Allison's Book Bag

Good Enough by Paula Yoo

Posted on: April 10, 2012

There’s something to be said for the idea that one likes to read books that capture one’s own experiences. I love Good Enough by Paula Yoo, because of all the ways I can relate to it: Main character Patti is an overachiever in school and yet capable of having fun. Her parents have flawed ideas about what might bring her happiness, but are otherwise stable, hard-working adults who want only the best for her. That’s why although they encourage her to play the violin, they don’t want her to pursue the risky profession of a musician. Her church youth group is as flawed and normal as her school peers, while also believing in God. And, like most average adolescent girls, Patti is attracted to the best-looking guys in school.

There are some differences between Patti and I. My hard-earned grades got me into college, but the Ivy league schools weren’t even a consideration. I grew up the only child of a widower father. And, while I liked to play piano, but my actual passion has always been writing. Yet despite these little discrepancies, I felt as Paula Yoo was writing about me, which isn’t something I often feel about the fiction I read.

There’s also something to be said for the idea that one should write about what they know. As a graduate of Yale University, Paula Yoo would intimately know all the intricacies of what applications to those schools would involve. Perhaps, this is why she can give strategies for being accepted, examples of SAT questions and tips on how to solve them, and provide perfect responses to interview questions. None of this academic talk ruins Good Enough, because Yoo writes with a light and interesting style. As a former concertmaster for an all-state high school orchestra, Yoo would also intimately know all the intricacies of playing an instrument for it. Perhaps, this is why she can list classic musicians, list their styles, talk about who inspired them, tell what challenges they faced, and explain how to best play their musical scores on the violin. In between the music talk, Patti (like Paula Yoo) sneaks out occasionally to see cool bands, undergoes a bad home perm that burns her ear, and works on a few songs with a cute guy in her classroom.

There is one outstanding way in which Paula Yoo and are different. She is Korean American; I am Canadian. And so in the same way that Yoo can easily write about the rigors of applying to Ivy League Schools or competing for concertmaster position with an all-state high school orchestra, she can also easily share aspects of her Korean American culture. From her, I learned some Korean phrases and foods. Three recipes are even included, all with funny tips about how to obtain or prepare the ingredients: “Again, I’m assuming you know where to buy kochu jang. If you don’t, try to find the nearest Korean church in your town and sneak into their kitchen…. Don’t forget to return it afterward, because ‘Thou shalt not steal’ is the eighth commandment.”

How to Make Your Korean Parents Happy

  • Get a perfect score on the SATs
  • Attend Korean church every Sunday
  • Don’t talk to boys
  • Don’t rock the boat
  • Be good at math

For Patti, gong to church was not just about congregating to celebrate God and socialize with others. “Korean church is also where parents try to one-up each other on their children’s accomplishments.” This theme of being successful is huge in Good Enough. Patti’s parents believe that their daughter will be successful if she is accepted into the Ivy League schools. Her parents have good reasons for this belief. Her parents grew up in Korea, where they had to pass a difficult entrance exam to be accepted into university. That was the only way to get a job and have a career. Her father struggled so much during his youth with calculus that he attended a hagwon (private school) every day from two o’clock in the afternoon until ten at night including weekends. Moreover, he studied every day for fourteen straight hours until exam day. Talk about pressure!

Yet Patti learns that success is not everything: “Safe from what, Dad? Nothing’s safe! Remember how Stephanie’s mom yelled at you. She didn’t care what college you went to! It’s not about where you go to school or what job you have!” Several examples of racism are scattered throughout Good Enough, the above being one of them. In the cafeteria, the football quarterback taunts Patti: “Ching chong … Jap” Patti wonders what her ethnicity has to do with her being brainy or physically uncoordinated? On Halloween, a white classmate dresses up as a geisha and says, “Me speakah no Engrish.” Patti wonders if the girl would have dressed up like this if there were other Asians in the school besides Patti.  Then there’s the incident at a clothing store, from which I took the above quote. The family is in line at the register when her dad remembers that he needs socks. When their turn at the register comes, a customer behind them complains, “Where did that Chinese man go?” First, Patti’s family is not Chinese. Second, again, what does their ethnicity have to do with anything? Even when Patti’s dad returns seconds later and apologizes with an accent, the customer complains: “Is he speaking English?” Not willing to let the moment go, the customer rants, “These people, they come to our country, they don’t bother learning the language.” Ironically, Patti’s parents have been so determined to ensure her success in America, that the family speaks only English at home. Patti herself knows only a few Korean phrases.

Good Enough “is based on my own life growing up as a ‘violin geek’. I have often read books about violinists that come off as very ‘well-researched,’ but do not have the authenticity and ‘insider knowledge’ that a real violinist would have. I tried to bring that authenticity across in my novel. In addition, although my novel is about a Korean American teenage girl who pursues her love of music despite her immigrant parents’ academic pressure on her, I wanted my novel to strike a universal chord among all teens.”
–Paula Yoo, Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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