Linked stories follow a Korean family uncomfortably trying to assimilate as they run a gift shop in a New Jersey mall in the 1980s.
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“Could be worse,” is about all the enthusiasm David can muster for his new life, but that’s enough to put him on the pep squad compared with his older sister and mom. (Nonetheless, every time his dad winks at him and calls him “my good son,” he can’t help wincing internally.)Skip to next paragraph
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Fifteen-year-old In Sook (now called Susan) is furiously miserable – longing for her friends and her music, and loathing the dad who forced her to leave everything she loved for a place where she doesn’t fit in.
And after five years as a single parent, In Young is struggling to reunite with her husband and not resent being left alone for so many years.
“The fact was, even though she was no longer the one left behind, she still felt like she was.”
In the meantime, she’s expected to acquire a new name (she chooses Emma, from Jane Austen) and learn to digest foul substances such as cheese.
“As if hamburgers weren’t bad enough, In Young Kim was now being subjected to a thin, triangular piece of bread covered with melted cheese and tomato sauce,” one story opens as she discards her uneaten pizza. “Her husband said they couldn’t eat kimchi at the store because it stunk. Americans found the smell unappetizing, though nothing disgusted In Young more than to walk by the cheese aisle in the supermarket. How anyone ate something so rank and continued to live was anybody’s guess.”
As the family slowly adjusts to having a dad again, they warily circle Harry.
While he doesn’t get his own narrative, he appears in almost all the other stories as his fellow shop owners, best friend’s family, and his own wife, son, and daughter weigh in on betrayals, illnesses, fishing trips, barbecue potato chips, English lessons, Thanksgiving dinner, and a Christmas tree that just won’t stay upright. There are fires, robberies, and mean kids at school, but the central drama is always family.
While Woo is writing an immigrant coming-of-age tale, the emotions and sheer messiness of the Kims’ home life will resonate with anyone in possession of a relative. And while bad ‘80s fashion (and was there any other kind?) is always a reliable target, Woo’s novel has a tenderness underlying the humor and his characters are complicatedly human.
(Sometimes so much so that it’s a bit of a jolt when a reader realizes that a character isn’t coming back, or that questions surrounding one family’s unfortunate marriage just aren’t on the docket for this novel.)
“Everything Asian” reminds readers of the unlikely grace to be found in the very things that most make us squirm as teenagers. As the adult David remembers of his days as an undersized, unpaid retail clerk, “when I look back at my teenage years, what I remember most clearly are those days and nights I spent in Peddlers Town, convincing a grandmother that her clawlike feet looked beautiful in a pair of open-toed, red satin slippers and running the register while Mother stood by my side and bagged purchases.”
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.