Last December (2021), I had the opportunity to participate in an online class called “Contemporary Personal Narratives by Asian American Women: A Cultural Exploration” with Lori Rotskoff. I’d never taken a literature class outside of college before, but I was very excited to read books by Asian American women. I thought that the class would be like my Asian American Studies classes, that I’d be among other Asian Americans who wanted to discuss the various aspects of our culture. I was wrong.
When I scrolled through the Zoom room to observe the faces of my classmates, I felt a little awkward, and a little worried. To my surprise, I was not only one of the only Asians, I was also the youngest person in the group. Many of my classmates were middle-aged women (one person said she was in her 70s), and they came from all walks of life. One classmate was even tuning in from France!
So, I wasn’t sure if people would comprehend some of the complexities of the Asian American experience. As a first-generation immigrant who grew up in the lower middle class, as well as a person years into a pandemic where hate crimes against Asian Americans increased exponentially, I’m all too well-aware of how we are often perceived.
Thankfully, once again, I was wrong. The women in this class were delightful. Some of them had already taken classes with Lori Rotskoff before (they mentioned other memoir classes), and, indeed, Lori was incredibly well-versed and very open to learning.
Activist spaces can sometimes feel like “echo chambers,” so seeing all of these older women expanding their worldviews on cultures they weren’t part of was such a refreshing experience. The familiar saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” implies that it’s difficult for older people to change their world views, but, at least in this case, that wasn’t true at all.
And I also learned a lot from their perspectives, including what a person who wasn’t exposed to such cultures or customs may have thought about the experiences the authors had gone through – which is an essential in an activist space to take note of, so you can understand how to relate to your audience members. When you’re around people who share your mindset, you tend to assume that everyone knows what you’re talking about and thinks the same way you do. That realization was very eye-opening.
Crying in H-Mart by Michelle Zauner
The first book we read together was Crying in H-Mart by Michelle Zauner. As an avid fan of Japanese Breakfast (Michelle’s pop band), I’d heard of this book before. Since I had wanted to pick it up anyway, Lori’s class gave me the perfect opportunity to do so.
Crying in H-Mart touched me so deeply and personally; I could not go one page in this book without crying. Michelle’s book is a memoir about her experiences taking care of her dying mother, while also juggling a tumultuous upbringing and the identity crisis resulting from being a mixed Korean and white American.
Though it is her own personal account and therefore not necessarily meant to be a “relatable” story, I saw myself in the pages (having suddenly lost my own mother in 2018). I felt Michelle’s raw emotion, her pain, her confusion navigating two worlds – and her conflict, losing a mother who had belittled and berated her. My own loss had been tragic and out of the blue, a trauma that seeped into my very core and has made me into who I am today, so reading about Michelle’s complications felt a little too real.
But due to my own personal experience with grief, I was definitely biased. Gathering perspectives from people in other stages of life made me think of things that had never occurred to me before.
People who write memoirs are usually at least in their 50’s, but Michelle is in her early 30’s, so some classmates wondered if it wasn’t a bit superficial for Michelle to write a memoir so young. I believe someone even asked how much of the memoir was “real,” versus how much was “restructuring” – wishful thinking about what Michelle had wanted her relationship with her mother to be.
However, Lori pointed out that Crying in H-Mart was Michelle’s account of being a daughter (not a mother), so Crying in H-Mart was probably meant for people like me (someone in her 20’s and feeling lost, struggling to know who I am) more than it was intended for older women in their 50’s, 60’s, or 70’s (especially the women who were moms). The rawness of Michelle’s memoir was something someone with the wisdom that hopefully comes from more life experience couldn’t capture. Crying in H-Mart was a book written by someone still hurting, someone who can’t quite differentiate “between love and pain, who had a smothering love that put her in a chokehold only for the restricting warmth to dissipate into coldness.”
Michelle will never have a mother again, and she will never be able to consult with her mother in any aspect of adult life. Michelle will not be able to share her band’s success, celebrate her new life milestones, none of that ever again. Even now, months later, I feel a pang in my heart when I think about Crying in H-Mart.
For better or for worse, I know I related to Michelle way too much. I could never read it again, but I’m glad that Lori was able to help our class embrace the daughter’s perspective, and I was also intrigued to hear more critical opinions about the book from less personal points of view.
Almost American Girl by Robin Ha
Thankfully, the next book we read – a graphic novel called Almost American Girl by Robin Ha – was a total change of pace. And imagine: Some of my classmates had never read a graphic novel before!
Thanks to Lori, we even had an opportunity to speak with Robin, who graced us with a short Q&A. I was too shy to talk to her directly, and since I was an Asian American girl, I told myself that she’d probably heard too much from people like me already. Thus I mostly let my classmates ask their questions during our short time together.
However, I’m a big fan of the same comics that Robin is a fan of, and also grew up reading way too much manga. Again, memoirs aren’t necessarily meant to be stories to “relate” to, but the first two stories had aspects of life with which I had a lot in common, so, once again, I was going in with bias.
Almost American Girl focuses on the author’s experience immigrating and adjusting to life in rural Alabama after growing up in Korea. Robin’s mother at first sold Alabama as a vacation, but eventually revealed that she had married into a new family and thrust her into a new country without any preparation. This notion may seem outlandish to some people, but unfortunately, as an Asian American I could somewhat understand where her mother came from. In some cultures, family skirts around hard conversations, and a parent’s word is usually law.
When first immigrating to the new land, Robin is unable to speak the language of her peers, and her step-family isn’t exactly welcoming either. To make matters worse, Robin is furious with the one person who should be her ally, her mother, and one can’t blame her. However, Robin is eventually able to find comfort in her love of manga and art and slowly molds herself into the person she wants to be, though she’s caught between two vastly different cultures.
Asian American diaspora is notoriously obsessed with trying to understand their identities. Some of us can speak two languages, while others were told to assimilate and throw ourselves into English since our mother tongues wouldn’t be useful in the new country. Many of us grow up in strict households, as opposed to the more lackadaisical approaches our American (or other western) peers grew up with. Some of us also grew up in areas where no one looked like us – and all these factors contribute to a lonely “otherness” when growing up.
However, despite not belonging to the Western world, the country of origin is isolating as well. If we can’t speak the language, some people may claim we’re not “true” to ourselves and laugh us off (though, not learning the mother tongue is usually a survival tactic/product of assimilation) and it’s incredibly difficult to find things in common with peers if you grew up in the Western world.
As a “1.5” generation immigrant (being born in the country of origin, while being raised in the country you immigrated to), I related to Robin’s feelings of alienation in a foreign country – and later on her confusion and inability to relate to her peers back in Korea. Living in America for years changed Robin more than she thought, and when visiting Korea again later in life, she realizes that she doesn’t know if she would have belonged there either. Robin grew up without a father, and she and her family had been judged and ridiculed despite it being out of her control. As she got older, Robin realized that the seeds of discord had already been sown in her past, and she embraced the more liberal parts of American culture as opposed to Korean society’s starch rigidity.
Almost American Girl was received with more positivity than Crying in H-Mart. Maybe it was due to the visual format, but the integration of illustrations helped Robin’s story immensely. My classmates enjoyed Robin’s whimsical drawings along with her straightforward storytelling.
Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
Lori ended our class with Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong – described on the back cover as part memoir and part cultural criticism – but frankly, by that point, I’d started burning out, and this article is already quite long. I definitely still recommend it, though. It covers many important topics about Asian American issues, such as anti-blackness in our communities, hate crimes that have largely been buried such as the murder of Vincent Chin, and the bamboo ceiling and lack of representation in mainstream media. Though the book is titled Minor Feelings, Cathy’s feelings are quite “major”!
One point I remember strongly from Minor Feelings is when Cathy says that the experience of the Asian American female always boils down to the relationship of mother and daughter, with us (the daughters) absorbing intergenerational trauma from our mothers. Months later, I still laugh quite morbidly at that statement; the truth it holds is too great. All of the books and supplementary articles we read reflected that in some way as well.
Due to many life transitions and complications, it took me a while to collect my thoughts and put myself in the mental state required to finish this post. So, I offer it to you now – in May – in celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander month.
All in all, I had a great experience in Lori’s class, and I highly recommend all three of these books!
© Beatrice Viri (5/24/22) Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Order Almost American Girl on Amazon.
Order Crying in H-Mart on Amazon.
Order on Minor Feelings on Amazon.
Visit Lori Rotskoff’s website to learn more about her approach to teaching interactive seminars, and to peruse the schedule of her upcoming offerings (both in person and online).
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured image cropped from the cover of Almost American Girl. Cover design by Dana Fritts.
Middle image: Cover of Crying in H-Mart designed by Na Kim.
Bottom image cropped from the cover of Minor Feelings. Cover design also by Na Kim.