“Why is Park Korean?”
The first time I was asked that question, three or four months ago, I had a pretty short answer:
“Because Park is Korean.”
Because Park was always Korean.
From the moment he was Park. Before he was actually “Park.”
It’s about a girl, and a boy, and I think she’s in trouble, and I think he’s lost, and she has red hair, I think, and he’s part-Korean. And it’s all going to end with them in the car. Or start with them in the car. She’s in trouble. Eleanor. And he’s scared. And it won’t be love at first sight. And she’ll be covered in freckles, and his hair will be straight and black, and he’ll play with something – a watch, a scarf, a chain – on her wrist, before they ever hold hands.
That’s how Eleanor & Park started in my head. That’s how stories always start for me. It’s like I’m uncovering characters who are already there, not assembling them piece by piece. I write them the way I see them, and usually never come back to think about why.
So, the first time someone asked me why Park was Korean, I just shrugged.
But the next time someone asked, I started thinking about it. And the third time, I found myself talking about it.
And now that I’ve been asked a dozen times – maybe more – I’ve realized that there are actually a lot of reasons that Park is Korean. Enough to write a whole blog entry about.
This is that blog entry.
I should say, before I go on, that the people who ask this question are not dismayed by Park’s race. (I’ve only seen one reader react to him in an ugly, racist way.) (That reader was also put off by Eleanor’s weight.)
Usually, this question is asked by younger readers and almost always by non-white readers – often by people who are Asian themselves.
I think the question is more about me than Park. It’s – why did I make Park Korean? There aren’t a lot of Asian boys in YA; the character calls attention to himself. Why would a white author write about an Asian guy?
Even now, I don’t have a complete, definitive answer . . . The following aren’t reasons as much as they are factors:
1. My father served in Korea, in the Army.
This is probably the most obvious explanation.
My parents separated when I was in the second grade, and I never knew my dad that well. I didn’t grow up with him around. But I remember being fascinated by the fact that he was in the military – and stationed in a place where there had been an actual war, even though he was there decades after the worst of it.
There was this photo of him, in uniform, hanging over my grandmother’s coffee table – an unrecognizable teenager with short hair and tiny wire-rimmed glasses.
Every once in a while, if he’d had a few drinks, my dad would talk about the Army. How he signed up at 17 to avoid getting drafted and sent to Vietnam. The Army wouldn’t send a 17-year-old to Vietnam, he said. (I have no idea if this, or much else my dad told me, is true.)
He was especially proud of having protested the Vietnam War while he was in Korea. There was a clipping from a military newspaper with photos of the protest. I was 12 or 13 when he showed me this, and I definitely didn’t get it.
Over the years, I’ve had people tell me I must be confused about my dad, that there weren’t Americans soldiers left in Korea in the ‘70s. But there are still American soldiers in South Korea. We never left.
Anyway, the other thing my dad would talk about, every once in a while, was a girl he’d known in Korea. My mom says he carried this Korean girl’s photo in his wallet for years after he came home. He’d been in love with her; my mom thought he still was.
I used to wonder about that girl. About how he met her. Whether she spoke English. Whether she was his age. Whether it was some secret love affair, or something her friends and family knew about . . . What if she was his soulmate?
What if fate and circumstance and the U.S. government had come together to deliver my father across the continents to his soulmate – and he just left her there.
He could have stayed, I thought. He could have brought her back. Omaha is a military town; people bring wives and husbands back from all over.
I remember being so angry with him. First for leaving the person he was meant to be with; then for leaving my mom, the person he wasn’t meant to be with; and then for leaving all my brothers and sisters and me in his wake.
So … in Eleanor & Park, Park’s dad gets sent to Korea because his brother has died in combat in Vietnam. He meets his soulmate there. And he brings her home.
What are the chances you’d ever meet someone like that, Park wondered. Someone you could love forever, someone who would forever love you back? And what did you do when that person was born half a world away?
The math seemed impossible. How did his parents get so lucky?
They couldn’t have felt lucky at the time. His dad’s brother had just died in Vietnam; that’s why they sent his dad to Korea. And when his parents got married, his mom had to leave everything and everyone she loved behind.
Park wondered if his dad saw his mom in the street or from the road or working in a restaurant. He wondered how they both knew . . .
2. Also, there was this kid on my bus.
Eleanor & Park takes place in the neighborhood where I lived for part of high school. It was a really poor, really white neighborhood, near the airport. The kids who lived there, like me, were bussed to a high school in a black part of town, for integration.
I didn’t stand out quite as badly on that bus as Eleanor does on hers, but it was a near thing. The kids in my neighborhood listened to classic rock and heavy metal – and most people dressed like they were on their way to a Quiet Riot concert. My style back then was basically Not That.
I sat next to the only other person on the bus who wasn’t wearing flannel, this guy who listened to punk rock music and dressed like John Cusack.
One day he told me about this other boy on the bus – a relatively popular boy with perfectly feathered hair and a quilted flannel jacket; he said this popular guy’s mom was from Vietnam . . .
I was so shocked. It’s not that everyone in our neighborhood was racist, but it was the kind of place where people still flew the Confederate Flag on their porches.
I couldn’t figure out how anyone who wasn’t white could even survive in our neighborhood. I could barely survive in our neighborhood.
My seatmate said that this kid grew up on his block, that his dad was a Vietnam War veteran.
I remember thinking that he’d been literally grandfathered in to the neighborhood. Pre-approved. I’m sure, if I knew him, I would have seen that his life was more complicated – but he and my punk-rock friend were both accepted by the other kids, both one of them, in a way I never would be.
Neither of those guys, John Cusack or Vietnamese Popular Guy, are Park.
But would I have written Park if I hadn’t been on the bus with them?
3. And then there’s my friend Paul.
When you talked about race at my junior high, you were talking about black or white.
There were a few Native American kids, a very few Mexican kids and, I think, five Asian people.
One of them was my friend Paul, who was from China. (Who is from China.) (And also from Omaha.) (And Brooklyn.)
Paul was extremely popular at our school. He was one of those kids who could just sense the cool things to wear, the cool music to listen to – and one of those people everybody likes. (It was infuriating sometimes, as his friend. I felt like he could get away with anything, even with teachers.)
So Paul wasn’t exactly discriminated against in any classic, horrible way – that I observed – but his race was present, always. Like, there were so few Asian people in North Omaha at that time, people would always look at him twice.
And he talked about being Asian all the time. Joked about it. And complained if he ever thought it was a factor in some painful or unfair situation.
After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Paul made this beautiful protest T-shirt and wore it to school. He was really upset about what happened in Beijing, so the rest of us got upset about it, too. We all joined an Amnesty International chapter and started writing letters for political prisoners.
The way that I really remember Paul’s race being an issue was with girls. I remember girls at our school being very taken with him – but sometimes hesitant to go out with him. He looked so different from all the other boys. He was small. He was Chinese. He joked about wearing women’s jeans because they fit better.
I feel compelled to tell you that every girl Paul liked in junior high and high school ended up going out with him. He was (is) pretty irresistible. But I think some of those girls had to work through how different he was . . .
By the way, Paul isn’t Park either.
But it must have stuck with me – the way someone can be accepted, even adored, but still feel apart.
And so . . .
I think, in a way, that writing a novel is like dreaming. Your brain starts digging things up that you’d thought you’d forgotten. You try to answer questions you didn’t even know were still lying there. You realize how long you’ve been holding on to big emotions like hurt feelings and confusion, and also specific details – like a window that always got stuck, or the way someone’s hair curled at their collar.
All of these things become colors on your palette, there for you even if you’re not consciously reaching for them . . .
Why is Park Korean?
Because I think there should be more Asian-American characters in YA, especially boys. (And also more chubby girls.)
Because it’s up to people like me, who write, to write them.
Because I don’t live in a world where everyone looks and thinks exactly like I do. And I don’t want to write about a world like that. Even though maybe it would be easier . . .
Because my dad served in Korea.
Because there was a boy on my bus whose dad loved his mom enough not to say good-bye.
Park is Korean . . .
Because that’s how I saw him the moment I saw him.
And then I couldn’t imagine him any other way.