I’ll say this though, in some meditation: I understand that Grace is a young woman who’s pretty much a fish out of water in the country of Korea, escaping a really heavy burden that she carries with her from the States, but I do not, I seriously DO NOT, understand her cultural intolerance and put downs of Korean culture and people in this book. It’s inexcusable. There’s a part of me that wants to think the author intended this to be a flaw of the character, but there are other references in this book that make me think it’s more of a championing of Western culture (parroted even by the Korean characters featured in the book) than it is a reflection of Korea.
I know there will be people who love this book for the love story aspect even if they may (or may not) see the problems in the diversity addresses made here, but even that was a little disappointing to me in retrospect. There were definitely some cute moments, and I liked the secondary cast quite a bit. Heck, I liked Jason, but I don’t think he deserved the way Grace treated him in this book in modes. I didn’t even think Sophie deserved some subtle put downs in this book either.
Grace is a flawed character, and I know we need some representation of flawed personalities in YA literature, but not at the expense of disrespecting an entire country, its culture, and people. It’s sloppy handling, and this could’ve been a better book than what it was.
Katie M. Stout’s “Hello, I Love You” is a perfect example of why we desperately need more diversity in YA literature. Not for the reason you’re thinking though, because honestly, I have never read a more culturally ignorant, presumptuous, and projective (meaning it denounces Korean culture in favor of Americanized or Western ideals) narrative in all of the years I’ve been reading YA. And there were no rationales or expansions for these attitudes. None whatsoever.
I’ll admit I was excited for this book when I first heard about it through reading circles, and you have no idea how much I started doing mental backflips and somersaults when I got the galley approval. A K-pop idol falling in love with an American girl in the heart of Korea as she attends school there? Plus an emphasis on Korean popular culture with a chance to be immersed in the music, people, places, and limelight? I’m there. I’m so there.
Only I wasn’t. This book sounded great in theory, but was lacking in execution to say the least.
Grace is a young woman from Tennessee fleeing her famous family after a series of tragic circumstances. She wants to get away so badly that she Googles the first boarding school she can find in any country she can. Too bad that Googling didn’t involve checking up on the customs of the culture or acquiring any kind of cultural sensitivity before flying to Korea, because Grace has a “devil may care” attitude in general about it.
You know, I don’t think I knew what the author had in mind portraying the character to be so ignorant, nonchalant with a heavy helping of judgmental, because it certainly didn’t make her endearing, cool, or anywhere close to being sympathetic.
Case in point (and the quotes are really damning in many places in this narrative):
“Ahn neyong ha se yo!” Hello. “Umm..” I stare at the Romanized translations, the multitude of consonants and letter combinations I’ve never seen, let alone pronounced – mixing inside my travel-weary brain like a blender on HIGH.” (2%)
“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.” (3%)
(when first seeing Jason, Sophie’s brother and K-pop idol) “He’s the hottest Korean I’ve ever seen. Not that I have much experience with Koreans, but all the ones I’ve encountered couldn’t even be considered in the same realm as Sophie’s brother.” (5%)
“As we head to the dorms, I think back to meeting Sophie’s brother this morning. He said something about a band room. Does that mean people play music here? I mean, normal music, like rap or hip-hop or folk. Or is it only traditional Korean stuff?” (6%)
Let me tell you the problems with each of these phrases.
1. Her ignorance of the language. It’s blatant and it shows she didn’t even try to learn anything before coming into the country.
2. Her assumption is quick to label and denouncing about seeing a random girl and judging her on the shirt she wears. *rolls eyes*
3. Her crushing on Jason is not only insta-love, but just infuriating how…isolating it is. I could understand her saying that Jason is hot (though I’d be mildly annoyed), but specifically naming him as a “hot Korean?” Ummm…there are problems with that which are further compounded in the text as it goes forward. Including multiple assertions from Grace’s sister that she’s “always wanted a hot Korean” for her own. Keep in mind these are white characters saying these kinds of things…how do you think that makes someone who’s a person of color on any spectrum feel? Korean boys/men are not trophies – they’re people. How about not treating them or making mention them as things to collect? This objectification is all kinds of freaking wrong.
4. I’m embarrassed to have to explain the offense in this. First, fail on the backhanded insult to anyone who plays classical or traditional music (because apparently that’s not “real” music) and second, not knowing anything about Korea’s music history, modern or traditional. There’s no excuse for this kind of ignorance in the digital/internet age. Gah. I sat on my hands and figured she’d learn about this eventually in the text. So I hoped. (Then there’s a comment when Sophie mentions Jason plays guitar. Grace’s comment: “So people do play Western music.” *facepalms*)
Grace approaches K-pop like it’s a passing fad, citing a friend who went through a “Hello Kitty” and Asian obsession phase in middle school in America. And she “snickers” at the naming of KPOP (in all capital letters mind you). The references to KPOP aren’t even really that specific or immersive. No mentions of actual idols or groups that exist. The ones that Stout features are all made up as far as I could tell (there was the mention of a “Na Na” being a big teen Korean actress, but I realized quickly that it wasn’t referring to Nana or Im Jin-ah, who is an actual actress and singer in Korea . Bit too close of a comparison.) Even then, Grace could hardly care about any of it. She really only came to the country just to get away from her problems at home. This vexed me to no end, but I still continued to follow the story.
The secondary cast of characters ended up charming me in places, far more than Grace (ironic how inaccurate her name suited her, but I digress). Twins Jason and Sophie attracted me for their personalities. Sophie being the courteous, energetic guide and fast friend, ready to give Grace as warm a welcome as she can. Jason’s the frontrunner of the K-pop group “Eden” as well as rising actor, with a humored, cool demeanor that had moments of animation that were cute to watch. I had no problems with Jason’s personality and interactions with the other characters, mostly. While he had his respective flaws (drinking when emotionally distraught, and he’s called out on this for conflict), I think for some of the conflict was really noted on Grace’s part. The other cast members in Korea were fun to watch as well, but mostly it felt like they weren’t at the forefront enough.
Which brings me back to what/who really ruined this book for me: Grace.
It’s established early on that Grace is a bit of a music snob. Quote:
“I’m not sure what I expected-that they would be good? Pop is the name of the genre. That never bodes well for the quality of the music. But I guess I hoped since they’re a big deal, they would be more than your average bubblegum band.” (9%)
I’m guessing that if you guys are famous like Sophie said, it’s mostly based on pretty faces instead of actual quality of music.” (10%)
She establishes right away that she doesn’t like the monotonous style of K-pop (assuming that K-pop is one style – this bubblegum flavor, mind you) and tells Jason to his face that she doesn’t like his music. There are moments where she proceeds to tell Jason and the other members of the band where they’re going wrong. I can’t help but think this resembles something of a “white savior” complex. Her trying to tell them the “right” way according to her preferences (mostly in the vein of Western rock music – The Doors, The Verve, etc. While I don’t dislike those bands – heck, I love them – what right does she have to barge in and change Jason and his bandmates’ style, not even appreciating what they have to offer?) and completely disregarding the culture she’s in, when she really didn’t want to be there in the first place and makes no effort to immerse herself. And she wonders why Jason seems to hate her at first. There’s one moment where her tells her outright that she needs to be more “culturally sensitive” to stay in Korea, but she dismisses it with a haughty assertion about him saying she needed to be less of an “American elitist” or something like that.
(Seriously though, she is being culturally ignorant and that never completely fades or goes away throughout the course of the book. She never comes to terms with it.)
Grace has moments of this derogatory attitude in other aspects of the book, such as dismissing the relevance of Korean dramas (Sophie gives her a piece of mind and I did have a brief laugh at that. There’s a quote later where it seems Grace couldn’t care less about actresses who speak a language she doesn’t know). She even disses Korean cuisines (Grace does end up liking some dishes she tastes, but not without some heavily loaded denouncements). It’s like nothing could appease Grace for the time she spent in the country unless it was Western oriented or close to it. There were moments when the other characters would chastize her or give her side-eye glances, but is this enough to offset what Grace thinks/says/does? I didn’t think so. In a sense, the narrative seems to passively accept Grace’s prejudices.
It even seems that descriptions of more Korean traditional holidays are passed over in favor of showcasing Western celebrations (i.e. American Thanksgiving). I kept feeling the whole time in this narrative that both Grace and the rest of the cast were trying to make things that seemed more “American” rather than focusing on Korea and its culture. Sometimes this would lend to the “squatting toilets” horror stories, other times it would just be something that completely disregarded Korean language or presence.
“I don’t see any other Americans, but I didn’t have high hopes that I would. Mr. Wang told me my first day that there are no American students this year besides me, since the only two graduated last year. Figures.” (11%)
“…the Korean characters baffle my brain, letters squished together and broken up to form unintelligible sounds and syllables I can’t even guess how to pronounce.” (12%)
Grace’s relationship with Jason seems to revolve around what he should think of her (whether they should be in a relationship or not) and his issues with drinking. Some of it is palpable, but while the address of Jason’s drinking is a concern, much of the conflict between Grace and Jason on his “signals” to her may very well be a product of her own insecurities and projections of expectation for him. One moment she’ll think they’re something more, the next they’re friends, the next they’re not even that because she’s in denial of what she feels for him. No wonder Jason’s confused half the time. I was confused, and there’s no real rhyme or reason why Grace is that way other than what seems to be unresolved family and relationship issues which she eventually has to come to terms with. When Grace’s family comes to Korea (pretty much after Grace refuses to come home during Thanksgiving or even willingly speak with her mother), then Grace has a hard coming to terms with what she was running away from.
I’ll say this, the only reason this book is getting 1.5 stars from me (I’m reducing it from my original rating because of issues) is because the secondary cast of characters in Korea appealed to me and because of how Grace’s coming to terms with her grief was done. That’s it. I did like that Grace eventually had to face what happened to her brother and face up to the reality that she was running away and couldn’t escape what she’d left behind or the cost of fame in her family. But even with that, was it worth denouncing and disrespecting Korean culture for her to come to terms with that? ABSOLUTELY NOT.
I felt like even with this taking place in Korea, this showed a great deal of distance and lack of immersion when it wasn’t actively denouncing the culture through Grace’s voice. It felt like Stout, as the author of the narrative, was holding back. If she were truly influenced by actual idols or dramas she’s perused in Korean media, if she truly loves this culture – why not use those, why not take the time to share that enthusiasm and knowledge in this narrative, rather than the active and constant dismissals? Here’s a narrative rule of thumb: if your character isn’t interested in the place or culture or thing their perusing, neither will your reader. What I ultimately got out of this narrative wasn’t an appreciation or immersion in Korean culture and the people who live there, but rather a case where a young American white woman used the culture for what was convenient for her and molded it to her own wants and desires. She also used it for her own coming to terms with her grief and by the narrative end, got what she wanted and still didn’t really have an appreciation for what Korea actually was. For a narrative championing diversity, that’s unacceptable. Korea is not a backdrop or a setpiece – it is filled with its own life and spirit and people should be able to see that, not get a backhanded portrayal of it. This is especially important to consider since this narrative is oriented towards a young adult audience.
Exploring diversity – whether it’s people, places, things that we may not see in our native cultures compared to the culture being introduced – doesn’t mean just setting up shop in a different place to mold it into one’s own playground, but exploring and appreciating what THAT culture has to offer and seeing its appeal through the eyes of those who live, work, and experience it as it is. To me, this is where Katie Stout screwed this entire narrative for the potential it was to have.
“Hello, I Love You” ended up being one of my biggest disappointments of this year as far as a read is concerned. Not because I had overly high expectations for what it would offer me, but rather what shortchanged and offensive content it gave me. This could’ve been a much better narrative if it’d kept its focus on the culture itself and had a protagonist that was willing to see it for what it offered despite her grief, rather than using the place and people as a means to an end.
In my final reflections, while I give this narrative 1.5 stars for an overarching rating, that doesn’t mean that I’d lend a strong recommendation for it (or even a recommendation at all – cute moments weren’t enough to save this narrative from being jarringly offensive). If you are really into something that presents Korean culture, K-pop and idol endeavors in a positive, immersive light, you won’t find much of what you’re looking for here. This doesn’t even give an apt viewpoint for the characters of this culture that it’s showing, they’re just background noise to suit the heroine and her motives and her coming to terms, more than anything else. I’m not at all confident this is narrative meant to represent a different culture for what it offered and it actually hurts the diversity leaning and aim rather than helping it. This kind of cultural ignorance and blatant use and lose of an environment and population is inexcusable, and not at all cute. I don’t doubt there are some people who will like this narrative, but I couldn’t in good mind overlook these issues – as someone who loves Korean music and media, different cultures, and also speaking as a woman of color.
Overall score: 1.5/5 stars
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from St. Martin’s Press.
You want some Korean artists/groups/musicians I listen to? Let me share a few with you (at least I thank this book for making me surf YouTube). By no means comprehensive, but they’re songs in my head, so:
Clazziquai Project: (I love these guys too much, man)
Lee Soo Young:
Park Hyo Shin:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VslYAGO6AHk (Honestly, I chose this song because it’s one of my favorites and because the relationship in this book reminded me of this. I haven’t heard it in a little while.)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rqho5PSyc7A (with Hwang Project)
SHINHWA: (I’m pretty sure I discovered these guys a long time ago from a Jpop/Kpop music station on Last.fm, back when they still offered a radio service. Have heard their music in passing, but “Sniper” is one of their latest. You guys know how I am about songs getting stuck in my head? Yeah.)
The See Ya: