Immigration as InspirationWho Gets to Be an All-American Girl?

Robin Ha, author of Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir (Photo credit: Michael Daryabeygi)

Cartoonist and illustrator Robin Ha is no stranger to overcoming adversity: While she was growing up in Seoul, South Korea, she had to navigate a society where she and her single mother were treated like shameful outliers. As Ha details in her new graphic memoir, Almost American Girl, discrimination was a normal facet of their lives as they encountered angry sneers from teachers and neighbors. Immigrating to the United States became a means of escaping the torment. Ha’s second book (after 2016’s Cook Korean!: A Comic Book with Recipes) follows her family’s rocky move from South Korea to Huntsville, Alabama, and her attempts to adapt to a newfound life and culture.

Moving to an entirely new country is tricky for anyone at any age, but Ha chronicles that experience from the perspective of her 14-year-old self as she faces racism, bullying, and intense loneliness. Bitch spoke with Ha in March 2020, just as her book tour was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, about the bonds between strong women, the power of immigrant narratives, and how art has served as a lifeline through the toughest trials of her life.

Now, more than ever, immigration is being treated as an important topic. What message about immigration did you want all readers to walk away from this book with?

I felt so alone when I was growing up and I never saw anybody portray a story like mine in a book. Since the book has come out, I’ve been getting messages on social media, especially from other Asian Americans, [about] how much people have connected with the story and felt they were heard.

It’s very hard for people who are not immigrants to really understand what it’s like to move to a place where you don’t speak the language and how hard it is to find a home. Immigrants do so much in our communities, yet we’re treated like second-class citizens because we don’t have paper[work] or we don’t [speak] the [same] language. I want people to realize—at least from my story—that it’s not an easy process. A lot of people who come here have great strength, and they work really hard to make a living and make a home for themselves.

In many ways, your memoir has two heroes—you and your mom. How did your mom react to being such a central character?

When I first told her about this book deal, she was absolutely against me writing about her. She asked me again and again to take her completely out [of] my story. I had to convince her [by saying], “I can’t do this without you being in my story. You’re the driving force behind my life.” She saw how important this project was for me, so she basically gave in without being fully okay with it. But I did promise her, “I’m going to show you the manuscript and if you absolutely hate it, then I’m not going to go through with it.” It wasn’t worth [it] for me to completely ruin my relationship with my mother, my only family member, to do this. Now that the book is out, a lot of people have commented about how brave and strong she was, and she feels good about that.

Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir by Robin Ha (Photo credit: Balzer + Bray)

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Both of your books reflect your relationship with Korean culture. How have you felt as you’ve witnessed the rise of Korean culture in the United States?

I am really proud that Korean people are getting their chance right now. When I was growing up in the United States, most people didn’t know [as much] about Korean culture [as they knew about] Japanese or Chinese culture. I never planned it this way, but my first book came out just as the rest of [the United States] was getting into Korean food. At the same time, I don’t want to always be known as “the Korean American artist.” I want to be able to write all kinds of different stories with non-Korean characters, too.

In your memoir, you don’t shy away from showing the good and the bad in Korean culture. Why did you feel like it was important to include your critique of social issues, like the stigma against single mothers?

We have so many great things about us; we’re really brilliant with ideas and work ethic, but we also have a lot to work on. Korean people are [really] against airing out their dirty laundry, whether it’s single motherhood, mental illness, or poverty. They just want to hide it, never talk about it, and pretend everything’s fine. I feel pretty angry about how my mom has been treated by this society. The things that make us different are good. But many Asian cultures, including Korean [culture], see difference as bad. But what makes you different is what you should be polishing as the thing that makes you stand out.

In the book, you draw Asian characters that actually look Asian, a departure from styles like anime where many characters look white. What was your process for depicting your Asian characters?

I read manga and manhwa all through my childhood, and I drew like that until I went to college. That was the only way I could draw comics. Since I grew up with manga and manhwa, I never questioned why things were drawn this way, and I never really thought about how wrong that was. But I’ve grown as an artist since I left college by reading all kinds of comics, especially independent comics from all around the world.

The beauty industry in Asia is still very geared toward making yourself look like a white person. That’s just one way racism is so deeply ingrained in different cultures. But now, I can see that’s very problematic. I don’t want to promote that kind of beauty or standard in my work. Though my style in my memoir looks simpler, it’s actually more a conscious decision for me to draw that way.

It’s very hard for people who are not immigrants to really understand what it’s like to move to a place where you don’t speak the language and how hard it is to find a home.

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You drew your memoir with a lot of love. Years before it came out, you posted character sketches of your mother on your Instagram. You were studying the face of somebody you love, and you depict yourself with love, even your 14-year-old self. So many of us don’t even want to look at who we were when we were 14.

Looking at those photos wasn’t easy. Hopefully, we all grow up to be more accepting of ourselves, to be okay with who we are. I hope that everybody feels that way about their younger versions.

Since the world feels so bleak in this moment, what are you doing to find solace?

We’re all in a stage of grieving life as we’ve known it. We have to allow ourselves to grieve and not try too hard to get back to some sort of normalcy. I’ve been working from home for 10 years now, and I should be better at this, but I am struggling. I have days where I just can’t focus. On my book tour, a lot of people asked me, “What would you say to your 14-year-old self?” and my answer was, “Be patient with yourself, and be kind to yourself.” I think that’s what you should be telling yourself right now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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by Hannah Bae
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Hannah Bae is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist who is an Open City fellow in narrative nonfiction for the Asian American Writers' Workshop and the president of Asian American Journalists Association's New York chapter. She is at work on a memoir. Follow her on Twitter here.