Study Guide

A Step from Heaven Family

By An Na

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.

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