[Book review] Who said Asians can’t make some good trouble?

Posted on : 2024-05-10 17:27 KST Modified on : 2024-05-10 17:27 KST
“Troublemaker” by John Cho is a rare work set during the LA riots, depicting a Korean boy as he navigates his identity amid expectations and unrest
Cover of the Korean edition of “Troublemaker” by John Cho. 
Cover of the Korean edition of “Troublemaker” by John Cho. 

“Troublemaker,” by John Cho 
Illustrated by Oh Seung-min | Translated by Kim Sun-hee  
Published by Acorn Forest Book

The first time I rode an escalator, I was 8. I was at Gimpo International Airport, surrounded by my entire extended family. All the children there acted as if they were at a playground, but that one day in the late 1970s marked the day my uncle immigrated to the US.
The first Asians to migrate to the US were Chinese laborers. Mobilized in 1820 for the sake of building transcontinental railroads, they earned a pittance and suffered discrimination. Korean American author Linda Sue Park’s “Prairie Lotus” is set in such a context.
In 1903, Koreans went to Hawaii to work as contracted workers on sugarcane plantations. From 1910, those Korean workers in Hawaii searched for brides from Korea. Lee Geum-yi’s “The Picture Bride” focuses on bringing back to life the stories of Korean picture brides.
When my uncle left for the US, Korean American actor John Cho’s family was also headed to the same destination. After US immigration laws were amended in 1965, many Koreans chose to migrate to the US in the 1970s and 80s for a better life for themselves and their children.
“Troublemaker” is a novel based on Cho’s own experiences. It follows what happened on April 29, 1992, the day signaling the breakout of the LA Riots. The book became an Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature Honor Book in 2023. The awards, which are presented annually by the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association, began in 2001, 200 or so years after Asians first stepped foot on US soil. This also means that, during that long period, few paid any attention to the human rights of Asian immigrants, or to the discrimination that they had to face.
After a jury acquitted police officers who used excessive force in the arrest and beating of Rodney King in 1991, many Black Angelinos set out to the streets in 1992, in what would go on to be known as the LA riots. 
Around the same time, Koreatown became the target of violence when a Korean American storekeeper shot and killed a Black girl after mistakenly believing that she was stealing from him.
“Troublemaker” is a rare work set during the LA riots, which pitted Korean immigrants against African Americans. On the day of the riots, Jordan’s father leaves to defend his store, only to disappear off the radar. Jordan decides to bring a gun from his stash to help his father, who left for the store unarmed. It’s a risky endeavor, especially as he’s accompanied by his friend Mike, a teenage delinquent. As soon as he sets food out of the house, Jordan faces one crisis after the other, which explains perfectly well why Cho first imagined this story as a movie.
Some truths about Jordan’s family are revealed toward the end of the novel. While Jordan’s father immigrated to the US for his family and children, he’s inept at business. His parents fight over financial issues but always tell their son that he has nothing to worry about. As his family situation grows unstable, Jordan’s grades drop. He parrots his parent’s words, “Don’t worry,” for fear of disappointing his umma and appa.
Eventually, his father becomes angry, saying, “I sacrificed so much for you, so why have you become such a bad kid?” Jordan fires back, “You can’t even keep our store open! Why’d we even come here if you can’t do that?” After spitting out words he doesn’t mean, Jordan strives to help his father in any way he can so he can win back his father’s respect.
Jordan’s world is turned upside down in one day, after being exposed to so many hard truths. He starts to question the stereotype of the “well-mannered, meek Asian who never gets in anyone’s way.” That night, Jordan realizes that no child can be categorized as bad or good. “I just want to be the one to decide who I am.” Jordan’s words overlap with Cho’s present, who has, since he was in seventh grade, rejected the stereotypical image of the Asian American.

By Han Mi-hwa, book columnist

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