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?