Study Guide

A Step from Heaven Quotes

  • Violence

    Her lips pinch tight, then she hides with Uhmma and me. Because when Apa is too quiet with the squinty eye, it is better to hide until he falls asleep or else there will be breaking everywhere. Halmoni always says, That Apa of yours needs a good spanking. If only your Harabugi had not passed away. (2.4)

    Apa hasn't even done anything violent yet and already we know he's someone even his mother (Halmoni) fears. What she tells Young Ju though, has to make you wonder: does Apa just need "a good spanking" from his father (Harabugi), or is Apa way beyond that?

    Apa turns and faces Uhmma. He points to her stomach. Look at us now. This is all your fault. You hear me? Your fault I had to take a second job picking up those lawyers' trash like some beggar. In Korea at least I had my own boat. What was so bad about that life? (9.12)

    Pro tip: if anyone ever says that something is "all your fault"—run. Other things to note: Apa may not come out and say that Uhmma's pregnancy is her fault too, but there's definitely that feeling since he's pointing to her stomach when he says the words "This is all your fault." Apa is also not the kind of guy who likes to take responsibility for decisions he's made… kind of like a big kid, only with more muscle.

    I do not see Apa's hand. It is too fast. I only hear the slap, loud as breaking glass. I bite my bottom lip. Hard. I cannot cry. It will only make it worse. I close my eyes and start to pray, Please, God, please make everything better. What did I say, Apa yells. Slap. I open my eyes and look at Uhmma. She covers her lips with her hand. A little blood comes out from between her fingers. My tears are falling onto my knees. I hold my breath so I will not cry out. (9.22-25)

    Are you confused about who's getting hit? Good, because we think that's kind of the point of this passage. Young Ju acts as if she's the one getting hit, not Uhmma, which just goes to show how much Young Ju absorbs when she witnesses her mom getting hit. It's like she can't detach herself from the scene.

    What did I say? Apa asks Uhmma. Uhmma looks straight at the house, her hand covering her lip. She does not answer. Apa leans close to Uhmma. Face to face. His eyes squint thin as paper. He takes the used-up cigarette from his lips and holds it between his thumb and finger. Please, Uhmma, I say in my head. Please say it. Please. Please. Please. Uhmma takes away her hand. Blood drips down her chin. Her lips are broken grapes. She says with eyes closed, It is not forever. (9.26-29)

    Ever wonder how a victim of domestic violence can lose her will? Here's a classic example. Apa abuses Uhmma in at least three different ways: verbally, physically, and psychologically. And now there's this scene, where all he has to do is get really close to Uhmma to get her to parrot his words.

    The crashing is loud and strong. I plug my ears but can still hear Apa's loud yelling. Who do you think you are? Questioning me. Slap. Stop it, I say to myself. Go out there and stop it. But I do nothing. Say nothing. Only listen to the walls like a shameful mouse. (21.9-10)

    If you're feeling bad for Young Ju, you're not alone. Poor Young Ju feels all this responsibility to stop her dad from beating her mom even though she's a small child. Here's a question though: what should a small child do when she witnesses her father beating her mother? Is there a right way to react?

    The coffee table is overturned, Korean newspaper strewn all over the carpet. The smell of Apa's alcohol breath soaks the air. I pick up a broken picture frame, the photo of our family at the airport in Korea slightly skewed, and set it on the couch. (21.14)

    Sometimes this book gets to be a bit much. A "broken picture frame, the photo of our family […] slightly skewed"? Sounds like the author reached into a big grab bag of domestic violence clichés for this metaphor of a broken family...

    I take small, careful steps, avoiding any glances at Uhmma or Joon. I stop when I see Apa's gold-toe socks. You, Apa shouts and hits the side of my head with his knuckles, will never question me. Arrows of pain shoot through my head, making me squint. Find a corner of the carpet. Concentrate. Float away. (23.74-76)

    Finally Apa takes his anger out on Young Ju—not that we've been waiting for this moment exactly, but we kind of saw it coming. Note that the way Young Ju deals with her own pain versus the way she deals with her mother's pain is kind of different. Here she just tries to numb herself to the pain and mentally escape the scene.

    Why does Apa do it? I ask again, louder. Uhmma slouches against the dresser. She puts down the lipstick. Uhmma says softly, There are some things you do not know about your Apa. I wait for her to continue. He is a very prideful man, Uhmma says. So he has to hit us, I say and turn my face away. Young Ju, you are too young to understand. Uhmma sighs deep from the source of her pain. He was so different when we first met, Uhmma says. He is still very upset over the death of your Halmoni. That is no excuse, I say. (26.58-64)

    Is there ever an excuse for violent behavior? Here Uhmma's trying to explain (perhaps even justify) Apa's actions, but Young Ju just isn't having it. You've got to feel for Uhmma though—it has to be hard to see the man she fell in love with turn out so differently.

    The rain of blows on my face, shoulders, and head forces my body to the ground. My hands slide into the shag carpet. I pretend I am drowning, letting the sea take me under. I close my eyes and the world cannot touch me. You are going to kill her! Uhmma shouts. Get away from me, woman, Apa growls. This is all your fault. Look at what kind of daughter you have raised, always lying and sneaking around. She is just like you. Apa kicks me in the stomach. I barely feel the blow. I am already floating away. (27.31-33)

    We're getting to the turning point of the story here. This is the most amount of violence Young Ju has had to deal with from Apa, which is why Uhmma steps in and tries to intercede. You know a scene like this can't end happily...

    I pick up the phone and raise it to my ear. "Please," I whisper and take a gulp of air. "Send help."

    "Tell me what is going on, miss."

    "My father is killing my mother." (27.49-51)

    And here we are: the turning point of the book. It's kind of late, but finally someone (in this case, Young Ju) calls for help. There's no turning back now...

  • Passivity

    Halmoni, who is old and has a sleepy blanket face, says that a long time ago Apa was young like me and she could boss him around. But not anymore. Now, Halmoni can only shake her head when Apa comes home late stinking like the insides of the bottles that get left on the street. Her lips pinch tight, then she hides with Uhmma and me. (2.3-4)

    It's hard not to be passive if you're old and frail like Halmoni. It's not like she can beat her son, who's physically (and maybe mentally) more powerful than she. Even though Halmoni can't go mano-a-mano against her son, we're thinking she's setting a pretty weak example for Uhmma and Young Ju. There have got to be better ways of dealing with an abusive son other than hiding, right?

    Do you like it, Young Ju? Uhmma is smiling. Happy lots of teeth smile. Happy as the letter about Mi Gook. Happy at me. Even though Uhmma tells me I should always tell the truth, and Halmoni says God will be very angry if you lie, I want Uhmma to smile happy lots of teeth at me. Young Ju, do you like your curly hair? I look at the floor. Yes, I lie, quiet as snow. (5.59-61)

    People like to think that passivity is genetic or racial or whatever, but this scene kind of shows you how simple the origins of passivity can be. It's about getting someone—in this case, Uhmma—to be happy with you.

    Only now when I sit in the back seat I have to cover the parts that say a little mouse has been here because I am the only Mouse in the family. Everyone else has important signs like Tiger or Dragon. (8.2)

    This is passage is like a big sign flashing character flaw for Young Ju—all this business about having a mouse as her Chinese astrological sign is really just another way of telling us that Young Ju is a shy, passive character. You should know this too though: there really isn't a mouse in Chinese astrology—the actual sign is a rat, which is worth keeping in mind as Young Ju develops as a character.

    Please, Uhmma, I say in my head. Please say it. Please. Please. Please. Uhmma takes away her hand. Blood drips down her chin. Her lips are broken grapes. She says with her eyes closed, It is not forever. (9.28-29)

    Here's the scene: Apa wants Uhmma to stop sighing and worrying about moving out of his sister's house too early and into the crappy apartment they've just rented. In his words, the whole situation "is not forever." To get Uhmma to submit, Apa resorts to violently beating her, which is why Young Ju—who witnesses the scene—just wants Uhmma to submit and repeat Apa's words. Young Ju wants the violence to stop.

    Apa starts to laugh. Joon Ho, who do you think you are? A fireman? Yes, I am, Joon says. He shakes his go-chu clear of the last drops and pulls up his shorts. Peach Fuzz scratches his head and leans forward to see if the mound of bubbles has disappeared. Joon stands with his hands on his hips like he is challenging the kid to do better. Joon orders Peach Fuzz around in Korean. Peach Fuzz nods as though he understands and the two of them build a mound of bubbles. (12.44-46)

    First things first: go-chu is Korean for penis. Which means that here we basically have Joon Ho, Young Ju's little brother, shaking his penis free of pee out in the middle of the street. Why? Because boys can do things like that and nobody—especially proud fathers like Apa—really cares. In fact, this scene is just another way of saying that the boy who's willing to shake his penis out in public (literally) ends up being the more dominant boy. Notice how Peach Fuzz, Joon Ho's American friend, does whatever Joon tells him.

    I forgot how to be a man, Joon says. A betraying tear slides down his face and Joon hurries to brush it off. What are you crying for? Joon shrugs. Wrong answer. Apa slams his hand across Joon's face. Joon's head jolts back. A howl escapes from his lips. Uhmma comes to the doorway and stands behind me. She calls out to Apa over my head, Yuhboh, that is enough. Apa turns toward her voice. Shut up, Apa says. Keep out of it. This is my son and he will not grow up weak… Apa continues, In this world, only the strong survive. Only the strong can make their future. If you cry and whine like a girl, who is going to listen to you? Who? If you talk like a man, fight like a man, you will get what you want in this world. Do you understand? Yes, Joon whispers. (16.69-84)

    Okay—let's figure out the logic here. In order to get Joon to be strong like a man, Apa beats Joon into passive submission until Joon ends up whispering his replies. Hrm… See a problem here? How is Joon becoming a strong man when he's getting a (literal) first-hand lesson in passivity? How does Apa's logic work exactly?

    The crashing is loud and strong. I plug my ears but can still hear Apa's loud yelling. Who do you think you are? Questioning me. Slap. Stop it, I say to myself. Go out there and stop it. But I do nothing. Say nothing. Only listen to the walls like a shameful mouse. (21.9-10)

    This is Young Ju at the peak of her passivity. If you've been reading along, you'll know that being "a shameful mouse" is something Young Ju believes is innate in her character—but we're not so sure, because clearly there's a strong voice in Young Ju's head telling her to act differently. Is being "a shameful mouse" really who Young Ju is? Or is she just beating herself up over something that isn't her fault to begin with?

    As Uhmma straightens the clutter of makeup on her dresser, she says, Your life can be different, Young Ju. Study and be strong. In America, women have choices. I stand up. Stare straight at Uhmma. You have choices, Uhmma. Uhmma refuses to meet my gaze. (26.65-67)

    So where's the mouse now? Young Ju's growing up and along with this comes her newfound boldness. Here she is telling her mother to stand up for herself against Apa and—more or less—leave him. Not so passive now, is she?

    A dull thud and Uhmma's scream halts my prayers. I open my eyes, and from somewhere inside my body, an answering scream finds its way out of my throat.

    I don't think, just move. I lunge for the phone by the armchair. The three numbers are pressed so quickly I barely have time to hold the phone to my ear before a voice comes on, "Nine one one." (28.41-42)

    For Young Ju, moving from passivity to action takes a moment of crisis. In this case, it's the fact that her dad truly might be beating Uhmma to the point of no return.

    After the police handcuff Apa and take him away, Uhmma drives down to the police station with her face so badly bruised and misshapen an officer forces her to go to the hospital. Even after ten stitches on the cut above her eyebrow, two stitches on the corner of her lip, and taped ribs, Uhmma will not press charges. "My huh-su-bun," she tells them. (29.1)

    Is this loyalty or is it passivity? Or are the two the same thing in this case? Uhmma won't press charges on her abusive husband even though it's clear that he's a grade-A jerk/criminal. What would be the right thing to do? Is pressing charges the only way to be an active, powerful person in this situation?

  • Family

    I look at Harabugi's picture on the table with the candles all around. He has sleepy eyes like cats in the sun. They are nice eyes. My Harabugi. Apa has the same eyes. Also the same black hair sticking up straight in the front and flat in the back. (3.12)

    If Apa's violent character is any indication of what those "nice eyes" can be like, we're thinking Young Ju's grandfather (Harabugi) might not have been all that nice when he was alive. All that similarity between father and son isn't necessarily a good thing.

    I pat my dress and wish this dress were Halmoni. Thinking about Halmoni all alone in our sitting-hen house makes me want to cry louder than Ju Mi's baby sister who has no hair.

    Mi Gook is only for young people to have a new start, Halmoni said. Not for old people who are used-up dry fish bones.

    I do not understand why Mi Gook is only for Apa and Uhmma and me. God said everyone could go to heaven. Maybe God is a big liar. If Halmoni cannot go to Mi Gook, then I do not want to go. I want to stay at home with Halmoni. (6.4-6)

    America—or Mi Gook—is more than just a new place for Young Ju. It's a symbol of the dramatic split from a family life that includes her grandmother Halmoni. Even though she's not even in America yet, Young Ju's getting a crash course in the American nuclear family, a.k.a. a family that's only about the father, mother, and the kids.

    Apa lights his cigarette. Blows out the smoke. He shakes his head. You know what it is like. How can you stand to live like that? Always thanking them, always having to be careful. We have no privacy. (9.4)

    When Apa says "them," he's referring to his sister and her white American husband, two people he really doesn't want to live with anymore. Why? Even though they're family, Apa feels like a perpetual guest, "always thanking them, always having to be careful," in their house. Clearly family doesn't necessarily mean comfortable or close or even friendly for Apa.

    Apa calls out, Young Ju, do not worry your Uhmma. She is too tired to carry you. Besides, you are not a baby anymore… Look, Young Ju, Apa says. This is your new brother, Park Joon Ho. Is he not beautiful? Inside there is a wiggly worm with no hair. I touch his head and feel only a little fur. I ask Apa, Where is his hair? (10.10-16)

    Can you say sibling jealousy? Clearly Young Ju isn't all into her new younger brother like all the adults (especially her dad) are. We don't blame her—here's this new baby who hasn't done anything to earn his spot in the family except be born and be male, yet all of a sudden everything's all about him. It's not easy being the older kid, especially the older female kid.

    Behind me, there is a loud pong! I turn my head and see Uncle Tim holding the big bottle with white sea foam spilling out. Apa, Uhmma, and Gomo hold out their glasses.

    A toast, Uncle Tim says, raising his glass. A toast for the new baby.

    To my son, Park Joon Ho, Apa calls out.

    Park Joon Ho, everyone cheers.

    I reach down and pull a bow off my shoe. I am not a baby anymore. (10.49-53)

    You've got to wonder: was there all this fanfare (and champagne) when Young Ju was born? Apa seems really proud that the new baby is specifically a son. Seems like Young Ju kind of has a case for feeling so ignored...

    On some weekend mornings, not always, hardly even any, but some, Apa becomes the Blob. He wakes up with broom hair and catches Joon and me watching cartoons. He sneaks up from behind and scoops us up all at once like a fisherman with a net. We scream and laugh, try to break free, but his lock-strong arms keep us in jail.

    Uhmma! we screech. Uhmma, help! We are trapped. Uhmma comes out of the kitchen, smiles, but shows us her hands.

    I cannot help you, she says. I will get caught too. (14.1-3)

    Wonder why everyone is so loyal to Apa even though he seems like a holy terror in the house? Here's as good a reason as any: a heartwarming scene of Apa being a typical, warm, loving dad. You can kind of see why the family might be willing to forgive Apa for all his abusiveness—maybe they're just holding out for days like these, when Apa seems so different from his usual, mean self.

    An Oldsmobile, Uhmma explains, is safe and roomy. It is big enough to hold a whole family. You know my friend Kay, at the restaurant, she says that she saw an accident between an Oldsmobile and a Toyota. The Toyota was bent and completely broken, but the Oldsmobile had only a scratch on its bumper. Uhmma's eyes grow wide. She takes one hand off the steering wheel and points to a black Oldsmobile speeding in the carpool lane. Uhmma turns to me. That is the kind of car I would like to drive someday, she says. (18.29)

    Uhmma is so family-oriented that even her dream car is a car "big enough to hold a whole family." Do you spot the irony though? Uhmma associates the American Oldsmobile with family-friendliness while the Japanese Toyota gets the shaft, but it's in America that her family gets smaller and smaller. First they lose Halmoni, and then eventually they lose Apa too. She may have dreams of what an Oldsmobile may signify—big, happy, safe families—but we're guessing an Oldsmobile definitely isn't in her future.

    After the chatter of the Doyles, the quiet at the dinner table sounds strange to my ears. I eat my rice and wonder why my parents can't speak or joke with the ease of Mr. and Mrs. Doyle. Why can't Apa barbecue and ask Uhmma if she needs any help? Or Uhmma tease Apa and then lightly kiss him on the cheek to make sure he knows she was only kidding? (23.57)

    Young Ju wishing her parents were more like the American Doyles is kind of a classic immigrant-kid wish. It's kind of like wishing your parents could be less foreign, less immigrant, and more American. But with Young Ju, it's more than a wish for assimilation into American life: it's also a wish about having parents who love simply and aren't torn apart by violence and anger.

    Apa yanks off his tie as soon as we step inside the house and starts down the hallway for the bedroom. Uhmma calls to his retreating back, Yuhboh, remember to call Gomo.

    Apa slams the bedroom door behind him. (24.42-43)

    Is it just us or does Apa act more like a sullen teenager than a husband and father? Silent treatments and door slamming seem like something we ought to expect from Joon Ho or Young Ju, not the guy who fancies himself the head of the household. But then, who ever said Apa was mature?

    The little boy is smiling so wide and open you can see his tongue. Why haven't I heard about Uhmma's brother? Or seen these photos? I vaguely remember a trip to visit Uhmma's parents, but their faces and the specifics of the visit are blurred and faint in my memory. I realize that a whole part of my history has been missing.

    Uhmma, why have you not told us about your family? I ask. (30.20-21)

    If you're looking for more proof that this book really isn't into patriarchal households, look no further than here. Uhmma never talks about her side of the family to the kids because—as we later find out—Apa never liked the fact that Uhmma came from a wealthier family. Talk about the oppression of the woman. You can't be more oppressed than Uhmma, who doesn't even dare to share her matrilineal origins until Apa is completely out of the picture.

  • Duty

    Gomo gives me a cup with dirty black water inside. I can see bubbles floating. Maybe this is a drink from the sea. I sniff the cup like Mi Shi.

    Just drink it, Young Ju, Apa growls.

    I put the cup to my mouth and take a small taste. Ahya! It hurts. This drink bites the inside of my mouth and throat like swallowing tiny fish bones. This is what Mi Gook people love? I want to push the drink away, but I cannot show bad manners.

    Good girl, Young Ju. Drink that up and you can have more, Apa says. He pats my head. (7.31-34)

    How do you get a kid to show good table manners? If you ask Apa, all you have to do is "growl" at them. After all, there's nothing more valuable to a little kid than that pat on the head—the classic sign of parental approval.

    Shhh, Young Ju, Apa says, in school you are only Young. Mi Gook people will have too much trouble saying all the syllables. It is better to keep it simple for them. Now, bow to your teacher.

    Ahn-young-ha-say-yo, I say and bow so I can show her good manners and she will not eat me up. (8.8-9)

    This book is definitely not without some humor. Young Ju shows us the thoughts of the dutiful kid, and—no surprise here—her thoughts have nothing to do with being truly dutiful. In fact, they have more to do with avoiding the wrath of a teacher who just may "eat [her] up."

    The teacher holds her chin. I play with my color sticks and pretend I do not see her thinking about eating me. After a very long time, the teacher gets up and goes to her desk. She comes back with a bag filled with big yellow crumbs. They are just like the car seat crumbs I am not supposed to pick at. I am worried. The teacher knows I disobeyed Uhmma. (8.25)

    There probably isn't a better example of how obsessed Young Ju is with appearing obedient than this scene. It shows how much power Young Ju's parents have over her and how much the ethic of a hierarchy plays into Young Ju's life. All the teacher has to do is to show her some crumbs (which turn out to be Goldfish crackers the teacher shares with her for lunch), and Young Ju becomes fearful.

    I wander over to the couch and start to tuck in the corners of the yellow blanket. Gomo says, What a good housekeeper you are. Here, sit down and watch what we are doing. You will have to learn how to be a good older Uhn-nee. It is your responsibility to help your Uhmma take care of him. (10.42)

    What does being dutiful mean if you're a girl in the Park household? According to Young Ju's aunt, it means learning how to take care of the younger brother. Seems a little unfair to us though, especially if you compare Young Ju's responsibilities with Joon Ho's responsibilities once he gets older (all of which amount to a lot of playing and cutting school, from what we can tell).

    Young Ju, have I not taught you never to take from others? Do not make yourself obligated to another person.

    Uhmma, she is my friend. I stand up and wave my arms in the air. This is America. In America it is fine to borrow money from friends.

    Stop that, Uhmma says. We are Korean. Do not forget.

    I sit back down. Korean. Then why did we move to America?

    You can go to the party, Uhmma says.

    I'm so stunned I'm not sure I heard correctly. Did she say I could go? What? I ask.

    You must fulfill your obligation for inconveniencing her. Also, you will pay her back the money you borrowed. Uhmma shakes her head. Have I not taught you anything? After this, do not take anything from her. Understand? (23.21-28)

    What's Uhmma so bothered about? All Young Ju did was borrow some money from her best friend Amanda. No big deal right? Well not if you're Korean, according to Uhmma. If you're Korean, being indebted means becoming enmeshed in a relationship that's all about giving back; in other words, it turns a friendship into a relationship between a debtor and debt-ee. Kind of ironic, if you think about it. Isn't America supposed to be the country that's all about realizing independence?

    Young Ju, Uhmma says and gazes steadily into my eyes. I am very sorry I could not be there for your important night. She shakes her head and laments, To think of all those people there to honor you, and your own parents could not take a night off from their jobs. Aigoo, Young Ju. What kind of parents do you have? (25.50)

    Here's a refreshing scene: a mother apologizes to her daughter for not being there for her. Maybe that doesn't seem all that unusual, but in this book Young Ju's elders have so much authority and power over her that it's easy to think of being dutiful as a trait kids have to develop in order to appease adults. This scene shows us that being dutiful works both ways: a parent has the duty to honor the kid too. Uhmma gets this and isn't afraid to own up to it, which is pretty cool for a mom, if you ask us.

    Even after ten stitches on the cut above her eyebrow, two stitches on the corner of her lip, and taped ribs, Uhmma will not press charges. "My huh-su-bun," she tells them. I stand by her side translating, my voice breaking only once, when they ask if he beats me also. (29.1)

    So… what exactly is a wife's duty to her husband, even when he's beaten her to a pulp? Think of it from Uhmma's position: her husband is poor, an immigrant with bad English, and a drunk on top of all of that. So while he may be an abusive husband and father, if she charges him, he'll just end up in jail or worse and without many tools for remedying that situation.

    The next morning Uhmma and I wait in the car in front of the police station. Uhmma honks the horn when she sees Apa step outside. Apa barely glances in our direction. His eyes pass over us and stop at a point behind the car. A blue sedan that was parked not more than ten feet behind us starts its engine and drives by quickly, but not so fast that we cannot make out the figure of an Asian woman int he driver's seat. She stops the car at the curb. Apa walks quickly to the passenger's side. He steps in. They drive away. (29.2)

    Yep—you got it: Apa's not just an abusive husband and father, he's also a cheater. Clearly all those lessons on being dutiful to his family got lost on him. One good thing does come out of this scene though: it does seem to (eventually) get Uhmma to snap out of her dutiful-wife routine. There's no way she can be dutiful and loyal to a husband who blatantly chooses to step into another woman's car, right?

    Please try to understand, Young Ju. These last few months have been difficult. I did not have the right words for you until today. I said things that are not true. I blamed you for my mistake. Uhmma shakes her head. I blamed you for trying to save me.

    I want to reach out to Uhmma. Rest my head on her shoulder. But I stand in my place, arms crossed over my chest.

    Uhmma says, Now it is my turn to do the right thing for you. For us. I told Gomo that we could take care of ourselves. My strong children and I will be fine without Apa. (30.27-29)

    Time to break out that box of tissues because you can't get more heartwarming than Uhmma's major mea culpa to Young Ju. And she's right—in all her efforts to be a good wife, she loses sight on being a good mom and protecting her children from danger, even if that source of danger is their dad. This is a huge turnaround moment for Uhmma, one that definitely isn't lost on Young Ju, who—after all of this—does hug and lean on Uhmma.

    I study these lines of history and wish to erase them. Remove the scars, the cuts, fill in the cracks in the skin. I envelop Uhmma's hands in my own tender palms. Close them together. Like a book. A Siamese prayer. I tell her, I wish I could erase these scars for you. Uhmma gently slips her hands from mine. She stares for a moment at her callused skin and then says firmly, These are my hands, Young Ju. (31.19)

    What is our duty to history, especially our own? If we go by Uhmma's philosophy, then it's about keeping all those lines, scars, and cuts—keeping the evidence of history intact. After all, that's what makes Uhmma (and Young Ju and us) who she is.

  • Foreignness

    Who is that girl? She cannot be me. Her hair is too big. It stands up big as a bush, just like the hair of the toy man with the rainbow face. Uhmma did not tell me this was curly hair. She said it would look like the sea. But it does not. I am a Mi Gook girl with big ugly toy-man hair. (5.58)

    Young Ju isn't even in America yet and already she's confronted with what America is all about: a total change in her appearance. Not that America has to be about changing what she looks like, but Young Ju doesn't know that just yet—all she knows is that she doesn't look like herself, and not in a good way. Think of this moment as a foreshadowing of how foreign she'll end up feeling once she gets to America.

    In the big room, Apa is sitting next to Sahmchun, who is a Mi Gook person with big round money eyes like in the picture of God. Only his money eyes are not dark as night. They are daytime, sun-is-shining, sky-color eyes. His hair is wavy brown seaweed. He says to call him Uhing Kel Thim. That is Mi Gook talk for Sahmchun, but my mouth does not want to make those words. He says it is fine to call him Sahmchun until my mouth is ready to learn. (7.6)

    If you haven't figured it out already, Sahmchun is Korean for uncle and Uhing Kel Thim is actually Young Ju trying to pronounce Uncle Tim with her broken English. Uncle Tim seems like a pretty cool guy. After all, he's totally accepting of Young Ju's inability to say his name… although… would it really be so bad if Young Ju spoke broken English or called her uncle Sahmchun and not Uncle Tim?

    The lady with the cloud hair is my teacher? But she is a giant person like in the long-ago stories Halmoni used to tell me so I would be a good girl. My teacher looks like the old witch who ate bad children for dinner. (8.5)

    Just imagine: you're a new kid in a new country at a new school and right in front of you is a teacher of a totally different race, speaking a completely different language. How else might you understand your new situation? For Young Ju, her closest reference just happens to be a story that seems to feature a big, witchy, white woman as a villainess. Hey, it's not just Western stories that feature stereotypes of other races.

    Sometimes Amanda says things I do not understand. Yesterday she told me that she and her parents went apple picking and they had doughnuts and hot cider. "I love cider," Amanda said. "Don't you?"

    I nodded and said yes, even though I did not know what cider was. Amanda has been my best friend ever since the time I lied about Joon dying and she gave me a Lifesaver, but that does not mean I tell her everything. (13.1-2)

    How does an immigrant teenager deal with being different? She hides it, even from her best friend. You've got to wonder, by the way, how deep Young Ju's friendship with Amanda can be if Young Ju isn't comfortable revealing anything about her Koreanness (or lack of Americanness).

    I have found that the dictionary doesn't always explain everything. Like "going." Ever since the beginning of fourth grade, Amanda and some of the girls in my class talk about going with this boy, Jimmy. "Who do you think he wants to go with" they ask. I pretend to understand, but in the dictionary it says "go" and "going" mean action, moving, and lots of other things like business transactions. None of it makes any sense to me. Where would Jimmy go with someone? (13.3)

    Young Ju makes a really good point here. Where does the term going with come from anyway? And why is English so weird?

    Uhmma and Grill Woman spoke in a language of mixed and chopped Korean and Japanese, glued together with pieces of English.

    "Suna, kinoo that ahjimma scratch car," Grill Woman said, her eyes small and bright, the size of new pennies.

    "Aigoo. Fix takai?"

    "No, scratch chiisai."… Uhmma was quick to laugh at all of her friend's words. Her squeaky-shoes laugh was back and her face shone bright as a full moon on cold, clear nights. Sometimes when she was speaking fast, she put her cup down and her hands waved and danced in the steamy air.

    This was a different Uhmma. Not a sad, tired Uhmma who cooked and cleaned and sometimes yelled, but a stranger who had a friend and a secret language all her own. Not my Uhmma. A Suna. (15.17-21)

    We think this is a pretty cool scene and here's why: not only does Uhmma have this whole separate life where she's friends with a Japanese woman, but Young Ju gets to see Uhmma as a completely different person. Someone strange and new—a woman who isn't only defined by her mother and wife status. This is a rare (and valuable) sight for a girl who's only ever experienced foreignness as a bad thing.

    Apa notices Spencer's movements and gives him a wide, only-for-guests smile. "Shu-pen-cher," Apa says. "Time you go home now. Joon Ho back soon."

    "Sure, Mr. Park," Spencer says, ducking his head and rubbing the fuzz above his ear.

    "Good boy," Apa says, the same smile stuck to his face.

    "See ya, Joon." Spencer takes off around the side of the house, leaving behind his Lego set.

    Apa waits for Spencer to disappear and then turns back to Joon. The smile flies off his lips faster than a door slamming. (16.46-50)

    Who's the foreigner here—Spencer, who clearly doesn't belong in the Park household and gets the foreigner treatment from Apa, or Apa, who shows his own foreignness through his broken English as he makes Spencer feel like an outsider? Maybe the point is that they're both foreigners to each other because they're don't know each other.

    Uhmma loves her pennies, collects them like flowers in an old glass vase she found at a garage sale. More than once Uhmma's pennies have saved the weekly groceries. I am embarrassed when Uhmma puts down a million pennies and the clerk snarls as she counts out the change. I inch away from Uhmma, pretend I am not that woman's daughter. Not a poor Oriental who saves pennies like gold. (18.8)

    All right—we know you've felt this way at some point about your mom or dad. Young Ju's just adding an immigrant spin to a classic moment of teenage mortification. Like so many teenagers, she doesn't want others to view her as different, and for her, that means not appearing "Oriental." Who's even more Oriental than she is? Her mom with all her pennies, of course, which makes Young Ju cringe.

    Uhmma squints at the kids. Are those not your friends over there? I turn my head away from her and look out my window at the long stretch of sand. I lie softly, That is another group. You can drop me off here and I will look around for Amanda. She said they would be near the pier. (23.34)

    Do you feel bad for Uhmma? We kind of do. Uhmma's letting Young Ju go to Amanda's party at the beach, but instead of being grateful for the opportunity, Young Ju is embarrassed by her mother and her foreignness.

    I spin around and around trying to make myself dizzy. Empty the fears that spring inside my head every time I think about leaving home. Uhmma and Joon. What if I don't like it at college? What if I stand out like an alien? What if I am disappointed? (30.8)

    Young Ju's about to set off to college, so it's no wonder she's feeling insecure. But she's got more going on than the typical college jitters—she's worried about being "like an alien," which is a clear reference to the politics surrounding immigration policies and the use of the un-pc term illegal aliens. Even though Young Ju isn't illegal herself, her feeling of "alienness" reminds us that the words we use to describe people of different races inevitably impacts the way they view themselves.

  • Religion

    Pray, Halmoni says. Pray to God and everything will be better. Put your hands together tight like a closed book. Good. Then say what I taught you, Young Ju. Remember? Dear Father who art in heaven. (3.1)

    Young Ju is really into prayer and God for a lot of the book, which makes sense if you think about where her faith comes from. If your dear beloved grandmother taught you all about God and how to pray, you'd probably be pretty devout too.

    Halmoni, where is heaven?

    Heaven is where your Harabugi is. He is with God in a place where there is only goodness and love.

    Can I go there?

    Someday. If you pray and love God. Do you love God.

    Yes, I say, even though at church the picture of his face with the dark round money eyes makes me hide behind the bench. But I want to see heaven and Harabugi, so I try to love him. (3.2-6)

    Halmoni's explanation sounds completely logical right? Of course heaven is wherever Young Ju's dead grandfather is and of course heaven has to be a place that's only about "goodness and love." We'll just point out though that heaven seems kind of like a really exclusive club; you can't just die to get there, which seems like it could be a little intimidating for a little kid. Couple all that with a picture of God and his "dark round money eyes" and you've got a religion that doesn't seem all that simple or easy.

    Halmoni is rocking and reading her Good Book with all the stories about how God came down to be with us. Only when he got here, he said his name was Jesus. I wonder, why did he make up a new name? I wish I could make up a new name, but Halmoni says, Do not be foolish. (3.11)

    We know what you're thinking: why is it so foolish to make up a new name? Madonna did it. And we all know Lady Gaga isn't actually Lady Gaga's real name. Why should only God get the chance to rename and recreate himself?

    That was a long prayer, she says and turns a page. What did you pray about?

    That God would come down and give Apa a spanking, I tell her.

    Halmoni holds her Good Book tight with both hands. She whispers, He is the only one who can. (3.15-17)

    Hrm… so what kind of God is God supposed to be? On one hand (no pun intended), Halmoni tells Young Ju in an earlier scene that God's heaven is all about "goodness and love," but here Halmoni basically supports Young Ju's hope that God can smack some sense into Apa. So if God is all about "goodness and love," we're guessing a "spanking" constitutes some kind of tough love? Does this add up for you?

    I do not understand why Mi Gook is only for Apa and Uhmma and me. God said everyone could go to heaven. Maybe God is a big liar. If Halmoni cannot go to Mi Gook, then I do not want to go. I want to stay at home with Halmoni. (6.6)

    All we have to say here is that Mi Gook (or America) is most definitely not heaven, but you knew that already. Also, we can't help but notice the irony… that heaven is easier to get into than Mi Gook.

    I am a mountain rabbit bouncing, running. Where am I going? I am going to see Harabugi. And when Halmoni comes, I will ask her if she liked the bus that is called an airplane. In Mi Gook, everyone will be happy and filled with love. I am a mountain rabbit bouncing, running, closing my eyes. Waiting for heaven. (6.27)

    Young Ju's completely delusional view of Mi Gook—totally expected from a little kid who's only heard of the pumped-up version of America—is both really sweet and incredibly sad because you just know her excitement won't last once she steps onto American soil. Which is basically the tone of the title and book: a bittersweet feeling.

    I bite my bottom lip. Hard. I cannot cry. It will only make it worse. I close my eyes and start to pray, Please, God, please make everything better. What did I say, Apa yells. Slap. (9.23)

    This book kind of has a complicated view of prayer. On one hand, it's a source of peace for Young Ju and her mother, but on the other hand, in instances like these, prayer (and maybe even God) totally does not help stop Apa from abusing them. So is there power in prayer? And if so, what kind of power is it? Something to ponder…

    I sit in the front seat staring out the window, thinking about the time that Halmoni taught me to pray. Her hands folded on top of mine, her whispered words. Now that I'm older, I don't really believe there is someone listening to me. (21.14)

    Here's Young Ju turning all psuedo-atheist on us. We're not sure we're buying it, though—it sounds like a phase Young Ju might be going through, because later on when things get bad with her father, she still resorts to prayer. Some habits (and faiths) are hard to break.

    I tiptoe quietly across the large room. Uhmma sits by herself in the back row. Her head is bowed, her back rounded, shoulders slumped. For a moment, I stop walking and stare at her small, huddled form. The chorus up front sings a slow song filled with high notes that reach impossibly for the sky. Uhmma prays, though everyone else around her sings. (21.27)

    Here's why religion is a complex issue: Young Ju may be turning into a non-believer because of how useless God has been so far in her life, but even she can't deny how powerful it is to see her mother praying in a pew—the moment even has its own angelic soundtrack ("high notes that reach impossibly for the sky"). Even if Young Ju's not sure about God, she respects the power of her mother's faith and her mother's clear need for a spiritual refuge.

    What am I doing? I look at the phone in my hand and let it drop to the ground. I hug my knees and rock, back and forth, back and forth. Halmoni's voice returns, Only God can. Only God can.

    The sound of breaking and Uhmma's deep wail haunt the room. I pound my fist into my thigh and bite my lower lip. But I am not a child anymore. I do not have time to wait for God. There is only me. Stop it. Stop it. This is enough. (28.47-48)

    Okay—so is this scene all about how Young Ju learns to abandon prayer and God in favor of pure human action (she picks up the phone and talks to the 9-1-1 operator after this passage)? Or is it her ability to have faith and hear Halmoni's voice reminding her that "Only God can" that allows her to have faith in her own power to stop Apa's abuse of Uhmma? We'll let you figure that one out...

  • Women and Femininity

    I do not like to be pretty. Pretty means you cannot play in your nice clothes and Uhmma grabs your hair with a wet comb until your eyes are pulled shut and then she ties it all up with a bow and says, You look very pretty. Uhmma says that sometimes I have to look pretty so everyone will see what a nice girl I can be. (5.8)

    We feel Young Ju's pain—literally. Why does being feminine need to be all about prettiness and physical pain? And what does being a "nice girl" have to do with being pretty? Why even be "nice"? We see a budding feminist in Young Ju…

    An ahjimma will curl your hair so you will look just like a real Mi Gook girl. (5.16)

    Uh yeah… you have us on this one. We're not sure why Americans are so often associated with curly hair, American girls especially. Maybe it's the whole image of a little blond, curly-haired Shirley Temple that Uhmma's trying to force on poor Young Ju.

    Outside the important place that will make me pretty, Uhmma fixes the bow in my hair. She tucks my hair behind my ears. Good, she says and then opens the door. We step inside. My nose wrinkles iee! This cannot be the special place. There are ugly smells inside. Worse than Halmoni boiling clothes in soapy water. Uhmma sees my nose and gives me the squinty eye. I push my nose back down. (5.34)

    What's the point here? The process of becoming "pretty" is—ironically—really ugly, complete with bad-smelling, toxic fumes. Nothing organic going on here.

    Who is that girl? She cannot be me. Her hair is too big. It stands up big as a bush, just like the hair of the toy man with the rainbow face. Uhmma did not tell me this was curly hair. She said it would look like the sea. But it does not. I am a Mi Gook girl with big ugly toy-man hair. (5.58)

    So… sounds like Young Ju doesn't like her new hair. More to the point, she now looks like a male clown—all that pain and suffering, only to produce more pain and suffering. It's interesting that Uhmma totally doesn't share Young Ju's perspective. Talk about a generational split.

    What did I just tell you! Apa shouts. Woman, were you listening? Did you hear anything I said? I do not want to grovel anymore like some bitch. (9.8)

    How is Apa demeaning to Uhmma? He uses "woman" like it's some general category for stupidity, and he implies that Uhmma's a "bitch" since she's the one who wants to stay at Gomo's house ("groveling" he calls it) until they get better settled in America. Apa can't just get personal with Uhmma—he has to drag down women in general too.

    I wander over to the couch and start to tuck in the corners of the yellow blanket. Gomo says, What a good housekeeper you are. Here, sit down and watch what we are doing. You will have to learn how to be a good older Uhn-nee. It is your responsibility to help your Uhmma take care of him. (10.42)

    We just wonder: if the situation were reversed and it was Park Joon Ho who was the older brother to a newly-born Young Ju, would Joon Ho get the same kind of responsibility speech? Hrm...

    I put my hands behind my back, cross my fingers, and tell everyone, "My brother. He die."


    "I the only Park now. I keep name like boy." (11.2-4)

    It sounds to us like Young Ju's got a serious case of sibling rivalry with a dose of gender envy on top. Who can blame her though? Even though her brother's just a baby, he's got their Apa wrapped around his little baby fingers… and mostly because he's a boy. Young Ju's just playing out a fantasy here in which she's the favored (and only) son who gets the honor of passing on the family name.

    Apa, you have to stop [Joon], I say.

    Young Ju, Apa says, shaking his head. Joon Ho is a boy. It is natural for him to pee outside.

    I don't understand why Apa thinks boys and girls cannot be treated the same. Why they are so different. There is no dictionary for these kinds of questions. (13.40-42)

    If we could only confront Apa on Young Ju's behalf… Where exactly does he think girls peed before toilets were invented anyway? There's no clearer example of Apa's sexism than this scene.

    Pastor Kim smiles and gestures as though announcing me on stage. He tells my parents, Young Ju is looking very grown up. More and more like a demure young lady.

    My toes curl inside my shoes at the mention of becoming a young lady. My shoulders hunch slightly forward to cover any signs of my developing young-lady body. (24.34-35)

    Sounds like Young Ju's not just a tomboy, but a girl who doesn't want to be reminded of or have attention drawn to her growing, female body. Especially by a guy, even if he is a pastor.

    Uhmma smooths my forehead, my cheeks. Tucks my hair behind my ears like she used to do when I was young. I put my arms around her and rest my head on her shoulders.

    She murmurs, You are my strong girl. (29.31-32)

    Finally… a definition of girl that Young Ju can work with. This scene comes right after Uhmma apologizes to Young Ju for chewing her out after Apa gets arrested (and then leaves with his girlfriend). It's a true turnaround for Uhmma and not just because she steps up and apologizes: Uhmma redefines Young Ju with a more supportive title by calling her "strong girl."

  • Dreams and Hopes

    Then one day Apa gets a letter that makes him hug Uhmma so tight her eyes cry. Now every time Apa says Mi Gook, he smiles so big I think maybe he is a doggy like Mi Shi. When we are eating our dinner, Apa and Uhmma can only say Mi Gook all the time. No more mean eyes over the rice bowl, and my stomach keeps the rice inside like a good stomach is supposed to do. I hope they will talk about Mi Gook forever and ever. Mi Gook is the best word. Even better than sea or candy. (4.3-4)

    We know we don't have to tell you that this vision of America doesn't last. How could it? Can anything really stand up to such high expectations from a little kid? Seriously—"Mi Gook is the best word," and "Even better than sea or candy"? That's a pretty tall order… Young Ju doesn't know it yet, but she's setting America up to fail.

    We are going to Mi Gook so you can have the very best education. So someday you will be better than a fisherman's wife. Uhmma holds out her hands. Look at my rough hands. Do you think I always had hands like these? Do you want to end up like this? Uhmma touches my cheek with her cat-tongue fingers and says, Your Apa thought you were too young to have such an expensive hairstyle, but I told him you were old enough now. You can understand how important it is to look like a real Mi Gook girl. Young Ju, are you a big girl who understands? No, I cry. No curly hair. (5.39)

    Wow—talk about laying on a guilt trip. So all of a sudden Young Ju's entire future hangs on whether or not she gets a perm so she can "look like a real Mi Gook girl"? It's pretty easy to roll your eyes at Uhmma's heavy-handed logic, but let's try to look at it from the mom's perspective. She's probably worried that Young Ju, who can't speak a lick of English, will have trouble fitting into America, so she's just doing what she can to make Young Ju into a trendy, American girl. Too bad no one breaks it to Uhmma that perms aren't exactly all that American or all that trendy either. Chalk it up to a cultural misunderstanding.

    I am a mountain rabbit bouncing, running. Where am I going? I am going to see Harabugi. And when Halmoni comes, I will ask her if she liked the bus that is called an airplane. In Mi Gook, everyone will be happy and filled with love. I am a mountain rabbit bouncing, running, closing my eyes. Waiting for heaven. (6.27)

    Note that Young Ju's American Dream has nothing to do with wealth or land or freedom—it's all about the family, and not just her own immediate family, but her extended family too, including her dead grandfather. Her dream kind of keeps things in perspective: maybe kids don't need wealth in order to be happy; maybe they just need family unity and love.

    I do not understand why they are showing happy teeth. Do they not miss Halmoni? Are they not mad that they are not in the real heaven? Harabugi is waiting in the real heaven and Halmoni will go there without me. I do not care if we are a step from heaven. I take a big swallow of the hurting drink. This is not heaven. (7.36)

    Hey there, book title. Clearly "a step from heaven" isn't exactly a good thing because that step is a pretty long way from (and, notably, not to) wherever and whatever heaven is. This passage is just saturated with Young Ju's disappointment—about the fact that she won't (ever) get to see her grandparents again, that she won't be in actual heaven, and that the Coke she's drinking hurts her throat.

    I do not like the word school. Uhmma and Apa say school is my future. I do not like the word future. Everything is in the future. A house we do not have to share with Gomo and Sahmchun. A car without big cuts in the seat that show the crumbly insides that Uhmma says I should not pull out, but I do anyway because it feels like sand when you mush it between your fingers. (8.1)

    Young Ju likes to keep things real for us. She's not about hoping for the future because that basically means she's forced to delay gratification, which sucks because all she can focus on is how poor her family is. You could say that Young Ju's acting like a typical, spoiled kid, but she does have a point—it's hard to imagine a successful future when you don't have a real timeline for success and you're pretty much surrounded by reminders of your neediness.

    Uhmma looks up at Apa and says, Someday he could be a doctor or a lawyer. Gomo adds, Someday he could be president.

    Apa's eyes find the window by the front door. They stare past the old brown grass, past the crisscross metal fence. They travel far, far away. Someday, Apa says, my son will make me proud.

    I can be president, Apa, I call out. Apa's eyes are back home. Pointing at me. He laughs. You are a girl, Young Ju. (10.25-27)

    We're with you if you think Apa's a jerk. How does a daughter even deal with a family—especially a parent—who doesn't believe in her ability to succeed? Good thing Young Ju's not the type to let all that negative thinking hold her back.

    My spelling is never perfect. But today I am special. I play with my fuzzies, scratch and sniff my stickers, and think about how nice it is that my brother is dead. (11.14)

    There are all the hopes and dreams that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside… and then there are the other dreams—like Young Ju fantasizing that her brother is dead—that make you rethink the purpose of having hopes and dreams. Let's just put it this way: Young Ju's definitely got a bit of a dark side, which is what makes her real. Her dream reminds us that kids (especially girls) aren't all about stuffed teddy bears and candy.

    My dream of the cloud is not new. I have had variations of the same dream since we immigrated to America. Sometimes I fall from the tree. Sometimes I wake up before I have even finished climbing to the highest branch. Most times I am leaning out, reaching. But in every dream there are always the clouds just beyond my grasp. They float close above me in thick, solid folds of billowy white sheets. In my dream I have somehow figured out that to catch a cloud means I'll fly to heaven. Fly to the place that I have never seen but only dreamed exists. Heaven, the place I was supposed to go, but instead I ended up here. (20.3)

    What's up with these clouds? They seem all lovely and good—after all, they're supposed to represent the way to heaven—but these clouds also seem a little edgy. It's not just that clouds are made of some pretty unstable and insubstantial stuff; it's also that these clouds represent Young Ju's deep wish to get heaven. But we all know that the only real way to get to some kind of afterlife is to die… so is Young Ju kind of showing a death wish too?

    What dreamers you two were! Pretending to be dolphins, then seals, then ships that could sail far across the sea. Uhmma suddenly turns away from me, looks out the window of our new home. After a moment she says quietly, He was a different man back then… You take that with you, Uhmma says, peering over my shoulder. Take it to college so you can remember how to be brave. She holds the corner of the picture for a second and then lets go. Uhmma turns her face to the window again. She gazes out and says quietly, And remember, Young Ju. You come from a family of dreamers. I hold the picture close to my heart. I am a sea bubble floating, floating in a dream. Bhop. (30.49-53)

    There's no way around it: this scene is tearjerker. Young Ju's just found out that her father was the one who taught her how to go into the waves when she was a toddler; it's a sweet, early memory (and also the first chapter of the book). This is one of those scenes that makes you feel good about what Apa leaves Young Ju—a willingness to pursue dreams even in the face of some pretty scary stuff (like waves).

    Uhmma said her hands were her life. But for us, she only wished to see our hands holding books. You must use this, she said and pointed to her mind. Uhmma's hands worked hard to make sure our hands would not resemble hers.

    It takes only a glance at our nails, our knuckles, our palms to know Uhmma succeeded. Joon and I both possess Uhmma's lean fingers, but without the hard, yellowed calluses formed by years of abuse from physical labor. Our hands turn pages of books, press fingertips to keyboard buttons, hold pencils and pens. They are lithe and tender. The hands of dreams come true. (31.11-12)

    You could look at this passage as an example of how the American Dream is really a dream about generations, about continuing a family line that succeeds even more with each passing generation. But notice the irony too: the mark of success is a hand that has no marks on it—a hand that doesn't show its labor. How viable is this dream for most Americans? And whatever happened to celebrating the worker?