Sunday 12 April 2020

Guest post: Yongsoo Park

Yongsoo Park is the author of the novels Boy Genius and Las Cucarachas, as well as the essay collection The Art of Eating Bitter: A Hausfrau Dad’s Journey with Kids, about his one-man crusade to give his children an analog childhood. Born in Seoul, he grew up in NYC. Boy Genius was a Notable Title Selection for the 2002 Kiriyama Prize, and Las Cucarachas was a finalist for the Asian American Literary Award.

Rated R Boy Life is a memoir about how life in NYC wasn’t what Yongsoo envisioned it to be when his family moved there from Seoul in the summer of 1980. The streets are filled with homeless people. The subway is covered in graffiti. Older kids on his block push him around and force him to do things he doesn’t want to do. But the biggest legacy of such a move, of course, was that for the rest of their lives, he and his family were haunted by doubt and longing for what they’d left behind and what might have been.

So, over to Yongsoo...

I wrote Rated R Boy, which tells the story of my parents’ and my first four years in America, before the currently pandemic mostly for myself and my children. I wanted my children to know more about their father and grandparents’ lives in South Korea and the U.S.

Much has changed since the early 1980s when my family started our adventure in America. Back then, I was just Korean and not at all concerned that people automatically assumed I was a foreigner. I didn’t feel at all like I belonged to America then. I wouldn’t become Asian-American until I got to college and it would be even longer before I felt sure-footed enough to set my claim on my adopted home.

Even after four decades, my footing on my adopted home still feels slippery at times. Such anxieties have been heightened in recent months by the pandemic. What’s been most interesting to me about this pandemic in the US isn’t that angry and misguided people have targeted people of Asian descent for causing the outbreak with verbal and physical assaults but that I wasn’t at all surprised by this development. It might be a sad testament of my lack of faith in the world or a heightened survival instinct, but I automatically pictured such things.  Such a calculus kept me from donning a face mask in the early days of the outbreak. I feared that wearing a mask would draw unwanted attention to myself, and the last thing I wanted was to get into a confrontation with a stranger over why we Asians had brought this plague on the world. I wear a mask now. So do most people who are outside irrespective of their race.

I didn’t need academic studies to tell me that people of Asian descent are often seen as perpetual foreigners in America no matter how well they seem to have blended into the fabric of American life. But I also knew that this wasn’t immutable truth. There was always room for progress. I learned this from attending two summer camps as a boy. Whether by accident or grand design, my parents sent my brother and me first to a sleepaway camp run by the Salvation Army which was attended by poor African-American children from Harlem and the Bronx, then the following summer, to a camp for children of Russian Jews who’d converted to Christianity. My brother and I were called all sorts of names at both camps. But we survived both camps in one piece, and I benefited greatly from the experience.

Such stark and somewhat comical exposure to other cultures seems less likely to occur today. Indeed, due to various economic, social, and technological forces, our world feels at once more diverse and more segregated than even 40 years ago. In NYC, at least, most young people attend schools with others of their class or race. We attend segregated houses of worship, if at all. Whether rich or poor, it’s easy to stay within our own virtual-ghettos.

Literature can help tear away some of this ghettoization. Stories can provide a window to what life is like for others. By providing a glimpse into unique perspectives, our narratives can reveal the humanity and universality that exists in our lives.

Details: Rated R Boy is available as Kindle and paperback editions via Amazon. Priced in local currencies.