Review: Joseph Han’s Korean Hawaiian novel ‘Nuclear Family’

On the shelf

‘nuclear family’

By Joseph Han
Counterpoint: 320 pages, $26

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Two historical facts: The Armistice Agreement that still governs the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea was written in 1953 by an American military attorney. And the treaty that made Hawaii the 50th state was signed by Continental Americans in 1959.

If we haven’t questioned such facts in the 20th century, thank God things have changed. Joseph Han’s debut novel, Nuclear Family, not only tells the story of a Korean-American family living in Hawaii, but also a story within a story of how this Korean-American family was torn to pieces by the 1953 partition of Korea.

First, the Cho family — Appa, Umma, Grace, and Jacob — bear a superficial resemblance to the immigrant shopkeepers on the popular Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience. Still, they’re both wealthier and less connected than this TV family; They own three lunchtime delis in Honolulu, but Grace spends her college days in a weed-soaked haze while the withdrawn Jacob flies to Korea to teach English, hoping to make as peace with his sexuality in his grandparents’ homeland as he has it does not make it itself.

In Seoul, Jacob is first pursued and then taken in by his dead grandfather, Baik Tae-woo, who left his first family in the DMZ during the Korean War. Tae-woo’s will is so strong that when Jacob is on a tourist trip to visit the border, his grandfather tries to break through a ghost wall, and Jacob trips, landing on his face and crossing the border with his head – Pratfall as an international Incident. Han is very funny, both in small moments (Appa’s regular dances while sweeping the shop) and in larger ones (Tae-woo manipulating a drunken Jacob into a ménage à trois).

This plot synopsis would make for an incredibly sharp graphic novel, but Han is so adept in his debut that it becomes much more than a family’s hapless attempts to cope with their son’s dilemma and the media blitz that threatens to ruin their chain business . Yes, Grace and Jacob are estranged from their parents’ industriousness and family piety, but also from each other (“a distance had grown and formed, a permanent rift down the hallway”). But the novel really picks up steam when this alienation slides out of their stories and onto the streets of Honolulu, where not everyone feels at home.

It is Han’s attention to “that monstrous city,” with its traffic and noise and constant military presence, that sets his Korean-American family history apart from some others recently published. First, there is the constant friction between Koreans and Korean Americans and the other populations in the city; The Chos owe the success of their business in part to one of the whitest white men in food culture, Guy Fieri. Han portrays Fieri, a man whose endorsement of “food people love dearly at the expense of their hearts,” as the Cho family’s oddball commercial savior, whose fiery face adorns their establishments.

"nuclear family," by Joseph Han

But after Jacob’s DMZ kerfuffle, customers who’ve been devouring meaty Jun and Mac salads and numerous banchan are starting to keep their distance. The media suspect that Jacob could be a Korean spy. When his family is linked to the North Korean regime, Appa learns that loyalty is different in his adopted country.

It is this tension that gives “Nuclear Family” its radioactive fuel: between traditional values ​​in Korea and Hawaii, between all traditional values ​​and the mores of American capitalism. The author focuses early on on the generation gap among the Chos. But somewhere in the middle, Han’s writing becomes experimental—especially in a section full of “redactions” written by Grace that invites the reader to play an existential variation on Mad Libs. If you can freely substitute words, why not people?

The final third of the book becomes increasingly fragmented as Han picks up the pace by explaining how Jacob and Baik Tae-woo “met” and began slipping in and out of each other’s bodies and minds. A chapter entitled “Natives,” narrated in the second person, insists on the connection between Korea’s US military presence and Hawaii’s US monetary presence.

“We came to Hawaii from other countries and worked under an exploitative plantation system,” says Han’s collective immigrant voice. “We came as picture brides, plantation workers, bachelors, families. Most of us felt we had no choice in the matter.” Han later concedes that these immigrants “don’t speak ‘Oelelo Hawaii.’ … We know the Kamehameha schools are only for the Hawaiian kids, but we’re getting by and embracing everything the islands have to offer us.”

If these phrases don’t impress you, you might not have been paying attention to the history of the entire United States, where indigenous languages ​​have disappeared and the children who speak them are dumped in reservation schools while their usurpers embrace all the land has to offer . We have more in common with the Chos than ambition and generational drift.

In “Nuclear Family” Han draws our attention through laughter, wonder and fascinating complexity.

Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-06-17/a-korean-hawaiian-american-dream-goes-pear-shaped-in-an-inventive-debut-novel Review: Joseph Han’s Korean Hawaiian novel ‘Nuclear Family’

Sarah Ridley

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