KPop in YA Fiction, Please Hold the Racism: A Review of Hello, I Love You by Katie Stout
St. Martin’s Griffin
June 9, 2015
Received ARC from publisher for review consideration – all quotes taken from the ARC.
Travel was the catalyst for Hello, I Love You, a debut YA novel by Katie M. Stout: the author was inspired by the time she spent teaching English in China. Protagonist Grace Wilde, a country music princess from Nashville, runs away from Tennessee to a boarding school in South Korea, hoping to escape from the expectations and pressure of her family. Her new roommate, Sophie, turns out to be twin siblings with Jason, an up-and-coming pop star. Sparks, inevitably, fly.
“In the vein of Anna and the French Kiss,” promises the cover copy, convincing me to not only give Hello, I Love You a shot, but to feel happily excited about it. AatFK charmed me from the first page when I read it, and I hoped I would feel the same way about Grace and Jason. After all, when’s the last time an Asian love interest landed on YA shelves?
Hello, I Love You was not Anna and the French Kiss. Not by a long shot. What it was, however, was astonishingly tone-deaf, offensive, and racist.
[pullquote]The generalizations and stereotypes packed into this novel are simply astounding.[/pullquote]There is an inherent privilege in the premise, the first leap of faith that the story asks of its readers–98% of teenagers can’t run halfway across the world to escape their problems. Grace is an outlier, privileged not only financially but racially as well. That privilege does not make her a bad character, or an evil one. It simply means that her ability to do what she did in this story can’t be matched by most contemporary teens. Anna of the titular French Kiss went unwillingly to Paris, supported financially by her parents. Grace simply goes, without any consequences or resulting difficulties, to a country she’s never visited or, as the writing later makes it seem, even learned about properly.
But disbelief can be suspended. I hoped that Grace would at least address her privilege or learn to adapt and appreciate Korea. I wanted to like her, but she lost me before we ever got past the first chapter. She is dismissive of everything unfamiliar to her, and unwilling to experience new things. I assume her characterization was meant to highlight her unfamiliarity with the culture of a foreign country. It just made me wonder how she’d even justified the choice in the first place, but when it’s “just the first place that popped up on Google when I typed in ‘international boarding schools’,” I guess no justification is necessary. No one forced her to go to Korea, but she chose it, and almost immediately began insulting the country she wanted to see as a refuge.
The generalizations and stereotypes packed into this novel are simply astounding. Upon entering the school, Grace is stunned to find that Korean teenagers might actually know what “real music” is:
Does that mean people play music here? I mean, normal music, like rock or hip-hop or folk? Or is it only traditional Korean stuff?
I’m not sure what I expected–that they would be good? Pop is in the name of the genre. That never bodes well for the quality of the music. But I guess I’d hoped since they’re a big deal, they would be more than your average bubblegum band. After ten songs, my brain is ready to explode.
This judgment runs through the entire book, with Grace name-dropping Western bands and singers. Jason’s favourite band is The Doors. Not a single actual Korean pop or rock band is named, which would have at least lent credence to the story and made it feel real. For a book that mentions KPop as a major selling point in its cover copy, there is so little of it actually present, and Grace judges it as the opposite of “normal music.” Granted, Grace doesn’t know KPop. But Jason and Sophie would, based off the background written for them, and it doesn’t feel like they do.
I was also expecting to hear about the strict training that aspiring Kpop idols undergo, and the sacrifices they make for the chance to debut as part of a group. There was none of that. We hear only about how Grace thinks KPop is all fluff and not enough substance. She doesn’t actually believe that Korean people know about Western music, or that they might not want to emulate it, or that if they choose to, it can still be their own.
But music is not the only field in which Grace exercises her casual racism. Upon seeing fishermen on the island, she insults them without knowing anything about their work:
I don’t have any experience with the fishing industry, but I’m fairly certain they’re not doing it right.
The sheer arrogance in that one line is unbelievable enough, but it somehow gets worse. Asian generalizations run rampant in this book. Sophie takes Grace on an adventure, convincing her to ride a motorbike by telling Grace to “just channel your inner Asian.” Can someone please explain what that is supposed to mean? How motorbike riding skills could possibly be related to a ethnic demographic is nonsense at best, and racist at worst. Grace’s sister Jane “went through an Asian obsession phase about two years ago when she owned enough Hello Kitty paraphernalia to stock a toy store,” because Asia clearly equals Hello Kitty.
Grace passes judgment on Jason for having to take a Korean language class, on the assumption that every single Korean automatically knows how to speak the language.
I swallow the guilt weighing heavy in my gut. “So…do you understand any of this?”
He stares down at the page and doesn’t answer.
“Kind of a dumb question,” I mutter. “You’re Korean. Why are you in this class anyway?”
“Why are you even in this class?” I ask again, fighting my instinct to call him on the insult. “Don’t you already speak Korean?”
Both my parents are Filipino, but I grew up in the States like Jason. I was 15 before I learned how to speak Tagalog fluently, so I find this to be an extremely lazy stereotype. It’s also rather hypocritical of Grace, as American kids still take English classes in elementary and high school. The point is to improve language skills in any case, and her dismissive attitude doesn’t exactly make Grace sympathetic.
Korean kids not only take Korean language classes, however, but English classes as well. This baffles Grace, even though she’s quick to shame Sophie in her head for an incorrect English phrase on a t-shirt before ever meeting her. I’m not sure what Grace expects from her Korean classmates, if their ability to speak English is at once confusing to her and something she expects them to execute perfectly. To add to the mixed message, Katie Stout also writes Grace’s first encounter with a native Korean in pidgin English.
“Yes!” he exclaims. “I visit New York. Is very cool. You live there?”
“Oh no. I’m from Nashville.” I falter at the deep furrow of his brows. “That’s in the South.”
“Ohhhh.” He nods as if I’ve offered some sage advice on the state of the world. “I from South Korea, so I Southern too.”
If anything, conversations like that would be the exception, as Koreans and many other English-as-a-second-language speakers, are taught grammar rules from youth.
Speaking of language, Grace’s first impression of Sophie is as follows:
I can’t help but notice the obnoxiously neon READY TO WHERE splayed across her shirt, and I wonder if she thought it was ironic or if this girl has zero concept of the English language.
Because not a single white American has ever worn a shirt or gotten a tattoo of a Chinese or Japanese kanji “cause it looks cool” without knowing what it meant. It’s a double standard, and one that shows the extent of Grace’s white, English-speaking privilege.
There is also a troubling trend of fetishization that runs through the novel. Upon meeting him, Grace immediately start comparing Jason to other Koreans–“He’s the hottest Korean I’ve ever seen”–implying that attractive Koreans are a rarity. Jane also writes Grace to “bring me a hot Korean!” which might seem like an innocuous joke (“I met this totally hot [insert European country] guy on vacation!”), but when it’s reflected against the long history of Asian fetishization, its racist nature is clear.
Grace displays a similar attitude with regards to Korean bodies, insulting them with a backhand “compliment”:
I inch my way down the food line, searching the vats before me for something that resembles macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, or pizza. It surprises me what foods I crave when all I get is rice and vegetables…and more rice. This must be how all these Koreans stay so skinny.
Body dysmorphia! Fatphobia! If I was playing Offensive Bingo with this book, I would have won before chapter 10.
There is no shift in attitude from start to finish. Grace’s naivete comes off more as Western arrogance, and her inability to realize how damaging her assumptions about Korea truly are meant that the book became less about her learning and growing in a new experience, than it did her complaining about how backwards Asia is compared to America. The supporting characters are shunted to the side as Grace fumbles her way around Korea, being culturally insensitive all the way. She’s a smart girl, if her penchant for reciting elements off the periodic table is any indication, so if her characterization was meant to make her seem like a ditzy blonde American, it does her a great disservice.
[pullquote]Body dysmorphia! Fatphobia! If I was playing Offensive Bingo with this book, I would have won before chapter 10.[/pullquote]I couldn’t get with the romance because I had to brace myself on every page for the next offensive comment. I couldn’t ignore those comments, because while I am not Korean, Grace’s racist remarks were ones I have heard about my own people and the country I was born in. It would have been different if Stout had included these remarks in order to break them down and show how they were offensive and untrue. But Grace learns very little, if at all, and everyone around her adjusts to make her comfortable.
It is Grace’s opinions on music, both Korean and Western, that are given importance by the Korean characters. It is Grace’s discomfort that drives the actions of the people around her. It is Grace’s insensitivity that is excused and pandered to, without more than a smidgen of half-hearted “guilty conscience” backtracking that never comes to fruition anyway. She might be the main character, but she undergoes very little change, and her later comfort with her situation is because the Korean people around her have adjusted to her and sought to make her comfortable.
Books like these are why #WeNeedDiverseBooks. I am genuinely insulted by the way Asians are portrayed in this novel. Ignorance is not cute, nor should it be excused. If you want to write about a culture, stop insulting its people. It’s 2015, and Asia is not a land of mystery to be mocked and reduced to stereotypes. There are ways to highlight cultural differences and talk about them constructively. This book was not able to do either.