When I glanced at the cover of Everything Asian,
which features a grinning adolescent Asian boy about
to devour a huge hamburger, I envisioned a book
about twelve-year-old David Kim's culture clashes as
a newly arrived Korean immigrant in the United States. I was right; the book is filled with Korean practices
juxtaposed against experiences in this country. But
it is a book overflowing with so much more than
that, too. Sung J. Woo writes not only from
David's perspective, but also from the standpoint of
the many characters David knows from the Peddlers
Town mall, the microcosm of America where the Kim
family's gift shop is located.
Holding an MFA degree from New York University, Woo has published many of his essays and short stories in The New York Times, KoreAm Journal, and Storyglossia. His strength as a short story writer is apparent in this, his first novel. In a style similar to that of Maeve Binchy or Kate Jacobs, Woo carefully shapes each chapter as its own vignette, presenting a single character's experience as a potentially stand-alone story, while at the same time developing a seamless novel.
The first story opens from David's viewpoint as a newcomer to Oakbridge, New Jersey, becoming acquainted with the father he has not seen in years, and dealing with his older sister's depression. The next chapter moves to the sister's perspective as she takes stock of herself. While studying old school pictures, she recognizes her "tired, sick-of-this-world face" and realizes, "Maybe it wasn't this new country that made her miserable. Maybe the misery had always been inside her." Each chapter continues with the tender study of a character connected to the Kims through Peddlers Town.
In addition to telling stories about these individuals, Woo also introduces some unique Korean cultural aspects. For example, in the chapter "Go Fish," David describes a hwat-toe deck of cards:
Unlike American playing cards, these rectangles were made from thin hard plastic sheets about half the size of business cards, but they were far prettier... each revealed a nature scene... The moon was worth twenty points, and if I held the card that featured the same hill but no moon, I could've taken it, but all I had were three scenes of wheat fields and a cardinal perched on a cherry-blossom branch.
Thanks to Woo's details, I could
envision the Kims' shop quite vividly, filled with
small lacquered, decorative tables; wooden chests
containing one hundred miniature drawers; and a
four-paneled mother-of-pearl plaque depicting the
Don't be surprised that the book ignores the youthful angst of David's school experiences; this novel is aimed at adult readers, although young adults may become engrossed in it as well. Instead, the stories revolve around the small world of Peddlers Town and those who work there, ordinary people at an unremarkable shopping mall who became special to me as Woo unfolded their unique struggles.
This review was originally published in May 2009, and has been updated for the July 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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