Synopses & Reviews
Chapter OneOrientation: Finding the Way HomeThe day after my high school graduation, I boarded a plane. Next stop, Korea. My parents waved good-bye with nervous yet hopeful smiles, and my mom yelled,"Behave yourself!" like she always did when I was flying somewhere to visit family friends or relatives. My parents had enrolled me in a cultural immersion summer program -- a "discover your roots" pilgrimage, of sorts -- at Yonsei University in Seoul. For five weeks I lived in a dormitory with hundreds of other second-generation Korean American girls and guys in their late teens.Week one of the program flew by, and not without knocking my self-confidence down a few notches. My language skills were poor, and I was having a difficult time adapting to the climate. I didn't know where to begin when I called my mother to tell her about my first days, but there was something I'd been dying to ask her ever since stepping off the plane at Kimpo International Airport. At the time I tried squeezing an explanation out of my grandmother, but she didn't seem to understand my question."Mom, what does 'gyo-po' mean?" Had I said hello to her yet? I couldn't remember."Gyo-po" is what the natives -- taxi drivers, waiters, saleswomen, and the like -- were calling me everywhere I went. I could tell that it was a noun, and I also noticed that people sometimes uttered the word quickly and impatiently in passing. But beyond these observations, I knew nothing.My mother cleared her throat. "It means foreigner."She asked me where I'd heard the expression. I told her, everywhere, and that gyo-po had become my nickname here in Seoul.So that I didn't have to linger by the phone booth for too long, I got into the habitof writing down all of the things I needed to tell my parents in advance of calling them. It was boiling, inside and outside; the thick, soupy air felt hotter than my own breath. In a letter to my friend in the States, I told her that here you didn't move from one place to the next, you swam. Although I was ashamed to admit it, central air-conditioning was definitely one of the things I missed most."Oh, it means foreigner?" I echoed. I didn't have much else to say to my mom that day. Nothing on my list seemed important anymore.So for the next two months, I was a gyo-po, a foreigner. Viewing the city streets from above, stringy black dots bobbed up and down and darted from side to side. On ground level, I noticed that it didn't matter that I looked like everybody else; I was still singled out for being different. The pictures that were taken of me my first day in Seoul tell an interesting story. Now, all I can see is that my Western stance, my Kodak camera, and my Doc Martens were dead giveaways; I might as. well have draped myself in an American flag. The thing is, and all of the other American-born kids agreed with this conjecture, even if we weren't wearing Western clothes, the natives still would have pegged us Americans. We joked constantly about our unique gyo-po status; this erased the sting of rejection by the Korean community. To the locals, we smelled funny, we talked funny, and we just didn't belong.A few days before the program ended, one of my girlfriends and I were coming back from a long day of shopping. We wanted to stock up on all necessary foodstuffs, souvenirs, and rip-off Gucci handbags before going back to the States. Exhausted, we hailed a cab. It was too latebefore we found out that we'd hailed one of the few taxicabs in the city that didn't have an air-conditioner. But this wasn't the worst part.The driver, a fifty-something man, glared at us in the rearview mirror. He was angry. Shaking his finger in the air, he grumbled, "You kids are not Korean, and your parents are traitors for having left their homeland."He drove in circles around the Yonsei University campus, and my friend and I wondered if he was ever going to stop lecturing, or stop driving. We were terrified. We could accept that the man thought we were unappreciative, ill-mannered, stupid Twinkie kids (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), but was he eventually going to stop the car and turn us loose? My girlfriend grabbed my arm and whispered through the side of her mouth, "Do you think he's going to kidnap us and sell us into slavery?" I assured her that the driver would drop us off as soon as he was done bitching. But when we reached a red traffic light, I yanked the car door open and threw a couple bills over the seat. We jetted.The previous few weeks had been filled with similar experiences. My friends in the program and I were kicked out of night clubs because there were "already too many gyo-pos" inside, received poor service at restaurants, were snubbed by women at clothing stores and salons -- in some cases, the discrimination we faced in Korea had been far more intense than anything we'd confronted in America. Even though our friendships were growing stronger, many of us couldn't wait to get back home.But when I finally arrived home in Rochester, I remember weaving through crowds of people who were milling about the baggage claim. It just didn't feel like it wasmy life I was returning to. After being homesick for the warmth and security, I was depressed that it felt like I was visiting another foreign country.
Coming of age as an Asian-American girl in the largely white reaches of upstate New York, editor Nam writes that she began to "make sense of the contradictions of being Asian, American, and a girl" through writing, as did many of the young women whose stories, essays, poems, and letters she's compiled in this vibrant, much-needed anthology. Though Nam received hundreds of contributions, the collection includes only 80 brief selections (most are under three pages) by budding writers between 15 and 22 years of age, from all over the country. Nam presents the pieces according to theme with helpful background information and analyses of the works, and ends each section with a "Mentor Piece" by and estabilshed Asian-American writer on her own coming-of-age (these include essays by Lois-Ann Yamanaka and Helen Zia). The real stars in this collection, however, are girls like high school senior Rona Luo, who waxes lyrical about the "last time I saw my father chow" (cook with a wok). Other essays discuss ody image, interracial friendship and dating, adoption, "model minority" stereotypes, Asian-American feminist activist, sexuality, language and white boys' "Asian fetish." Nam regrets that her youth was filled with silence on the subject of being young and Asian-American. Thanks to this fine collection of writings, future generations of Asian-American girls need not feel so isolated. (Aug.)
Forecast: Thought the book will appeal to young Asian-American women, the writers' focus on tough work of establishing identity will make it relevant to young women of all ethnic backgrounds. Essential for high school libraries.
Khamphian Vang recalls a moment in school when she felt "different" because she was an Asian among an almost all-white student body. As the other kids talked to each other during lunchtime, she sheds a tear on her bread. Her story, "Salt Bread" is one of the many heartfelt, engaging stories in this compilation of female Asian/American voices under the age of 21. This is a big, bad must-read. -- Pete Lee, Giant Robot Magazine
In this groundbreaking collection of personal writings, young Asian American girls come together for the first time and engage in a dynamic converstions about the unique challenges they face in their lives. Promoted by a variety of pressing questions from editor Vickie Nam and culled from hundreds of submission from all over the country, these revelatory essays, poems, and stories tackle such complex issues as dual identities, culture clashes, family matters, body image, and the need to find one's voice.
With a foreword by Phoebe Eng, as well as contributions from accomplished Asian American women mentors Janice Mirikitani, Helen Zia, Nora Okja Keller, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Elaine Kim, Patsy Mink, and Wendy Mink, Yell-Oh Girls! is an inspiring and much-needed resource for young Asian American girls.
About the Author
Vickie Nam was most recently content/community producer at VOXXY, the L.A. -- based interactive network for girls. She was formerly managing producer at AsianAvenue.com, news team coordinator at Teen People, and editor in chief of Blue Jean Magazine. Her work has appeared in Seventeen, Jump, and KoreAM Journal. Vickie lives in Los Angeles.