve perfection. One of this year’s best reads.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, June 1, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

Leave a comment

Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Korean, Korean American, South American

Author Interview: Don Lee [in Bloom]

CollectiveWith his eyes and body still “bleary from post-windsurfing and traveling,” Don Lee nonetheless graciously agrees to be grilled yet again – we’re going on a decade-plus of various interviews through four books! He’s tired, he’s rambling, but he’s always entertaining … and once more he’s game to talk about all manner of things, from writing and ethnicity, to blooming late and Eeyore-style lamentations.

With all that literary editing, mentoring, teaching, how come you didn’t publish until you were 41?
Oh, I could give you all kinds of excuses: that I was busy with Ploughshares (true), that each short story took me a long time to write (very true), that I never really planned or wanted to publish a book (sort of true), that I was happy writing stories once a year or so and getting them into journals (almost true), but frankly, the real reason was that I was scared shitless. I think unconsciously I didn’t want to lay it all out on the line and try to publish a book and then fail. It was easier not to try.

But then I turned 38, and I decided I’d really like to have a book, one book, before I turned 40. I didn’t want to end up thinking for the rest of my life about what could have been, and become bitter. So I wrote two new stories, revised a bunch of old stories to form a collection, and set about finding an agent to represent me, all of which took over a year and a half. Whereas the goal originally (and unrealistically) had been to publish a book by the time I turned 40, the new goal became to sell the book by then, and I did: W. W. Norton offered me a book contract the week I turned 40, and Yellow was published the following year [in 2001].

Okay, so what prompted you to write that first story? And how did that first story eventually morph into the determination to become a writer for real?
Unlike many authors, I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer at 7 years old or whatnot. I didn’t know what I’d do with my life. I was, however, a tinkerer as a kid. I would take apart things, make things. My bedroom was scattered with detritus – tools, wires, glue, balsa wood, batteries, a soldering iron, capacitors, motors, model cars and planes. When it came time to go to college, my quixotic plan was to get my mechanical engineering degree and then a Ph.D. in physical oceanography and build and pilot underwater submersibles (I watched a lot of Jacques Cousteau as a kid). I was a dreamer. I didn’t write a short story until my sophomore year at UCLA, after a comp teacher told me I had a flair for words and might enjoy taking a creative writing class.

And now four books—and oh so many awards!!—later, are you still scared shitless? Or are you finally resting a bit on your laurels?
Naw, I’m still a tortured soul who never allows himself to feel good about his accomplishments, who doesn’t really believe he’s accomplished anything. And yes, each time I start another book, I am petrified that I won’t be able to pull it off and finish it, and if I can, that I won’t be able to sell it, and if I can, that no one will like it. Why do I keep doing it, then? Because it’s a challenge, and I’m compelled to do it, and I love being inside the process of writing a novel, of thinking about it all the time and figuring out structure and motifs and themes and connections. In a way, I’m still a tinkerer, building things with words. [... click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Don Lee,” Bloom, May 29, 2013

Readers: Adult

Leave a comment

Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Korean American