Celebrating Korean diaspora joy with Made in Korea author Sarah Suk

In a time when being Asian has taken on additional weight and affiliation, Sarah Suk’s debut novel Made in Korea reminds us of Asian joy. Centered on a competition between two student businesses selling K-Beauty and K-Pop items, the book remains bright while not shying away from discussions on cultural identity and family dynamics. 

“Being Korean is actually a joy for me and something I celebrate,” Suk said, and this can be felt in the story and the characters that have heart and fearless teenage energy. 

Cold Tea Collective got to chat with Suk about Made in Korea, what it means to be a Korean Canadian, and the importance of joy.

The constant dream 

Suk always knew that she wanted to be a writer. But more than just thinking about it, she applied herself even at a young age, writing short stories for the Neopian Times on the popular online world of Neopets. This then shifted into fan fiction in high school. And then it blossomed into the present day, being a published author. 

“The dream was always there since I was a young kid,” Suk said. 

Still, Suk didn’t know how the dream would play out. She initially wrote a different book about fantasy tweens. While trying to sell it, she started writing Made in Korea. Although it’s not what she started her journey with, Suk went into the process knowing that anything could happen. 

“Putting out a story that feels true to me and who I am as a person is more important than which book [started] the journey,” she said. 

See also: 10 books by Asian Canadian and Asian American women you need to add to your reading list

The classic diaspora question 

Made in Korea features a cast of Korean Americans from different backgrounds, ranging from main lead Wes who’s a Third Culture Kid (individuals who have lived in multiple countries growing up), Valerie who is born and raised in the same town, and Pauline, who is half Korean. These were intentional decisions Suk made, to show that no one in the Korean diaspora community has the same experience. 

But every diaspora person, Korean or not, has had questions about where they belong. In one poignant scene, Suk summed up this quintessential diaspora question: 

“If you’re not Korean-Korean, where do you fit as a Korean person in the world?”

Made in Korea book cover
Cover of Made in Korea. Photo submitted.

Suk is the most like Valerie, having been born and raised in Vancouver. It’s the city she knows best, and has seen her grow up. Still, a mere few hours north of her city at a farmer’s market, a white woman exclaimed that all of China was at the market, even though it was just Suk’s family and two other Asians. 

“Even in this country where I was born, it will always feel like ‘all of China is here today’ when I’m in it,” Suk said. 

But Korea wasn’t the answer either. Suk studied abroad in Seoul, and lived there after graduating for an internship. She admitted that it felt like home in a way Vancouver never did, similar to how a parent’s house feels familiar. Still, it was clear that she didn’t grow up in Seoul, and she also headbutted against some cultural differences. 

Is there an answer, then? Suk’s not sure, but she found comfort in changing her perspective of what “home” means.

“Wanting one city to encompass home for me is in and of itself such a big ask that I don’t know if it’s possible,” she said. “Now I associate home with pockets of places and people versus entire landscapes. It feels a bit more like a traveling circus sometimes, but it feels more rooted, in a way.”

See also: Defining identity beyond a passport and ethnicity

K-Beauty, K-Pop, and Korean diaspora

In the book, there’s a competition between student businesses based on K-Beauty products and K-Pop. Both businesses are popular because of such a high demand for Korean products. 

As a ’90s kid, Suk grew up watching Hallyu, or Korean pop culture, grow from something within Korean diaspora communities to being popular worldwide. She’s excited that content is more accessible and getting the recognition it deserves, and yet there is also a moment of pause. Growing up as part of a minority, it was a struggle to accept her Korean identity because it made her different. 

Suk said that one of the hardest things was weekly Korean school on Saturdays, which meant that she couldn’t spend the day watching cartoons or going to Saturday birthday parties. Her schedule was different from her peers, and so was the media she consumed, which others called weird. 

“People can [now] like Korean things so easily whereas for me, it felt like a big hurdle I had to jump,” Suk said. “It feels like an oversimplification of what it was like for me growing up.”

BTS
K-pop’s biggest international hit — BTS. Photo credit: Big Hit Entertainment

With Korean products being in such high demand currently, there is pride but also, unfortunately, weird encounters, including people telling Suk that they were more Korean than her because they knew more K-Dramas or K-Pop songs. 

Thankfully, these are a minority of her experiences.

See also: K-pop the Odyssey: A journey through law, music, and identity 

Unapologetically Korean North American

Suk went into writing Made in Korea with the goal of writing an unapologetically Korean North American story. She wanted to depict characters who fully embraced and enjoyed who they were without feeling sorry about it.

She wanted to show that contradicting things can exist. In particular, the family dynamics are written as is, without skirting away from awkward conversations, unanswered questions, or simple gestures. 

Suk also doesn’t magically solve misunderstandings or tensions within families by the end of the book. Nothing wraps up neatly with a bow. In that sense, it is more reflective of actual families and what immigrant children often have to do: translate small gestures from parents who can have difficulty communicating with words. 

Sarah Suk with her book, Made in Korea
Sarah Suk with her book, Made in Korea. Photo submitted.

By writing a story that features a cast with different upbringings and imperfect families, Suk wants to make a space where Asian people can feel like they can be fully human and fully who they are. In an age where people threaten or harm Asians for walking around or even existing, Suk leans into the idea of joy as resistance. 

“We’re not just scared; we’re brave and tenacious and joyful and creative,” she said. “I want to make space for Asians to be all of that — in our fears, our creativity, our bravery, our growing pains, in our love, in our mistakes.” 

Suk wanted to show Valerie and Wes as teenagers doing teenager things like falling in love, saying things they regret, believing in themselves, and growing as people, because all of these things are part of what it is to be human. 

“It was a joy for me to create these characters and have the honor of telling their story,” Suk said. “It was a joyful experience; I hope that translates.”

Made In Korea will be published on May 18, 2021. 

Header image submitted by Sarah Suk.

 

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