This wonderful illustrated memoir is Robin Ha’s story of moving from Seoul, South Korea, for the US as a teenager in 1995 and trying to make a new life here with her mother. It is a deeply moving story of a young girl, only 14, being suddenly uprooted from her friends and community, and having to learn a new language, adapt to a new family, and figure out a new culture in Alabama. Thanks to her art, Robin (formerly Chuna) finds a way to bring a little normalcy to her life while also finding ways to make friends.
Robin begins her story in August of 1995, when she is 14 and she and her mother are preparing for a vacation. They have travelled many times before to other countries and have even been to Hawaii, but this time they are going to Alabama. Robin’s father left the family when she was still a baby, and it has been Robin and her mother for her entire life. Robin, who is still called Chuna at this point in her life, is a fairly typical Korean girl. She is a good student and loves art; she and her friends enjoy visiting shops and hanging out together. Chuna loves reading comic books and is a big fan of several titles unique to Korea. When she and her mother leave for Alabama, to visit a friend of her mother’s, Chuna expects to return to her regular life in a few weeks. It is only after they have arrived in the US that her mother drops the bombshell that they are not returning to South Korea. Her mother has a Korean fiancé who owns a fish market and whose family (including his mother, brother, sister-in-law, two nieces, nephew and a daughter from a previous marriage) all live in Huntsville. The adults and a couple of the teenaged girls are fluent in Korean, but Robin (the new English name she chose for herself) is stunned and upset at the upheaval and at her mother’s secrecy about this life-changing event. She has studied a little English in school but is not prepared for a regular 8th grade class when school starts. Her step-sister attends the same school and mostly avoids Robin. Robin struggles to understand the language and has to manage bullies and school work, all while missing her friends and her beloved comics. A special English teacher works with her to improve her communication and Robin eventually reconnects with old friends, re-discovers her art, and begins to make inroads to friendships when another upheaval occurs.
As Robin tells her story, the reader learns important information about her and her mother’s life in Korea and how it informed her mother’s decision to leave South Korea behind. Robin explains the rigid social structure in Korea and the shame brought upon families due to divorce and single motherhood. Robin’s mother is really an amazing woman. While it would be easy to be angry at her for abruptly removing Robin from her home and all she knew and loved, Robin shows the reader how smart and strong her mom is. This is a woman who learned how to take care of herself, run a successful business, take care of a child without help, and walk away from situations that were not healthy for her or Robin. She also understands her daughter’s sadness and loss and tries to help Robin make connections both to her old friends and to possible new ones.
Feeling like an outsider and striving to fit in are dominant themes in this graphic novel, and Robin shows how difficult this is whether you are a child or an adult. My heart broke for Robin as I read about her difficult transition to 8th grade in the US. It’s a rough time for any teen, but it was especially hard for a Korean girl in the Deep South. The strength and fortitude that adolescents are required to master and display is crazy; not all can survive middle school emotionally in tact. Robin and her mother show how tough one has to be sometimes, and that kindness and friendship can turn a life around. We need to teach our kids to be compassionate and demonstrate it ourselves a bit more.
The novel takes Robin from her 8th grade in Alabama with a new family into completely new territory after another upheaval. This time though, Robin is stronger and she and her mother make a dynamic duo. Robin’s experiences in high school and beyond show a young woman who is more confident and much happier, who has a better understanding and appreciation of what her mother has given her and of what she has had to leave behind. This is a beautifully told story of the immigrant experience in the US and of an outsider coming in to her own. Perfect for teens/young adults.