- Mixed Blessings:Korean American Identity and Interracial Interactions in the Young Adult Novels of Marie G. Lee
Growing up in the 1970's, I was never exposed to any young adult novels that featured Asian American characters. Even as I raced through books by authors like Judy Blume, I was always aware that something was missing—there were no characters whose struggles mirrored my own experiences as an Asian American. Asian American adolescents today have many more multicultural books available to them, and some of the best are those penned by Marie G. Lee, a Korean American writer from Minnesota.1
Like most young adult novels, Lee's feature explorations of standard teenage issues: identity formation, romance and dating, athletics and academics, parental and sibling conflict. But Lee's vision goes well beyond the "additive" sort of multiculturalism in which authors make their characters "Asian" by throwing in a few Asian words and references to Asian foods (like dinuguan or kimchee). Lee has written that her books are reflections of those she wished were available to her as an adolescent, and her fast-moving plots feature complex, realistic depictions of the contemporary Korean American experience highlighting important social and political issues like racism, bicultural identity, the struggle of immigrant parents, cultural clashes, downward mobility, the model minority myth, education, and language barriers ("How," par. 10). Additionally, Lee's strong female characters are significant because they counteract the invisibility of Korean American women and girls in mainstream culture while refuting the "Lotus Blossom/Dragon Lady" stereotypes of Asian American women perpetuated by the media.2 Lee's works are engaging and accessible to children and adults alike. Given their popularity and availability, her writing warrants closer critical attention regarding its contributions to Asian American literature and multicultural young adult fiction.
This article will examine the distinctive Korean American perspective that pervades four of Lee's novels: Finding My Voice (1992), If It Hadn't Been for Yoon Jun (1993), Saying Goodbye (1994), and Necessary Roughness (1996). Embedded in the familiar narrative of teen romance and rebellion, Lee's rendering of contemporary Korean American struggles focuses on two themes: Asian American identity politics and relationships between children of color. Before exploring these themes more deeply, however, I will contextualize her writing within contemporary Asian American socio-history.
Contexualizing Contemporary Korean America
While Korean immigration to America has existed for over a century, the contemporary Korean American community is comprised primarily of immigrants arriving after the 1965 Immigration Act. Sociologist Pyong Gap Min notes that Korean American communities are characterized by the following: a high level of ethnic attachment, a unifying language, high participation in Korean American churches, and an over-concentration in small business, often as "middle man minorities" in lower-income communities (Min 215). These same factors, Min notes, contributed to Korean Americans' lower levels of assimilation into mainstream American culture and laid the groundwork for the Black-Korean conflict ignited during the Los Angeles riots in April 1992 (217). Excoriating media coverage of Korean immigrant storeowners toting guns amidst the ruins of Koreatown during the riots (particularly after the shooting of Latasha Harlins by Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du in 1991) thrust Korean Americans into the national spotlight. The riots were a wake-up call for Korean America and sparked community activism for better political participation and for learning about and forging better relationships with other communities of color.3 Additionally, they engendered racial awareness and ethnic solidarity among younger Korean Americans: "It was the first major event that provided Korean Americans who were born or raised in the United States an opportunity to think about their common fate.... They realized that can be targets of attack by another group simply because they are Korean Americans" (Min 216).
The Los Angeles riots exposed mainstream America to the deep cleavages between Korean American and African American communities; however, for the past three decades, Asian American theorists have analyzed the ramifications of the invisibility of Asians within an American racial landscape defined solely between the narrow parameters of black and white.4 Another aspect of this black/white racial model pertains to the reification of "white...