Recommend me a book: What it's like immigrating to the West as a teen
October 28, 2022 2:37 AM   Subscribe

It can be biographical or non-fiction/talking about research, as long as it's about South or East Asian children or teens immigrating to a Western, individualist culture.

Specific themes I'm looking for:

- Navigating an individualist culture as someone from a collectivist culture.
- Loss of proficiency in native language.
- Feeling like you're not part of the homeland culture or the destination culture.
- Learning to handle racism and misconceptions about the homeland culture.


Not looking for refugee experiences; I'm looking for stories about children or teens who moved with their family for economic opportunity.

I tried reading "How to American" by Jimmy O Yang and could barely understand it because it's so full of American cultural references. Please recommend something easily understandable for people outside the culture(s) involved in the story.
posted by wandering zinnia to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir (graphic novel) by Robin Ha. This is a beautiful graphic-novel-memoir.

It's 1995. Fourteen year old Chuna's mother takes her from South Korea to Alabama with just one suitcase for what she is told will be a short holiday. After a few weeks her mother announces that !surprise! they are living here now and her mother is marrying a Korean American man.

Chuna misses her friends in South Korea (she never even got a chance to say goodbye!), and speaks almost no English. There are almost no other Asian students at her new school, and there are no English-Second-Language classes. She is thrown in the deep end of regular maths etc classes in English despite not understanding any of them. Her step-cousin, Ashley, is one of the only other Asian students, but refuses to help translate for her. She takes a western name, Robin, hoping it will help her fit in, but it's not enough.

At first, she becomes deeply Depressed.

Then her mother discovers a comic book store that runs comic-making classes, and she makes friends with a multi-racial Japanese American girl, Jessica, over their shared love of manga and anime, and things start getting better...

Years later she returns to South Korea as an adult for a holiday, and realises that the sexism; culture of bodily-perfection/routine plastic surgery; and urban gentrification might have alienated her from Korea even if she'd stayed.

I loved this book. It was deeply thoughtful with gorgeous art. The author is incredibly likeable / easy to sympathise with and I would love to read more work by her.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 5:07 AM on October 28, 2022

Messy Roots : A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American by Laura Gao

"Messy Roots is a laugh-out-loud, heartfelt, and deeply engaging story of their journey to find themself--as an American, as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, as a queer person, and as a Wuhanese American in the middle of a pandemic."--Malaka Gharib, author of I Was Their American Dream

After spending her early years in Wuhan, China, riding water buffalos and devouring stinky tofu, Laura immigrates to Texas, where her hometown is as foreign as Mars--at least until 2020, when COVID-19 makes Wuhan a household name.

In Messy Roots, Laura illustrates her coming-of-age as the girl who simply wants to make the basketball team, escape Chinese school, and figure out why girls make her heart flutter.

Insightful, original, and hilarious, toggling seamlessly between past and present, China and America, Gao's debut is a tour de force of graphic storytelling.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 5:19 AM on October 28, 2022

Everything Is Beautiful, and I'm Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection by Yao Xiao

Everything Is Beautiful, and I'm Not Afraid perfectly captures the feelings of a young sojourner in America as she explores the nuances in searching for a place to belong. Baopu is a monthly serialized comic on Autostraddle, and this book includes beloved fan favorites plus new, never-before-seen comics.

This one-of-a-kind graphic novel explores the poetics of searching for connection, belonging, and identity through the fictional life of a young, queer immigrant. Inspired by the creator's own experiences as a queer, China-born illustrator living in the United States, Everything Is Beautiful, and I'm Not Afraid has an undeniable memoir quality to its recollection and thought-provoking accounts of what it's like to navigate the complexities of seeking belonging-mentally and geographically.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 5:20 AM on October 28, 2022

Monstrous : A Transracial Adoption Story by Sarah Myer

"A poignant young adult graphic memoir about a Korean-American girl who uses fandom and art-making to overcome racist bullying. Perfect for fans of American Born Chinese and Almost American Girl!

Sarah has always struggled to fit in. Born in South Korea and adopted at birth by a white couple, she grows up in a rural community with few Asian neighbors. People whisper in the supermarket. Classmates bully her. She has trouble containing her anger in these moments--but through it all, she has her art. She's always been a compulsive drawer, and when she discovers anime, her hobby becomes an obsession.

Though drawing and cosplay offer her an escape, she still struggles to connect with others. And in high school, the bullies are louder and meaner. Sarah's bubbling rage is threatening to burst."
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 5:22 AM on October 28, 2022

I Was Their American Dream : A Graphic Memoir
By Malaka Gharib

" 'A portrait of growing up in America, and a portrait of family, that pulls off the feat of being both intimately specific and deeply universal at the same time. I adored this book.' --Jonny Sun

'[A] high-spirited graphical memoir . . . Gharib's wisdom about the power and limits of racial identity is evident in the way she draws.'--NPR


I Was Their American Dream is at once a coming-of-age story and a reminder of the thousands of immigrants who come to America in search for a better life for themselves and their children. The daughter of parents with unfulfilled dreams themselves, Malaka navigated her childhood chasing her parents' ideals, learning to code-switch between her family's Filipino and Egyptian customs, adapting to white culture to fit in, crushing on skater boys, and trying to understand the tension between holding onto cultural values and trying to be an all-American kid.

Malaka Gharib's triumphant graphic memoir brings to life her teenage antics and illuminates earnest questions about identity and culture, while providing thoughtful insight into the lives of modern immigrants and the generation of millennial children they raised. Malaka's story is a heartfelt tribute to the American immigrants who have invested their future in the promise of the American dream."
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 5:28 AM on October 28, 2022

All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir
by Nicole Chung

"This beloved memoir "is an extraordinary, honest, nuanced and compassionate look at adoption, race in America and families in general" (Jasmine Guillory, Code Switch, NPR)

What does it means to lose your roots—within your culture, within your family—and what happens when you find them?

Nicole Chung was born severely premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting, prepackaged myth. She believed that her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hope of giving her a better life, that forever feeling slightly out of place was her fate as a transracial adoptee. But as Nicole grew up—facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian American and as a writer, becoming ever more curious about where she came from—she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth.

With warmth, candor, and startling insight, Nicole Chung tells of her search for the people who gave her up, which coincided with the birth of her own child. All You Can Ever Know is a profound, moving chronicle of surprising connections and the repercussions of unearthing painful family secrets—vital reading for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out where they belong."
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 5:31 AM on October 28, 2022

Maybe Brick Lane by Monica Ali. It's about a Bangladeshi 18 year old moving to East London for an arranged marriage.
posted by plonkee at 5:32 AM on October 28, 2022

A novel based on true experiences that the author had growing up:

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Mia and her family migrate from China to California for better economic opportunities.

"Mia Tang has a lot of secrets. Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests. Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they've been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed. Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language? It will take all of Mia's courage, kindness, and hard work to get through this year. Will she be able to hold on to her job, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams?"
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 5:36 AM on October 28, 2022

Just want to note that while All You Can Ever Know is a wonderful book by a wonderful person, it doesn't fit the brief here—Nicole was born and grew up in the U.S. I don't want anyone being disappointed that it isn't something it's not! It's absolutely worth reading if you're interested in the transracial adoptee experience, and it does deal with questions of belonging and cultural identity, but it's not related to immigration.

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok could fit the bill, though it's definitely a debut novel.
posted by babelfish at 6:43 AM on October 28, 2022

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