Linked stories follow a Korean family uncomfortably trying to assimilate as they run a gift shop in a New Jersey mall in the 1980s.
Lots of teenage boys say they don’t understand their dads. Dae Joon Kim doesn’t even remember his.Skip to next paragraph
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Five years earlier, Harry Kim left his family behind in South Korea to forge a new life for them in America. To Dae Joon (now called David), the main character in Sung J. Woo’s wry, insightful debut novel-in-stories, Everything Asian, he’s just the figure posing next to his mom in the family album.
“In the pictures he looked taller than he actually was, maybe because Mother was sitting down while he hovered over her, but everything else was exactly the same: his hair still short and parted to one side, his dark-framed eyeglasses still too big for his face. He seemed harmless enough, but then I’d catch him on the phone talking to his wholesalers, looking sideways at me when he spoke, giving me a wink – and suddenly he looked like a different person, a fake.”
Six weeks before his narration begins, David, his older sister (In Sook), and their mom (In Young) are scooped up and whisked over to New Jersey. After landing at scenic Newark airport in the mid-1980s, they get a gander at the small family apartment, the beat-up family station wagon, and the family business selling Asian imports at a rundown mall called Peddlers Town.
“Everything Asian” takes a reader back to a time when Aqua Net was more prevalent than bottled water and “girls had very cold legs, as they all wore leg warmers, even over jeans.”
The storytelling format, with its rapid switch between narrators, may initially jar those of us who prefer novels to stories, but a reader soon settles in to the down-market, hard-working world of Peddlers Town – with its candy shop, HiFi Fo Fum stereo store, restaurant, handbag emporium, used bookshop, and of course, the Kims’ East Meets West.
“A quick sampling from our shop: From Japan, we featured flowing kimonos, cloisonné bonzai trees, cone-shaped patchouli incense in tiny red sacks with gold drawstrings. From China, ceramic figurines of happy bald monks, shrieking dragons carved out of soapstone, silk pajamas with tiny Chinese eyehook buttons. And from Korea, a round black plaque accented with mother-of-pearl flowers, a guitarlike instrument that intoned sad and lonely vibes, a tall regal vase with glassy cracked skin.”
There’s a certain genius inherent in choosing a strip mall as a 1980s period setting, and Woo makes the most of it, filling the book with the way customers’ and neighboring storeowners’ lives touch – sometimes only glancingly – on the three Kims’ first year in America. At first the non-Kim stories seem only connected by geography, but Woo has cleverly constructed a central narrative that runs like a Venn diagram through the tour of Peddlers Town.