One time in college I turned in an essay and my professor underlined a sentence I’d written and told me it wasn’t the appropriate register for a university essay and I have crazy respect for her so I tailored my papers for the rest of the semester but this isn’t a university essay so I’ll start off with
Let’s start with the most glaringly obvious: the racism!
The sad thing is that half these descriptions are obviously supposed to be flattering except they’re… not…
Wow ninjas and East Asia what a novel concept wow
Wow because East Asian men aren’t emasculated in American media at all
THIS KIND OF SPEAKS FOR ITSELF.
by the way this is so very Memoirs of a Geisha-y because Park happens to be a half-Korean kid who LOOKS more Asian than his brother
But Park has green eyes!!!!! so magical!!!! So EXOTIC!!! Also “almond-flavored” please that’s not the most cliched description for Asian eyes in the book
Here have some more grossness around those oh-so-exotic “Asian” eyes
Please let that sink in for a moment. Like Ming the Merciless. Who, as you might know from the Flash Gordon comic, was originally introduced in 1934 and is a pretty clear stand-in for, uh… yellow peril. upon googling, looks like this:
But then Park has a couple of self-hating moments where he of course implies that Asian women have it easier:
"White guys think they’re exotic". And that is flattering why, Park? "Exotic", really? And Eleanor isn’t exactly doing a great job of not contributing to this harmful mentality when she explicitly thinks that he’s "prettier than any girl". Again:
But then!!! Eleanor makes it all better!!! By saying this!! In the middle of a STEAMY LOVE SCENE!!!! (which by the way neither steamy nor lovely just creeped me out a lot because of the following passage):
This Othering, this fetishization, does not stop through the entire book. Finally, we get towards the end:
So no, Eleanor never gets over Othering her boyfriend.
Wait hold on Asian women don’t get a pass either, as Park’s mom is painted as the oppressive parent who doesn’t like “weird white girls”, but according to Eleanor…
"his" Dainty China person because of course Park’s mom isn’t a person, but a literal object to be moved and shifted according to the whim’s of Park’s dad, a Korean war vet.
Here have some more bad stereotyping of Asian women as “thin pretty and petite” and Eleanor’s own self-hatred and fat-shaming:
Black women aren’t exempt from being props to uphold Eleanor either. Her two “friends” at school (I say “friends” in quotes because they don’t really comment on anything except how cute Park is and they all make fun of those OTHER nasty white girls in gym class together), oh, and Rainbow Rowell writes them like this:
"It was an honor that they’d let her into their club"…the "you’re not like THOSE white people club???"
"I got a man", REALLY???
Park’s “Asian”-ness As Other and He Could Have Been Edward Cullen, What is the Goddamn Difference
I would have felt better if Rainbow Rowell had written Park as a vampire or a werewolf or some other inhuman creature, the stuff of teen girl YA fantasy because a) vampires and werewolves don’t actually exist and therefore you can write them any way you want, albiet cliched, whatever—at least you’re not contributing to some very harmful societal stereotypes.
Park, as you can see from the previous citations, is written out to be this “edgy” indie boy who wears eyeliner and listens to the Smiths (which wow I rolled my eyes at) and is also a loner at school in and his edginess and “magic” make him stand out in much the same way a vampire or a werewolf or otherwise nonhuman creature would. These descriptions of Park really made me think of Twilight and no, not because they are things that “normal” teen girls say or think but because we’ve seen this archetype of, for lack of better word, “magical boy” that comes barging into sad-manic-pixie-dream-girl’s-but-not-like-the-other-girls’-life and sweeps her off her feet:
How artsy, edgy, and NOT PREPPY, he wears all black.
Who else had a face “like a chiseled marble statue in its perfection”? (psst, it was Edward Cullen)
who else was described as “godlike” “angelic” and all that crap? Vampire boy Edward Cullen. Louis and Lestat and Claudia, all of our favorite too-gorgeous-to-be-real fairytale creatures.
But when you use those kinds of descriptors for a character who is very visibly POC and then give them an uncommon feature like ~green eyes~, do they not become a kind of mythical creature in, the stuff of exotic fantasy? Do they then become dehumanized and not real, only the kind of boyfriend a girl can aspire to get?
The answer, of course, is yes. But dreaming about dating a vampire or a werewolf is so very different and again does not carry the same weight as being hellbent on dating a ~perfect Asian boy~. Because at this point it is not about Park. This is not Park’s story, even though he shares half the title. This is Eleanor’s story, the manic pixie “not like the other girls” girl, with her crazy red hair and her weird clothes and her desire to get away from it all.
Eleanor’s entire story is painted on a canvas of abuse and neglect and sadness, so of course she needs some magical boy to literally swoop in and save her— at the end, Park takes her to Minnesota where her uncle lives, away from the safety of her stepfather who is out for her blood. Eleanor is the most precious person in the world to Park, so much that he doesn’t care about his family anymore and the only person he cares about is her. How the hell is that any kind of healthy way to have a relationship?
Park’s Asian-ness is only brought up in the context that it is different to what Eleanor is used to, that it is EXOTIC and MAGICAL and because of that she likes him. No, but it’s in the text, where Eleanor openly admits to fetishizing:
I didn’t end up CARING about Eleanor’s family situation at all. Her relationship with her mother was completely one-dimensional, as was the relationship with her siblings and her stepfather. It was almost as though the backstory was there to make Eleanor more sympathetic to the reader, which as a reader I didn’t end up buying because there was literally no depth to any of it.
Similarly, Park’s relationship with his parents is weird and disturbing and also one-sided. His mom speaks broken English and is demure but madly in love with his dad, who, need I remind you, “liberated” her from her oppressive country. Miss Saigon, anyone? Park’s dad is typical American machismo, a simple kinda guy, but at heart a good one. I feel like the PARENTS’ relationship was something I was more interested in than Eleanor or Park, had it not been written like a weird yellow-fever wet dream, where the white dude comes home and just makes out with the Asian woman all the time and she stays home and tends to their perfect house and their perfect family.
Rainbow Rowell has explicitly stated in an interview that one of her inspirations for writing Eleanor and Park and for making Park Korean was that her father had been in the Korean War:
1. My father served in Korea, in the Army.
This is probably the most obvious explanation.
My parents separated when I was in the second grade, and I never knew my dad that well. I didn’t grow up with him around. But I remember being fascinated by the fact that he was in the military – and stationed in a place where there had been an actual war, even though he was there decades after the worst of it.
There was this photo of him, in uniform, hanging over my grandmother’s coffee table – an unrecognizable teenager with short hair and tiny wire-rimmed glasses.
Every once in a while, if he’d had a few drinks, my dad would talk about the Army. How he signed up at 17 to avoid getting drafted and sent to Vietnam. The Army wouldn’t send a 17-year-old to Vietnam, he said. (I have no idea if this, or much else my dad told me, is true.)
He was especially proud of having protested the Vietnam War while he was in Korea. There was a clipping from a military newspaper with photos of the protest. I was 12 or 13 when he showed me this, and I definitely didn’t get it.
Over the years, I’ve had people tell me I must be confused about my dad, that there weren’t Americans soldiers left in Korea in the ‘70s. But there are still American soldiers in South Korea. We never left.
Anyway, the other thing my dad would talk about, every once in a while, was a girl he’d known in Korea. My mom says he carried this Korean girl’s photo in his wallet for years after he came home. He’d been in love with her; my mom thought he still was.
I used to wonder about that girl. About how he met her. Whether she spoke English. Whether she was his age. Whether it was some secret love affair, or something her friends and family knew about … What if she was his soulmate?
What if fate and circumstance and the U.S. government had come together to deliver my father across the continents to his soulmate – and he just left her there.
He could have stayed, I thought. He could have brought her back. Omaha is a military town; people bring wives and husbands back from all over.
I remember being so angry with him. First for leaving the person he was meant to be with; then for leaving my mom, the person he wasn’t meant to be with; and then for leaving all my brothers and sisters and me in his wake.
So … in Eleanor & Park, Park’s dad gets sent to Korea because his brother has died in combat in Vietnam. He meets his soulmate there. And he brings her home.
He “liberates” her. And puts her in his pocket like a China Doll, right?
These were only a few selections out of the many, many in the novel. Over and over again we’re slammed in the face with the fact that Park is Asian, he’s half-Korean, but only in the way he looks and almost always in the context of his relationship with Eleanor, never by himself. Half the book is supposedly written from Park’s perspective but he never really introspects on his identity except during that scene when he’s with Eleanor, bitter that there aren’t any “hot Asian guys.” Not even Asian AMERICAN, just “Asian”. As though the author were not aware of the hybrid culture that exists in the country—maybe because Park’s “the only Korean in Omaha?”
What first love story is there to tell? They start off hating each other and he makes her a mixtape and asks if she listens to the Smiths, and given that this book came out after Five Hundred Days of Summer…
I’m not sure what the point of the book was. To make people want hot Asian boyfriends?
This read like bad Tamora Pierce Circle of Magic Trisana Chandler/Briar Moss AU fic.