Recently, Simon + Schuster asked me to do a book review for Mindy Kim and the Yummy Seaweed Business by Lyla Lee. I was intrigued. A children’s book about cultural identity, food shame, and belonging? Yes, please!
As a Korean American growing up in a predominantly white town, I understood what it meant to be an outsider. Some people told me directly, you’re different. But other times, I felt it. I looked different. I spoke another language. My family ate different kinds of food, too.
At school, I escaped the shame of eating Korean food by eating the hot meal provided by the lunch ladies. But the queries inevitably came up in other times and places: what is that? Why does your food smell so bad? Don’t you eat anything normal? In the face of such questions, my embarrassment knew no bounds.
When I started reading Mindy Kim and the Yummy Seaweed Business, I quickly found myself identifying with the 7-year old protagonist. Mindy, a Korean American girl, moves to a different school and tries to make new friends. When she opens her lunch box in the cafeteria, everyone thinks her food is weird and smells bad.
Immediately, I was transported to my childhood. How many times had I experienced a similar moment? Too many times to count!
As I kept reading, I began reflecting on my own experiences as an Asian growing up in America. Like me, Mindy called her dad “Appa,” the Korean word for “Daddy.” Like me, she noticed when no one looked like her in the school yard. She even Anglicized her name from Min-Jung to “Mindy,” and understood how this assimilation made people feel more comfortable. Notably, Mindy experienced racial micro-aggressions not only from her peers but from authority figures as well.
I loved reading about Mindy and understood the significance of this book. There it was, in print, the story of a little girl who looked like me, talked like me, and thought like me. In a brief 82 pages, the strange and often alienating experiences of my childhood were suddenly validated.
I like to think that reading Mindy’s story as a child would have given me the confidence to embrace my feelings of “otherness.” Mindy is fully American yet still holds onto her Korean heritage and culture.
As a child, I loved to read. I still do, in fact. But books rarely mirrored my experience of life as an Asian American.
What would it have been like to read about an Asian American girl whose experiences matched my own? How would my thinking have changed to know there were other girls like me — who struggled with the same issues of cultural identity and belonging?
I’m reminded of the time I read In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. Reading that book was a profound experience. For the first time in my young life, I read a story where the main character was Asian. Instantly, I identified with Shirley Temple Wong. Shirley longed for acceptance and belonging in her new American life but she didn’t exactly fit in. I remember reading Shirley’s story and enjoying that she neither had to give up parts of herself nor deny her history to belong. In the end, she was accepted for who she was, accent and all. Reading that book made me feel it was OK to be Asian American.
I think that’s why I loved Mindy’s story so much. Short and simple enough for young readers to enjoy yet full of complicated and deep topics that are worthy of probing further! This is a book that will be the starting point of many, many discussions. Plus, I love how food is the powerful connector that brings everyone together.
Mindy’s story made realize the importance of seeing yourself in the pages of a book. We need more stories like Mindy Kim in the world! We need stories that embrace the fullness and richness of the American experience. I look forward to reading more in this easy chapter book series.