By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Kept: A Comedy of Sex and Manners”
By Y. Euny Hong
Simon & Schuster, 2006
As a direct descendent of Korean royalty and a member of the country’s aristocracy, Judith Lee is used to the finer things in life. As a result, the 26-year-old is not prepared for the real world when her parents cut her off and she is left to fend for herself in the Big Apple.
With her source of income unexpectedly drying up, Judith quickly finds herself in debt to the tune of $55,000. Despite a degree from Yale, Jude is ill-equipped to land a job. Having been born with a sense of entitlement, she deems herself exempt from working.
She eventually finds work as a courtesan for Madame Tartakov, a Russian woman who runs a high-end brothel employing young women with debt like Jude’s.
Jude believes that she’s found the perfect job until she falls in love with Joshua, a man outside of her clientele and her class. She is soon questioning her place in the world as an “aristo.” Her desire to step out from Madame Tartakov’s grasp grows, as she curses the impracticality of her upbringing.
“Kept,” as the title implies, is a comedy. You can’t help but laugh at Judith’s opinions on certain topics. For example, she hates America’s lack of a class system because it makes it much more difficult to judge people. She also believes that the American notion of meritocracy and succeeding through one’s work rather than one’s birth is ridiculous.
Although she is shallow, spoiled, and unapologetically snobby, Jude grows as the story progresses.
She initially enjoys the company of Yvgeny, the man who pays for her company. But she quickly learns that there is something to be said about Joshua, who takes notice and remembers when she becomes ill to the point of having to cut their evenings together short.
Jude’s moral fiber and personal strength are tested as she makes an unexpected trip home to Korea and family secrets are revealed. She quickly learns that she has more to offer the world than a pretty face.
Readers will learn that anyone can have redeemable qualities. Sometimes, you just have to dig deep (at times, very deep) to find them.
“Born to Kill: The Rise and Fall of America’s Bloodiest Asian Gang”
By T.J. English
“Born to Kill” is a true story of violence, displacement, fear, and alienation. But most importantly, it is a story of brotherhood and survival.
“Born to Kill,” also known as BTK, was something Chinatown in New York never expected. Comprising young Vietnamese men, led by Tho Hoang “David” Thai, this gang rose to power in the late 1980s, only to fall less than a decade later.
Nobody knows for sure who came up with the gang’s name, but the origin is clear. “Born to Kill” was the slogan they’d seen on American helicopters and the helmets of American soldiers during the Vietnam War.
Despite its end a decade earlier, BTK’s members — most of which weren’t even born or were only toddlers at the time — still felt the war’s effects as many were shipped off to refugee camps in neighboring countries.
They were separated from their families that felt it safer for their sons to leave their war-torn country.
Eventually, these boys found themselves in America, a country whose citizens openly loathed their presence. And being unwelcomed in established Asian communities and Chinatowns, the newcomers turned to each other, forming makeshift families for themselves and resorting to crime in order to survive.
Understanding such a strong bond, readers will empathize with the inner battle tugging at gang member Tinh “Timmy” Ngo’s conscience as he becomes an informant for authorities working to bring down BTK.
“Born” not only tells the story of the gang but also gives readers a crash course on the inner workings of the Asian underworld in America and U.S. law enforcement. Readers will be surprised to learn that one of the reasons BTK and other Asian gangs became so powerful was simply negligence on the part of the police.
The story addresses larger issues such as this and how America treats those who seek refuge within its borders. The story will force readers to wonder whether this really is the land of the free.
“The Secret Voice of Gina Zhang”
By Dori Jones Yang
Pleasant Company Publications, 2000
Jinna Zhang has always been quiet and shy, rarely speaking at school. However, when Jinna and her family move from China to America, the fifth-grader completely stops speaking.
Jinna, or “Gina” as the American teachers and students call her, doesn’t know why. The moment that her teacher asks Jinna to introduce herself, her throat closes up and no sound comes out of her mouth.
What is initially thought of as shyness eventually becomes frustrating as Jinna attends school for months without uttering a single sound — in English or Mandarin — and her classmates begin teasing her and calling her stupid. Outside of school, she can speak just fine, which makes the problem all the more perplexing.
Despite her inability to speak, Jinna befriends Priscilla, a girl in her class who seems to have her own set of problems. As the two girls become closer, Priscilla discovers Jinna’s secret. There is a private fantasy world inside her head, filled with princesses, monsters, and talking animals. Jinna is initially reluctant to share her stories, but when she realizes how good-hearted Priscilla is, Jinna tells the other girl of the adventure tale.
“Secret” is a story of friendship. The girls’ caring and loyal friendship shows that they are nothing short of admirable. They will make you hope that you have such people in your life.
While the girls’ friendship is the central focus in the story, it is not the only one.
“Secret” is about finding one’s voice — for Jinna, this is literally and figuratively the case. Although her vocal chords don’t work at school, Jinna learns English through listening and observation. She is a bright girl and gets the opportunity to prove herself when her teacher assigns the class a writing project.
Jinna displays strength of character when she stands up to bullies and helps those in need, all the while not speaking a single word. This just goes to show that sometimes, actions speak louder than words. ♦
Samantha Pak can be reached at email@example.com.