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In 'Troublemaker,' John Cho explores the Rodney King riots through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy

John Cho. (Ben Joarwas)a
John Cho. (Ben Joarwas)a

Here & Now‘s Celeste Headlee speaks with actor John Cho about “Troublemaker,” his debut novel for middle grade readers. It centers around Jordan, a 12-year-old Korean-American boy living in Los Angeles who is caught up in events following the acquittal of the men videotaped beating Rodney King in 1992.

Book excerpt: ‘Troublemaker’

By John Cho

April 29, 1992

I never knew a pair of shoes could scare me so much, but when I see Umma’s and Appa’s sneakers by the door when I walk in, I nearly jump right out of my skin. It’s not that they’re anything out of the ordinary. The shoes, I mean, with Appa’s laces fraying at the ends and Umma’s looking more gray than white like they did when she first bought them. What’s weird is the fact that they’re here at all. It’s just a little after four pm on a Wednesday and Umma and Appa should both be at the store. Not at home.

I thought I’d have more time before I’d have to face them today.

Their voices are quiet, muffled, coming from the direction of the kitchen. I stand real still by the door, listening, but I can’t hear what they’re saying from here. I move carefully down the hall, gripping the straps of my backpack with both hands, praying in my head. Don’t see me. Don’t see me.

Just as I’m about to pass the kitchen, Umma looks right up at me.

“Oh, Jordan, you’re home?” she says in Korean. She says it all casual like she’s here every day when I get home from school, like I’m not the one who should be saying,

“Oh, Umma, you’re home?”

“Yeah,” I say back in English. A nervous feeling starts to spread through my stomach.

My prayer changes. Don’t ask me how school was. Don’t make me lie to you.

By some miracle, she doesn’t. She just smiles and nods, turning back to Appa to carry on talking about whatever they were talking about, the air kind of tense and tight between them.

Huh. That’s weird. Umma always asks how school was. It’s pretty much her favorite question. Not to mention, I still don’t know what they’re both doing home so early. I linger by the door, wondering whether I should ask or not. But the more questions I ask them, the more questions they might ask me. And I want to avoid that for as long as possible.

Not that Appa would ask me anything, though. This whole time, he hasn’t even looked at me once. I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed.

It’s been this way between us for weeks, ever since our Big Fight. Things haven’t been the same since then. It’s like time split into a Before and After. Before: when I was just Jordan and he was just Appa, and I didn’t think twice about being in the same room together. After: when we’re not just Jordan and Appa anymore. We’re Jordan Who Doesn’t Know What to Say Around Appa, and Appa Who Basically Completely Ignores Jordan. He’s been so cold to me lately. Ice cold.

Maybe he’s waiting for me to say sorry first, but there’s no way I’m going to do that.

Maybe this means we’ll never talk again until the end of time. Maybe not even then.

I stare at the back of his head for a second longer and then I walk away.

Harabeoji’s in the living room, watching TV and eating ojingeo off a plate. At least grandparents are dependable. Always where you think they’ll be, sitting on the couch wearing a fishing vest with a hundred pockets even though you can’t remember the last time you’ve ever actually seen them go fishing, a piece of dried squid between their teeth. At least, that’s my grandpa. I don’t really know about anyone else’s grandparents.

“Hi, Harabeoji, I’m home,” I say, dropping my backpack on the floor and sitting down next to it.

He grunts, not looking up from the TV. He’s watching some sitcom I don’t recognize— his favorites are usually Full House and Home Improvement— the light reflecting off his huge rectangular glasses. Harabeoji’s not much of a talker, except when it comes to yelling at fictional characters on the screen. I don’t even know if he knows what’s going on. It’s been nine years since we immigrated to Los Angeles from Korea all together and I’m still not sure how much English he understands.

He didn’t want to come with us at first. To America, that is. He wanted to stay in Korea in the same house where he and my grandma had lived together for years, saying he wanted to die in the same room she did. But Appa said it would be the best thing for all of us, and that he wasn’t going to leave his own father behind. He eventually convinced Harabeoji to pack up his life and get on the plane with us, though I remember Harabeoji being unhappy about it. At least he’s found some joy in these American shows. I think he finds them funny.

Excerpted from Troublemaker by John Cho. Copyright © 2022. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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