As someone who has never read a graphic novel, I was unsure what to expect from “Almost American Girl.” What I discovered was the raw, beautiful memoir of a young Korean immigrant as she attempts to define who she is in her teenage years.
Is she Korean or American? The answer, she finds, is not so simple.
Author Robin Ha starts her emotional journey, an expertly crafted fusion of genre, with her childhood in Korea where she was born Chuna Ha. At age 14, she and her mother go on a “vacation” to America, or so Chuna thinks.
After living in Alabama with a “family friend” for a few weeks, Chuna’s mother reveals she intends to marry him. In other words, she and Chuna have moved to America to stay. Heartbroken, betrayed, and confused, Chuna has never felt so alone. She barely speaks English and all of her friends are in Korea. Set in the early 1990s, she can only contact them every two to four weeks through the mail.
Thrust into American culture with barely any warning, Chuna slowly acclimates to the radically different society, first changing her name to Robin while in American school. As her journey continues, she meets all kinds of people. Problems confront her—bullies at school and trouble with her step-family. Additionally, Robin cannot forgive her mother for uprooting her entire life so unexpectedly and permanently.
Just when it appears Robin cannot take it all anymore, she discovers something she can connect to in America. Comics. She joins a local comic book and anime art studio class and soon finds lasting friendships. Of course, this passion of Robin’s leads to the memoir itself, which is carefully crafted with moving imagery to make a truly compelling piece of literature. (Something I learned from reading this memoir is that graphic novels are not just for younger audiences, as I believe they are sometimes perceived. Any aged reader could enjoy this work, but I believe only older audiences can really grasp the depth and meaning behind Ha’s narrative.)
Robin begins to understand her mother’s many life-altering decisions as her life in America continues. Perhaps one of the most profound themes in the graphic novel is how Robin comes to realize just how strong and brave her single mother has been. And how much Robin takes after her.
I was most moved by Robin’s personal identity journey. The memoir follows Robin into her college years, during which she visits South Korea. Once she is there, she cannot help but realize she has changed forever. She is no longer an exact fit for being a Korean woman, but she doesn’t fit in with being an American woman either.
One of the final panels of “Almost American Girl” depicts Robin’s college-age face side by side with her aging mother’s as they connect across the world over the phone. Together they voice their understanding of who they are. Korean-American, and proud.