I swore to stop reading young adult fiction that featured East Asian protagonists when I found that the last three books all had the same theme. A Chinese, Japanese, or Korean girl goes to a predominantly white school and faces casual and aggressive racism while trying to find her identity as an aspiring artist or writer or journalist despite having overbearing parents who want to send her to medical school, all while navigating through a romance with a white guy. At least those books had been written by Asian authors, I thought, but I just couldn’t relate to the constant struggle between upholding family values or dating a white guy.
But then I saw that John Green had written a review of Eleanor and Park for the New York Times and I thought, surely it couldn’t be that awful, right? WRONG.
Eleanor and Park is a love story centered around Eleanor, an overweight white domestic abuse survivor, and Park, a biracial Korean American in 1986 Omaha, and is told from their alternating points of view. I don’t know how Rainbow Rowell had the gall to publish this thing, but somehow it’s reached a Twilight-like level of popularity and is slated for a movie. This book not only erases Park’s mixed-race identity, but reduces him to being ~the scene half-Korean with green eyes~, because apparently our own dark brown eyes aren’t attractive enough to spark the romantic interest of white girls. This thing (I would really rather not call a book) does an awful job with Korean representation. It emasculates Korean men: self-hatred and internalized racism seem to be the only significant parts of Park’s identity aside of his being in love with Eleanor. The thing also infantilizes and fetishes Korean women; Eleanor describes Park’s mother as a porcelain doll that Park’s father pocketed when he left the army base in Korea.
It was only a matter of time until white people started cashing in on the “Korean” trend. I mean, Hallyu (Korean pop culture’s surge in global popularity) has been hitting the States hard for a while now, with K-Pop being featured in commercials for tablets and Korean artists gaining popularity in person and online. Even so, I was really, really hoping this day wouldn’t come.
But let’s see what went wrong in this thing called Eleanor and Park. This is a basic list of what Rainbow Rowell does wrong:
- literally everything
- she did absolutely no research on Korean culture or history and passed off any reference to Park’s heritage with what seems to be her knowledge of Asian stereotypes
Anyone who knows a Korean person should be able to see the very first mistake that Rowell made: who the hell gives a Korean kid a first name that’s actually a Korean last name? For those who don’t know, Park is an incredibly common last name in Korea, alongside Kim and Lee. Honestly, when I first saw the title, I thought it was an act of reclamation, as if Park were reclaiming his Korean side by going by his mother’s maiden name or something. Nope. Park is actually his first name. Additionally, Park fulfills basically every Asian stereotype there is: he does taekwondo (which Rowell misspells as taekwAndo, for heaven’s sake), is a math prodigy, struggles with English literature, and is emasculated by the people around him and even by himself. I just… how hard can it be to do a simple Google search and check the spelling of one of the most frequently used Korean loanwords? It’s even an Olympic sport, for crying out loud.
Seriously, there is so much wrong with this thing that I don’t really know what to do with it. Like, why do all of Eleanor’s physical descriptions of Park involve food metaphors? From “skin the color of honey, through sunshine” to outright stating that he makes her feel “like a cannibal”, there doesn’t seem to be a single passage in which Eleanor fawns over Park’s appearance without alluding to the fact that she wants to eat him. Even Park himself makes food comparisons when comparing himself to his white-passing brother Josh, calling Josh’s eyes “almond-flavored”. Way to establish the power dynamic between the two of them, Ms. Rowell. You’ve made it very clear that Park is prey and Eleanor is the predator. And unsurprisingly, this is actually a tactic used by white “fuckbois” to fetishize women of color (“I’ve never had chocolate/cappuccino/banana before”) and a way to establish dominance.
Now, Rowell states that she was inspired to write this sham because her father had served in Korea in the 1970s and she had apparently been told about the women whom the soldiers met (and then proceeded to leave behind without a second glance). I actually don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this.
In the aftermath of the Korean War, the Korean and US governments made agreements to keep American troops in Korea in large Army bases surrounded by smaller camptowns. One of the agreements made was that the Korean government would help the American soldiers find “comfort” in the camptowns. Yep, that’s right! The Korean government ran an elaborate and covert system of prostitution for the US Army. The young women who were put into these camptowns were young (in their late teens or early twenties) and unmarried, and were often abducted or scammed into working in the camptowns. Because of the harsh conditions of post-war Korea, it only took some advertisements aimed at women promising a decent wage, job training, and room and board to rope in one of the largest sex trafficking systems of the time.
To say that Eleanor and Park is a story of what could’ve happened if the soldiers brought the women home to “liberate” them from Korea is gross and disrespectful enough, but to paint such a washed out caricature of our culture, and for that washed out caricature to become so popular that it’s going to plaster the silver screens within the next few years… That’s just unforgivable. My culture isn’t a quirky accessory that you can use to make your book seem diverse and ~worldly~.
So this is my message to all white writers featuring Korean characters in their love stories: talk to an Actual Korean Person and see whether they think you’ve done an acceptable job of representing their culture. But realize that’s not enough because a single person isn’t representative of all that is Korean. Do your research; read sources other than Koreaboo for information on Korean culture outside of K-pop and K-drama and kimchi. And if you’re not willing to put in that minimal effort to not create a shitty racist cartoon of a character, sit down and STOP.
(Image courtesy of GoodReads)