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For immigrants, arriving in a new country, learning a new language, starting at a new school, and making new friends can be tough enough, but blending in with a cold, new family makes it even tougher. This is what happens in Robin Ha’s young adult graphic novel, Almost American Girl, which charts the journey of Robin and her mother from Seoul to Alabama to Virginia, and her salvation from isolation and misery: a comics-illustrating class.
This autobiographical tale portrays childhood in Seoul, where Robin experiences the stigma of being an out-of-wedlock child. Her mother owns, manages, and works in a beauty salon, and her father is never around. Robin is wild about comics. She also loves the city, where every corner “is full of stores and people.” When she and her mother visit her mother’s boyfriend’s family in Alabama, Robin feels uprooted, disoriented. “I wondered what all these Korean people were doing here in the middle of nowhere in America.” Two younger children barely speak Korean, which astounds her. Robin can’t wait to return to Seoul, but then her mother announces her engagement to Mr. Kim. “Just like that, everything I loved was suddenly snatched away from me.”
In her unhappiness at not fitting in, Robin blames her mother, but soon ditches this resentment, because her mother is her only true ally against the world. This is what Almost American Girl portrays best—how the child of a single mother bonds with her, how critical this relationship is to survival, and how social hostility toward single parenthood creates needless stress. “I can’t recall missing my father at all,” Ha writes. “The only ‘real’ memory I have of my dad is a nightmare I had when I was five or six. He was kidnapping me and taking me away.”
Almost American Girl’s illustrations of Robin’s mother convey the stress and anxiety of managing work and child-rearing alone. “She gave me such a complete sense of protection. She was my rock.” But this security comes at a cost, one conveyed best and subtly in the pictures. There is no subtlety, however, about Korean society’s condemnation of single motherhood. Plenty of people, mostly teachers, feel free to express their disapproval quite bluntly by picking on such children and assigning them demeaning chores. While this stops when Robin and her mother move in with Mr. Kim’s family, the family’s attitude about a woman’s role and how Robin’s mother should behave is oppressive.
“In Korea it is common for single mothers to be disowned by their family,” Ha writes. Also, a wife is expected meekly to support a husband, regardless of his poor decisions. When Mr. Kim moves to Los Angeles after his business fails, however, Robin’s mother once again breaks the mold. Almost American Girl is as much about growing up in an immigrant community as about leaving traditional society for the unknown. The journey is painful and, had it been up to Robin, likely would not have been made. But her mother is different, and so is willing to take risks.
Adolescence can be painful. Not knowing where to fit in is often a problem; so is loneliness and insecurity. The immigrant experience compounds these problems, often leaving high-schoolers from other countries feeling wretchedly left out. This graphic novel captures those aspects of being an immigrant adolescent. The portrait of American students is not a nice one, and how they behave is in some cases offensive. But this portrait is accurate, because of its warts, because of its honesty about the overall uncaring, uninterested, and at times overtly hostile environment for immigrants that is high school.
Almost American Girl is about finding and creating a new identity and about art as salvation. Through comics, through drawing, Robin discovers something she loves, that gives her life meaning, that can provide goals and a trajectory: The girl in this story became the woman who wrote and illustrated it. A story about growth, suffering, and becoming, this book will resonate with young adult readers. But it will also resonate with every parent who has sacrificed for a child, because above all, this book is a tribute to Robin Ha’s mother.
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