Everything Asian

Linked stories follow a Korean family uncomfortably trying to assimilate as they run a gift shop in a New Jersey mall in the 1980s.

Everything Asian By Sung J. Woo St. Martin’s Press 328 pp., $23.95

Lots of teenage boys say they don’t understand their dads. Dae Joon Kim doesn’t even remember his.

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.

“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.)

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.

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