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Life With A Hyphen: Reading and Writing as a Koren-American
by Linda Sue Park

[Excerpts from a presentation given at the VIII Reading the World conference, at the University of San Francisco, on March 11, 2006. Printed here with the author's permission.]

Author of many books for children and young adults, Linda Sue Park is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2002 Newbery Medal for A Single Shard (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). Her most recent novel is Archer's Quest (Clarion, 2006).

(. . .) Being raised in a Korean-American household, my siblings and I found plenty to rebel against. Much of this rebellion was normal growing-up stuff, but some of it was specific to the circumstances of an immigrant family. Around the age of ten, I decided to stop using chopsticks. I wanted to use a knife and fork, like my friends. In my initial awkward attempts, I remember thinking that it seemed incredibly inconvenient and inefficient—pick up the knife and fork, cut off a piece of food, put the knife down, switch the fork to the other hand, stab at a morsel, and finally, finally, put it in your mouth... a lot of work for a single bite! Whereas with chopsticks and Korean food, the cook does all the cutting-up work in advance, and the eaters get to the fun part a lot faster. But of course I never said that aloud to my parents. I wanted to use a fork. Chopsticks were weird and Asian. Forks were normal and cool.

I did not realize it consciously then, but I now know that by switching to a knife and fork at age ten, I was making a political statement. In order to take that stand, I had to know what I was standing against. Back then, it was clear and simple: I was taking a stand against my family's traditional Korean way of eating in favor of the majority American way of eating.

Herein lies what I find to be a remarkable irony. In my work today, I'm still doing the same thing. Huh? That doesn't make sense, you might think. Several of my books are set in traditional Korea. The stories honor those traditions, those family ways. My books, some might say, are the chopsticks, not the fork.

But the act of writing and publishing a book for young people is, for me, a fork. I am using very American principles: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of expression, even the pursuit of happiness—what an extraordinary concept to put into a governing constitution, the pursuit of happiness!? There are of course women writers in Korea these days, but not a lot of them, and most are involved in academics. To be a woman fiction writer is to call attention to yourself, to pursue individual happiness in a way that is not very Korean.

To receive letters from young people that say, "I just love Ajima" in A Single Shard, or "Mrs. Ahn is my favorite character," about When My Name was Keoko, is both thrilling and humbling in a way that's hard for me to articulate. Both of these women are minor characters, their roles in the stories relegated to the background as they so often were in real life in their societies—12th century Korea and World War II Korea respectively. Yet 21st century American readers write to me to tell me how much they love these characters. Somewhere in the U.S., these very traditional Korean women are thought of as 'favorite characters' by a few young readers. Appreciation of differences and celebration of the universal: that is my idea of true assimilation.

. . . . If you are racially hyphenated in a way that is immediately visible, then you confront the fact of your hyphen every day. Not always in a negative sense, but in an unavoidable one. This is something that others sometimes fail to understand, and it's surprising given that we all have moments when we are judged by our appearance. Whether it's because you're old, or young, or female, or male in a group like this one, or have a physical handicap, or are obese, or blond, or very attractive—especially if you're blond and very attractive—you have experienced the feeling of being judged by people before you do or say a single thing.

Being visibly hyphenated in a racial sense, those experiences are a constant in your life. As an Asian-American, I am well aware that my family and I experienced racism for the most part in far more benign ways than most African-Americans. There was hostility only rarely. But the countless, daily, often seemingly harmless encounters—the assumptions people made about me based on my race alone—have worked to shape what would eventually become my writing sensibility.

I used to live in Brooklyn, and I usually traveled by subway. Whenever I was seated on a crowded subway going from Manhattan to Brooklyn, someone would inevitably elbow their way through the car to stand directly in front of me. Why? Because he or she was wagering that my seat would become available when I got off at Canal Street, which is the main stop for Chinatown. It gave me a grim satisfaction that I was going way past Canal Street, to Brooklyn.

A good friend once argued this point with me. When I'm on the subway, she said, I sometimes try to stand in front of some guy who's wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase because I hope he's getting off at Wall Street. Same thing—it's not racist, it's just practical.

But my friend's decision to stand in front of Mr. Briefcase is based on choices he has made, not the skin he was born in. It may seem like a nitpicky difference, but it is an important one. Fair enough to judge people on the choices they've made—in effect, a silent or tacit dialogue has taken place. But when you make assumptions about people based on some aspect of their appearance over which they had no choice, there has been no dialog, tacit or otherwise.

What I want to achieve in my books for young people is to contribute to that subversive dialog. I don't want to give answers; I don't have the answers. When I write, I'm asking questions, and I'm trying to get readers to ask questions of their own. I want my books to be part of the process of providing them with the tools they need to find out what the important questions are. And the questions will be different for every reader. After that, it's up to them to go prospecting for the answers, which if they are lucky, will take the rest of their lives to discover.

Reading stories gives a child practice in asking questions as well as in connecting to someone else, someone they didn't know before, someone they didn't know they wanted to know. And if that reader gets enough practice with this through stories, perhaps he or she will find it easier to accomplish in life—to make a connection to other people who at first might seem unlikely, people who are hyphenated differently.

Posted June 2006

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