50 pages • 1 hour readRobin Ha
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Almost American Girl is a 2020 graphic memoir by Robin Ha. It details young Robin’s life after a summer vacation in Alabama turns into a permanent relocation from South Korea. Robin struggles with life in the United States as she deals with racist peers and a traditional Korean stepfamily. The memoir is filled with flashbacks to Robin’s childhood growing up with a single mother, a role that has stigma in Korean society. Several chapters flashback to her mother’s history and how she began to deviate from strict Korean social structures. The book addresses the stress faced by immigrant children and teens in the United States, taking a nuanced look at both why immigrant families leave their home country and what they face upon beginning their lives in the United States. The book was nominated for multiple awards and was a 2021 Young Adult Library Services Association Great Graphic Novels for Teens Top Ten Book.
This guide uses the 2020 hardback edition published by Balzar + Bray and Harper Alley.
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Content Warning: The source material contains illustrations of racist actions and quotations of racist language directed toward Robin. Though this guide does not replicate this language, it does describe these incidents and quotes Robin’s thoughts and understanding of these incidents. The source text includes derogatory words for women directed at Robin’s mother, and brief mentions of suicidal ideation.
Note: When Robin arrives in the United States, she does not know many English words. She calls them “gibberish,” and in dialogue bubbles she depicts them with swirly lines. This guide denotes these markings as “[gibberish]” in quoted text. For the first several chapters, Robin is called by her Korean name “Chuna”—after this, her mother continues to call her by this name. Even before she chooses her American name, this guide refers to her with the name she publishes under, “Robin,” for consistency. It preserves her Korean name in quoted text.
The SuperSummary difference
When Robin is 14 years old, she and her mother leave their home in Seoul, South Korea for a summer vacation to Huntsville, Alabama. Robin’s mom says that they are visiting her “friend” Mr. Kim, who lives with his daughter, mother, and his brother’s family. Robin dislikes American food and finds the suburban environment vast and alienating. Her mother then tells her that she is marrying Mr. Kim and they are not returning to Korea.
This reminds Robin of when she was a child and had several pet birds that her mother got rid of without warning. Though her mother has been her rock through her entire life, she has a habit of making decisions for Robin without consulting her. Robin is hurt and feels slighted by these actions. Robin does not want to be in the United States but is excited to choose a new name, since she thinks her Korean name, “Chuna,” is too old-fashioned. She chooses the gender-neutral name “Robin.”
On her first day at school, her cousin Ashley unwillingly translates for her. Robin does not understand what her teachers say in class, since she did not attempt to learn English before leaving Korea like her mother did. A boy named Bryan makes racist remarks and actions toward her. Though Robin cannot understand his words, it is obvious he is teasing her. She is familiar with not feeling “normal” because she grew up with a single mother—a stigmatized role in Korean society.
The only class she likes is English, where her teacher, Mrs. Halls, communicates with her via letter so Robin has time to translate her responses. Ashley is supposed to help Robin in school but often lies to her when translating the teacher’s words or other information from English into Korean. Ashley’s misinformation leads to tensions between Robin and one of her teachers. When Robin tells her mother this, her mother is understanding and takes her side.
After a couple months in Alabama, Robin’s mother’s former assistant sends Robin her favorite comics; this makes Alabama feel more like home. Robin’s friends from Korea write to her, making her feel less alone. Robin’s step-aunt invites Robin to her church to make friends. Robin goes trick-or-treating with a teenage girl from her church named Diane, but feels a wall grow between them because of Robin’s limited English.
Robin’s mother buys her a piano with her first paycheck so that Robin has some of her hobbies from Korea available to her. She forces Robin to play in a recital and for their stepfamily. Robin is self-conscious of playing in front of people and yells at her mother in frustration.
Robin’s mother has always done what she thought was best for Robin. After she got pregnant, she did not marry Robin’s father because she was unsure if he would be a good father or husband. He was drunk when he tried to meet the infant Robin. Shortly after, she discovered he was having an affair and ended their relationship. As a single mother, she faced prejudice in Korean society and decided to leave for America.
Tensions between Robin’s mother and her traditional in-laws grow quickly. Mr. Kim’s business shuts down, and he goes to LA to find work. Robin’s mom goes to LA to see if it is a suitable place for her and Robin. When she comes back to Alabama, she knows she does not want to stay married to Mr. Kim.
She and Robin plan to leave Alabama for Virginia in secret at the end of the year. Shortly before this, Robin started attending a comic class and made a friend there, Jessica. Befriending Jessica helped Robin’s English and gave her the confidence to befriend people at her own school. Robin is frustrated that she must leave right when she is making friends but sees how strong her mom is and feels bad for thinking only about herself.
They move to Virginia, which is a better fit than Alabama. Jessica visits, and she and Robin attend a comic convention. Robin attends an ESL class where she makes friends with other English-language learners. She meets other students who speak Korean and becomes fast friends with two girls.
Several years out of high school, she and these friends visit Korea. Robin sees her middle-school friends but finds that their personalities and desires have drifted apart. Her friends in Korea plan on traditional lives with husbands and children. Robin is perturbed by how demure women are expected to be. By the end of her time there she is ready to return home. She does not feel entirely Korean or American, but rather like a blend of the two.