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Not Your Average Jo

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From the author of THE NOH FAMILY, a second standalone YA novel that follows a Korean American teen as she navigates the treacherous world of nepo babies and cultural appropriation that is the Los Angeles music scene. Perfect for fans of Mary H. K. Choi, Maurene Goo, and Emiko Jean.

Riley Jo is a teenager who knows what she wants. Born and raised in Bentonville, Arkansas, this Korean American girl has her sights set on being a musician. So when her parents are surprisingly cool about her attending the prestigious Los Angeles–based arts-focused boarding school her senior year of high school, she jumps at the chance. This is her moment to make her indie rock dreams a reality! 

Things at Carlmont Academy start out strong: She joins a band, and they set out to make plans to perform at the annual spring concert—with a chance to land a record contract. Another student, Xander, decides his school project will be a documentary about the band leading up to their first show. But not everything goes how Riley Jo imagined. She is soon sidelined when her other bandmates feel she is "too Asian" to be their lead singer, and they choose her classmate Bodhi Collins for the role instead.

Bodhi is rock music royalty, with a dad who is a famous music exec. And he's got the "all-American rock star look." Her classmates suggest she try making K-pop,  but her heart is in indie rock. Riley Jo decides to take matters into her own hands and writes an original song to showcase her talent. But Bodhi takes the credit . . . and given his connections, the band lets him.

Xander captures all of this in his film, which he leaks in order to show the truth behind the band. Riley Jo decides to sign up for the spring concert and perform on her own . . . but will she finally be able to take center stage?
© n/a
Grace K. Shim lives with her husband and three children in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of the young adult novels The Noh Family and Not Your Average Jo. You can find Grace on Twitter/X @gracemisplaced1 and on Instagram @gkshimwrites. View titles by Grace K. Shim
ONE
When you’re an Asian American in an area where there aren’t many Asian Americans, there’s a cultural expectation people have of you that is clear from day one. You become the resident expert on all things Asian, whether you like it or not—­whether you’re qualified or not.
Can you tell me what this says? (Points to random Chinese word.) Bro, not every Asian is Chinese.
Oh, you’re Korean? I love K-­pop/K-­drama/K-­beauty. Um, you’re welcome?
Riley Jo? Are you sure “Jo” is a Korean last name? Because I’ve never heard of it before. Well, then, it must be a mistake. I’ll tell my parents, and the Korean Ministry of Last Names, that you, random white lady from Arkansas, are right and they are wrong.
Where are you fr—­ Nope!
Bentonville, Arkansas, is the only home I’ve ever known. And yet “at home” is not quite how I feel here. The way I have to convince people I’m from this city/state/country is like a form of verbal MMA I don’t have the stamina for. I gave up trying to explain myself after the first few—­I don’t know—­hundred times, when I began to sound like a broken record.
I mean, if you think about it, it’s kind of like a pickle. (Just hear me out.) Pickles are made by submerging a cucumber in a container filled with saltwater brine or vinegar. The process doesn’t happen in an instant. It takes time for the briny water to infuse the cucumber, changing its texture, flavor, and even appearance. And then, when it’s finally ready for consumption and it’s sliced up for hamburgers or speared for sandwiches, does anyone consider it a cucumber anymore? Of course not. Because it’s had a completely different environment—­a completely different life—­that changed the cucumber into something else entirely.
Anyway, my point is, no matter how many times I tell people I’m a pickle, all they see is a cucumber.
For the record, the pickle doesn’t count as a vegetable serving because it’s too salty—­also relatable.
To be fair, no one I’ve encountered in Bentonville, Arkansas, is mean-­spirited or belittling. It’s not like anyone here is telling me to “go back to my country” or calling me any variation of the C-­word (chink, ching-­chong, and, more recently, China virus). It’s the kind of microaggressions derived from a type of lazy curiosity that should be their issue to deal with. And yet somehow the problem inevitably becomes mine.
If I don’t meet people’s cultural expectations of who they think I am, they start backing away like I’m someone to be wary of. Because if they can’t place me, then I—­all five feet, two inches of me—­must be evil. I’m seriously lol-­ing at that because aside from my mildly lethal form of snark expressed in the most subtle way (a contradiction if there ever was one), I am a classic eldest child, and as such, I am biologically incapable of doing anything that goes against the grain. As far as I know, I’m the farthest thing from evil. I’m the polysynthetic fluff inside a Squishmallow. I’m a friggin’ PEEPS Marshmallow.
If people here don’t understand me by now, they never will. So, instead, I choose passive-­aggressivism. I’ll show you, random cashier-­dude at the deli who assumed English wasn’t my first language. I’ll speak the most unaccented English in my very outdoor voice inside this teeny tiny convenience store just to prove my point. If people think I’m supposed to like K-­pop, I’ll go out of my way to show them there are other genres of music I like/play/listen to. If they think I’m supposed to be friends with the other Asian kids at school, I’ll steer so clear of them it’s like I don’t even know they exist.
But that’s where my plan sort of backfired. Without interest in football or pep rallies, I didn’t have many options for friends. Because that’s Bentonville High School in a nutshell: one big sports arena with way too many chants about winning/dominating/defeating.
I started playing the guitar to avoid having to join a sports team. But it didn’t take much to realize I had a natural knack for it. One chord, and I was sold. I discovered I could play back tunes I’d heard only once or twice. Somehow, chord progressions made more sense to me than conversations with my classmates.
My instructor (aka the internet) showed me a list of songs every guitarist should know—­the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge,” one of the most performed songs ever; Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” one of the best beginner songs for guitarists; Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” another great starter piece to learn easy riffs and basic song structure; and so on. In a matter of months, I could play anything from James Taylor to Taylor Swift.
Then, by the middle of my freshman year, just when I was finding my rhythm with my music, something happened that changed everyone’s lives: The Pandemic.
I tried the virtual hangout thing for a hot second, played a few rounds of Among Us or, as my sister, Elise, likes to call it, Amongous like Humongous. Probably the most entertaining thing about the game to be honest. Because sussing people out felt even more uncomfortable online than it did in person. I felt like the imposter every time without even being the imposter. Anytime I’d get down on myself, mourning what few acquaintances I’d had (RIP social life), I’d turn on the TV and be reminded that people all around the world were losing their actual lives, which shut me up pretty quickly. I should consider myself lucky. And besides my health, I still had my guitar. With it, I never felt lonely. In fact, while we were on lockdown, when music was all I had, I was the most myself I’d been in my life. Which is something I don’t admit out loud, since I don’t want to be insensitive to others who suffered mentally/physically/emotionally during the pandemic. 
By the time people started reemerging from their homes to go back to work/school/stores, music had become my everything—­­my friend, my safe space, my family even. It’s now the only way I know how to express myself, the only place I don’t have to explain myself. And as long as I have it, to quote Metallica, “nothing else matters.”
The plan was to get out of Bentonville right after graduation. I had my eye on a few small liberal arts colleges—­Wesleyan, St. Olaf, Luther. Not only do they have established and reputable music programs, but they are out of state. It was during my college search that I discovered Carlmont Academy, a boarding high school for the arts. I was looking for a way out of Bentonville after high school. The possibility of leaving even sooner had never entered my mind. It was the perfect plan.
“Boarding school?” Mom wrinkled her nose. “Why would you leave for high school when you already go to a perfectly good one here?”
Okay, maybe not the perfect plan, depending on who you asked.
My mom is a second-­generation Korean American who grew up in Little Rock and is a professor of pharmacology at Bentonville U. Her whole life, she never lived outside of Arkansas. And, as far as I could tell, it’s what she expected of me.
“Besides,” she went on, “you have so much to look forward to here.” Without saying it, I knew exactly what she was referring to. Children of faculty members at Bentonville U are given a free ride at the four-­year college, pending admission, of course. It’s a privilege I have a hard time seeing as one. Four more years of this? I may not know what I want to do in the future, but I know what I don’t want to do: stay in Bentonville.
My dad moved here from Korea to attend college, and I thought I’d have a better chance convincing him to let me go to Carlmont, since he’s a bit of a dreamer himself and knows firsthand what it’s like to want something so badly you’d move halfway across the world for it. But then again, my dad came to the US on a mathematics scholarship. And as much of a dreamer as he is, he wasn’t about to send me on a whim to a school without some kind of guaranteed investment in my future.
“Tuition is a lot at Carlmont, even if it’s only one year,” Dad said, noticing the due date to apply for scholarships had already passed. “With college right around the corner, we don’t have that kind of money to spend, even if it’s a good opportunity.”
I could see where this was going. Mom had already been dropping hints that liberal arts colleges came with a premium price tag. That didn’t include the costs of flights to Connecticut or Minnesota or Iowa.
“It says on the website that there aren’t many openings for juniors and seniors.” Dad frowned at his computer screen.
“What if you don’t get in? Are you sure you want to put yourself through that kind of disappointment?” Mom raised an eyebrow.
But that was just it—­if I didn’t get into Carlmont, I’d be no worse off than I was already. I had nothing to lose by applying. So I offered something without thinking it entirely through.
“I’ll agree to go to Bentonville University after graduation if you let me go to Carlmont for my senior year of high school,” I said.
I’m not sure if it was the four years of free college tuition or my sheer determination that did it, but they agreed to the deal. Now all I had to do was apply.
APPLICATION TO CARLMONT ACADEMY:
1. Tell us about yourself.
The first question on the application, and I was already stumped. If I answered truthfully, I’d ruin my chances of getting into Carlmont. Because if I’m being honest, I’m a Nobody.
The thing is, I’m actually good at writing. Something I get from my dad. He writes poetry, or he used to. And like with songwriting, there’s a certain freedom there that I understand. It’s permission to color outside the lines, to write in incomplete sentences, a string of thoughts and emotions like a constant stream of consciousness.
After staring at the blank screen for way too long, my vision blurred. I drifted to a familiar coping mechanism: writing in verse. 
Some people talk
Some people write
I need to play
That’s how I convey
The feelings inside, the emptiness subsides
When I started to get on a roll, I completed the thoughts into sentences:
When people ask me about myself, it’s not always easy to come up with an answer. Mostly because I can tell they don’t want to hear the actual answer, but rather a confirmation of what they suspect of me. That I am the type of Asian they’re familiar with from TV or movies, or the ones who sing the songs they sing along with on the radio or their playlists. The truth is, I’m more like everyone else here than they think: an average American teenager, born and raised in Bentonville, Arkansas, with hopes and dreams similar to theirs—­to be liked, to be understood, to feel seen. But no matter how much I explain or try to, the words are lost. Instead, I write my thoughts down, hearing them as a melody. Some people like to talk their feelings out with a friend or write them down in a journal. What I discovered about myself during the pandemic is that I need to play them. Today I write songs that convey who I am.
For the audition piece, I’d had to submit two songs. One had to be a straightforward performance of a known song. I chose to play “Blackbird” by the Beatles. Not only is it a super-­recognizable song that plays beautifully on acoustic, but it’s got a melody that is impossible not to smile at when played well, which I knew I could do. The other audition piece I could take more creative liberties on. By the time I’d finished the written portion of the application, I already had a song in my head, which helped me get it started. So I played that as my second piece. It might seem reckless to submit something like this on the fly, but sometimes a song hits you and you know it’s worth taking a chance on. So I clicked submit as soon as the file uploaded.
It wasn’t until I got my acceptance letter a month later that it hit me what I’d agreed to. In exchange for one year at Carlmont, I’d agreed to four more years at Bentonville.
I must really be a pickle, because somehow I’d gotten myself into the biggest one ever. At least I’d have a whole year to find a way to get out of it.

TWO
It’s my last night before going to LA, and we’re eating my favorite: spaghetti marinara. Just kidding—­it’s my younger sister Elise’s favorite.
My favorite is mac-­and-­cheese grilled cheese, if anyone cares. Which is exactly what it sounds like—­a mound of creamy mac and cheese smooshed between two buttery slices of bread with an extra layer of cheese for good measure. If you haven’t tried it, you haven’t lived. And before anyone can food-­shame me, I’m aware of its high fat/calorie/cholesterol content. Just let me carb in peace.
As soon as dinner’s ready, Elise and I join Mom at the table. Dad joins us a second later, setting down a bowl of pickles. We pile pasta on our plates and a generous helping of marinara sauce, and each of us takes turns grabbing a pickle spear from the bowl. For the next few minutes, manners go out the door. It’s all slurping and crunching.
“What if you don’t like the food at Crapville?” Elise asks with her mouth full.
We laugh. She’s got sauce all over her face, which makes it even more hilarious.
“It’s Carlmont,” I correct Elise. “And I’m pretty sure they’ll have spaghetti.”
“Yeah, well. They probably won’t have it with this.” Elise waves her fork-­pierced pickle at me.
“That’s true. I mean, spaghetti and pickles?” Honestly, if I wasn’t used to it, I’d probably think it was one of those every-­flavor-­under-­the-­sun jelly beans but, like, the really bad ones. Probably not worse than Dead Fish, but definitely not better than Liver & Onions, which are actual flavors. Anyway, my point is, it’s not bad . . . once you get used to it.
“What’s wrong with it? It’s a Jo family delicacy,” Dad says, slurping up a forkful of spaghetti, then taking a bite of pickle.
“Come on, Dad. Be real. It’s weird,” I say.
He shrugs as if to say, Maybe.
“Don’t yuck his yum,” Elise says. Of all the Elise-­isms, I like this one best.
“It’s my yum too,” I reassure Elise. “How’d you come up with this ‘delicacy’?” I ask Dad.
“I don’t think I know this story either,” Mom says, leaning in. She and Dad met at the University of Arkansas when she was a freshman and he was a senior. Mom jokes that he wasn’t a FOB—­fresh off the boat, that is—­by then anymore. When she met him, he was just an OB.
Dad clears his throat, wipes his mouth, and we all lean in like he’s finally going to tell us the great family secret.
“When I first came here, I was homesick for kimchi.”
Elise and I share a look.
“Not, like, your family or your home?” I ask.
“Or pets or stuffed animals?” Elise adds. Because of course.
Dad shakes his head. “I found on Google the closest Korean restaurant. Back then, there weren’t that many Asian things around us, so I had to go to Little Rock. I brought back the smallest jar of kimchi to my dormitory and put it in the minifridge I shared with my roommate. Guess he didn’t like the smell too much, so he told me to get rid of it, and I did.”
My brows quirk, wondering if there’s more. There isn’t. “That’s it?”
Dad nods. “I found a substitute.” He takes a crunchy bite of his pickle. “It’s not the same, but close enough.”
The story’s pretty underwhelming, considering Dad had to replace something that felt like home to him. He doesn’t seem to mind, though. In fact, he seems happy about it. So I won’t yuck his yum, and I smile along with the rest of them even though it makes me kinda sad.
After we finish eating, my parents hand both me and Elise rectangular boxes wrapped in brown paper. I rip open mine.
“A phone?! Thank you!” I’m probably the last person at my school to not have a phone. I have one of those watch thingies that call five numbers. I only need three. Guess I never cared, and my parents didn’t think it was worth getting me a phone until now, which is fair.
“Just remember to call us often, okay?” Mom says.
“Of course I will,” I say, hugging my parents.
Elise opens her present. It’s . . . also a phone?
“Thank you thank you thank you!” Elise is jumping up and down, shrieking with delight.
I deflate. Now the brand-­new phone looks less shiny in my hand.
It’s sort of the deal with firstborns, isn’t it? Not only do I have to be the responsible one, but I get to watch my younger, arguably less responsible sibling reap the benefits. I try but fail to pretend it doesn’t irritate me that my eleven-­year-­old sister gets a phone at the same time I do. I’m about to say something about the unfairness of it all when my mom beats me to it.
“Now you can call each other anytime you want,” she says.
Elise races over to me, hugging me so tight, the air squeezes right out of my lungs. “I’m going to call you every day so it won’t feel like we’re so far apart.”
Resentment melts away like dirt on a rainy day. See, this is the thing about Elise. She’s so completely clueless and lovable that I can’t be the slightest bit resentful toward her. I hug her back.
When I look at Elise, I see myself. Smiley eyes, high cheekbones, and unruly hair that has an insane amount of what my dad calls personality. (Let’s be real. It’s frizz.) We could pass for twins if we were closer in age. Except our looks are where our similarities end. The second she opens her mouth, you know she and I are as different as they come. For one, she’s completely random and talks nonstop. And two, she’s got this rare optimism that comes from nowhere. Actually, I know where it comes from: my dad. They both see the world as half-­full while my mom and I see it as half-­empty. Maybe that’s why we seem to butt heads when it comes to my future.
“I still can’t believe you got in,” my mom says, wiping her mouth with a napkin.
I would understand her disbelief if this were the first, second, or even third day after I received my acceptance letter. After about the tenth or eleventh time, though, it started to feel insulting.
“Well, believe it. Ya girl is LA-­bound.” I do a happy dance. Elise joins in with me, then abruptly stops.
“Wait, why am I celebrating? Tomorrow you’ll be leaving us.” She pouts.
“Not forever. Just for a year. It’ll be over before you know it.” Mom smiles at Elise, booping her on the nose.
I get the feeling that Mom thinks music is a phase. That one year is all I’ll need to “get it out of my system.” Naively, I thought going to Carlmont would show my mom the opposite. Guess it’s part of our dynamic. We’re either on the same page or we’re not. There’s no in-­between.
The thing is, music is more than just a phase. I just don’t know how to explain it to her. Because how can you put into words what it feels like to breathe or walk? Or to sleep or dream? Because these are things you do without thinking. Things that are natural and essential to living. Which is what music is to me.

FROM THE CARLMONT WEBSITE

VISUAL
AUDIO
Text on-screen: A Day in the Life of a Monty Episode One: Your First Day 
Wide shot of Dr. Warren Buckley sitting on the ledge of the water fountain on the Carlmont campus. 

Text on lower third: 
Dr. Warren Buckley, Headmaster of Carlmont Academy
Hello, I’m Dr. Warren Buckley. I’ve been the headmaster at Carlmont Academy for almost twenty-­five years now. Carlmont Academy is a ninth-­ through twelfth-­grade high school with a strong focus on the arts. We pride ourselves on a low student-­to-­teacher ratio and quality instruction with advisors who have had firsthand experience in the industry. The largest enrollment is for our incoming freshman class, with only a few acceptances for our junior and senior years, as there are limited spaces and a high volume of applicants each year.
As part of our ongoing emphasis on creativity and ingenuity, we encourage students to take leadership and initiative in their pursuits. This year, it’s my pleasure to introduce A Day in the Life of a Monty, a new web series developed by a Carlmont student in our world-­class documentary program.
Drone shot of Carlmont main campus: 

Aerial lush hills with scattered terra-cotta roof buildings and a tall bell tower in the background.
Dr. Warren Buckley voice-over:
Congratulations. You’ve made it to Carlmont Academy. Here’s what to expect on your first day.
Tracking/gimbal shot entering the gates of Carlmont, past the security guard, and up through the campus.
Dr. Warren Buckley voice-over: 
We have one main entrance that is gated and guarded twenty-­four hours a day. The safety of our students here at Carlmont is our number-­one priority.
Once you arrive, show the guard your student ID card that you should have received with your welcome packet. After you enter the gates, follow the long, windy road until you reach an intersection. To the right are the administration buildings and main campus, and on the left are the dormitories.
Footage of boys’ dormitory: 

A U-shaped building with an outdoor courtyard in the middle for recreational socializing. 
Dr. Warren Buckley voice-over: 
The boys’ dorms are located on the northwest side of the campus.
Footage of girls’ dormitory: 

A two-story building with a lawn and benches scattered in front.
Dr. Warren Buckley voice-over: 
And the girls’ dorms are located on the northeast side of the campus.
Animated PNG of welcome letter.
Dr. Warren Buckley voice-over:  
You should receive your room assignment, door code, and map of the campus prior to your arrival. Roommates are assigned closer to move-­in day, so you’ll find that information after you arrive.
Footage of dining hall.

Tall arched ceilings with chandeliers hanging over rows of wooden tables.
Dr. Warren Buckley voice-over:
Meals are served throughout the day in the main dining hall.
Footage of students selling snack items behind a counter in the student union. 
Dr. Warren Buckley voice-over:  
There’s also a snack shack in the student union that stays open until study hours, then reopens for the hour of recreation time before lights out.
Animated PNG of skull flashing.
Dr. Warren Buckley voice-over: 
We take education here very seriously. In addition to two hours in the evening between seven and nine, the library, tech rooms, and sound booths are open throughout the day. The staff is also available around the clock and offer office hours for those who request additional help.
Wide shot of Dr. Warren Buckley.
We hope you enjoyed the first episode of A Day in the Life of a Monty. Stay tuned for our next one, when we talk all things arts programs.
Text on-screen:
Producer: Xander McNeil
Praise for Not Your Average Jo By Grace K. Shim:

This enjoyable coming-of-age story explores a number of powerful themes connected to the music industry, nepotism, race, discrimination, and speaking up against prejudice...A compelling, music-centered story of self-discovery and finding your voice. -- Kirkus Reviews

"
The light tone and happy conclusion make this a good choice for younger teens who enjoy themes of being true to yourself, finding your voice, and changing the entertainment industry in the process." --- Booklist

About

From the author of THE NOH FAMILY, a second standalone YA novel that follows a Korean American teen as she navigates the treacherous world of nepo babies and cultural appropriation that is the Los Angeles music scene. Perfect for fans of Mary H. K. Choi, Maurene Goo, and Emiko Jean.

Riley Jo is a teenager who knows what she wants. Born and raised in Bentonville, Arkansas, this Korean American girl has her sights set on being a musician. So when her parents are surprisingly cool about her attending the prestigious Los Angeles–based arts-focused boarding school her senior year of high school, she jumps at the chance. This is her moment to make her indie rock dreams a reality! 

Things at Carlmont Academy start out strong: She joins a band, and they set out to make plans to perform at the annual spring concert—with a chance to land a record contract. Another student, Xander, decides his school project will be a documentary about the band leading up to their first show. But not everything goes how Riley Jo imagined. She is soon sidelined when her other bandmates feel she is "too Asian" to be their lead singer, and they choose her classmate Bodhi Collins for the role instead.

Bodhi is rock music royalty, with a dad who is a famous music exec. And he's got the "all-American rock star look." Her classmates suggest she try making K-pop,  but her heart is in indie rock. Riley Jo decides to take matters into her own hands and writes an original song to showcase her talent. But Bodhi takes the credit . . . and given his connections, the band lets him.

Xander captures all of this in his film, which he leaks in order to show the truth behind the band. Riley Jo decides to sign up for the spring concert and perform on her own . . . but will she finally be able to take center stage?

Author

© n/a
Grace K. Shim lives with her husband and three children in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of the young adult novels The Noh Family and Not Your Average Jo. You can find Grace on Twitter/X @gracemisplaced1 and on Instagram @gkshimwrites. View titles by Grace K. Shim

Excerpt

ONE
When you’re an Asian American in an area where there aren’t many Asian Americans, there’s a cultural expectation people have of you that is clear from day one. You become the resident expert on all things Asian, whether you like it or not—­whether you’re qualified or not.
Can you tell me what this says? (Points to random Chinese word.) Bro, not every Asian is Chinese.
Oh, you’re Korean? I love K-­pop/K-­drama/K-­beauty. Um, you’re welcome?
Riley Jo? Are you sure “Jo” is a Korean last name? Because I’ve never heard of it before. Well, then, it must be a mistake. I’ll tell my parents, and the Korean Ministry of Last Names, that you, random white lady from Arkansas, are right and they are wrong.
Where are you fr—­ Nope!
Bentonville, Arkansas, is the only home I’ve ever known. And yet “at home” is not quite how I feel here. The way I have to convince people I’m from this city/state/country is like a form of verbal MMA I don’t have the stamina for. I gave up trying to explain myself after the first few—­I don’t know—­hundred times, when I began to sound like a broken record.
I mean, if you think about it, it’s kind of like a pickle. (Just hear me out.) Pickles are made by submerging a cucumber in a container filled with saltwater brine or vinegar. The process doesn’t happen in an instant. It takes time for the briny water to infuse the cucumber, changing its texture, flavor, and even appearance. And then, when it’s finally ready for consumption and it’s sliced up for hamburgers or speared for sandwiches, does anyone consider it a cucumber anymore? Of course not. Because it’s had a completely different environment—­a completely different life—­that changed the cucumber into something else entirely.
Anyway, my point is, no matter how many times I tell people I’m a pickle, all they see is a cucumber.
For the record, the pickle doesn’t count as a vegetable serving because it’s too salty—­also relatable.
To be fair, no one I’ve encountered in Bentonville, Arkansas, is mean-­spirited or belittling. It’s not like anyone here is telling me to “go back to my country” or calling me any variation of the C-­word (chink, ching-­chong, and, more recently, China virus). It’s the kind of microaggressions derived from a type of lazy curiosity that should be their issue to deal with. And yet somehow the problem inevitably becomes mine.
If I don’t meet people’s cultural expectations of who they think I am, they start backing away like I’m someone to be wary of. Because if they can’t place me, then I—­all five feet, two inches of me—­must be evil. I’m seriously lol-­ing at that because aside from my mildly lethal form of snark expressed in the most subtle way (a contradiction if there ever was one), I am a classic eldest child, and as such, I am biologically incapable of doing anything that goes against the grain. As far as I know, I’m the farthest thing from evil. I’m the polysynthetic fluff inside a Squishmallow. I’m a friggin’ PEEPS Marshmallow.
If people here don’t understand me by now, they never will. So, instead, I choose passive-­aggressivism. I’ll show you, random cashier-­dude at the deli who assumed English wasn’t my first language. I’ll speak the most unaccented English in my very outdoor voice inside this teeny tiny convenience store just to prove my point. If people think I’m supposed to like K-­pop, I’ll go out of my way to show them there are other genres of music I like/play/listen to. If they think I’m supposed to be friends with the other Asian kids at school, I’ll steer so clear of them it’s like I don’t even know they exist.
But that’s where my plan sort of backfired. Without interest in football or pep rallies, I didn’t have many options for friends. Because that’s Bentonville High School in a nutshell: one big sports arena with way too many chants about winning/dominating/defeating.
I started playing the guitar to avoid having to join a sports team. But it didn’t take much to realize I had a natural knack for it. One chord, and I was sold. I discovered I could play back tunes I’d heard only once or twice. Somehow, chord progressions made more sense to me than conversations with my classmates.
My instructor (aka the internet) showed me a list of songs every guitarist should know—­the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge,” one of the most performed songs ever; Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” one of the best beginner songs for guitarists; Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” another great starter piece to learn easy riffs and basic song structure; and so on. In a matter of months, I could play anything from James Taylor to Taylor Swift.
Then, by the middle of my freshman year, just when I was finding my rhythm with my music, something happened that changed everyone’s lives: The Pandemic.
I tried the virtual hangout thing for a hot second, played a few rounds of Among Us or, as my sister, Elise, likes to call it, Amongous like Humongous. Probably the most entertaining thing about the game to be honest. Because sussing people out felt even more uncomfortable online than it did in person. I felt like the imposter every time without even being the imposter. Anytime I’d get down on myself, mourning what few acquaintances I’d had (RIP social life), I’d turn on the TV and be reminded that people all around the world were losing their actual lives, which shut me up pretty quickly. I should consider myself lucky. And besides my health, I still had my guitar. With it, I never felt lonely. In fact, while we were on lockdown, when music was all I had, I was the most myself I’d been in my life. Which is something I don’t admit out loud, since I don’t want to be insensitive to others who suffered mentally/physically/emotionally during the pandemic. 
By the time people started reemerging from their homes to go back to work/school/stores, music had become my everything—­­my friend, my safe space, my family even. It’s now the only way I know how to express myself, the only place I don’t have to explain myself. And as long as I have it, to quote Metallica, “nothing else matters.”
The plan was to get out of Bentonville right after graduation. I had my eye on a few small liberal arts colleges—­Wesleyan, St. Olaf, Luther. Not only do they have established and reputable music programs, but they are out of state. It was during my college search that I discovered Carlmont Academy, a boarding high school for the arts. I was looking for a way out of Bentonville after high school. The possibility of leaving even sooner had never entered my mind. It was the perfect plan.
“Boarding school?” Mom wrinkled her nose. “Why would you leave for high school when you already go to a perfectly good one here?”
Okay, maybe not the perfect plan, depending on who you asked.
My mom is a second-­generation Korean American who grew up in Little Rock and is a professor of pharmacology at Bentonville U. Her whole life, she never lived outside of Arkansas. And, as far as I could tell, it’s what she expected of me.
“Besides,” she went on, “you have so much to look forward to here.” Without saying it, I knew exactly what she was referring to. Children of faculty members at Bentonville U are given a free ride at the four-­year college, pending admission, of course. It’s a privilege I have a hard time seeing as one. Four more years of this? I may not know what I want to do in the future, but I know what I don’t want to do: stay in Bentonville.
My dad moved here from Korea to attend college, and I thought I’d have a better chance convincing him to let me go to Carlmont, since he’s a bit of a dreamer himself and knows firsthand what it’s like to want something so badly you’d move halfway across the world for it. But then again, my dad came to the US on a mathematics scholarship. And as much of a dreamer as he is, he wasn’t about to send me on a whim to a school without some kind of guaranteed investment in my future.
“Tuition is a lot at Carlmont, even if it’s only one year,” Dad said, noticing the due date to apply for scholarships had already passed. “With college right around the corner, we don’t have that kind of money to spend, even if it’s a good opportunity.”
I could see where this was going. Mom had already been dropping hints that liberal arts colleges came with a premium price tag. That didn’t include the costs of flights to Connecticut or Minnesota or Iowa.
“It says on the website that there aren’t many openings for juniors and seniors.” Dad frowned at his computer screen.
“What if you don’t get in? Are you sure you want to put yourself through that kind of disappointment?” Mom raised an eyebrow.
But that was just it—­if I didn’t get into Carlmont, I’d be no worse off than I was already. I had nothing to lose by applying. So I offered something without thinking it entirely through.
“I’ll agree to go to Bentonville University after graduation if you let me go to Carlmont for my senior year of high school,” I said.
I’m not sure if it was the four years of free college tuition or my sheer determination that did it, but they agreed to the deal. Now all I had to do was apply.
APPLICATION TO CARLMONT ACADEMY:
1. Tell us about yourself.
The first question on the application, and I was already stumped. If I answered truthfully, I’d ruin my chances of getting into Carlmont. Because if I’m being honest, I’m a Nobody.
The thing is, I’m actually good at writing. Something I get from my dad. He writes poetry, or he used to. And like with songwriting, there’s a certain freedom there that I understand. It’s permission to color outside the lines, to write in incomplete sentences, a string of thoughts and emotions like a constant stream of consciousness.
After staring at the blank screen for way too long, my vision blurred. I drifted to a familiar coping mechanism: writing in verse. 
Some people talk
Some people write
I need to play
That’s how I convey
The feelings inside, the emptiness subsides
When I started to get on a roll, I completed the thoughts into sentences:
When people ask me about myself, it’s not always easy to come up with an answer. Mostly because I can tell they don’t want to hear the actual answer, but rather a confirmation of what they suspect of me. That I am the type of Asian they’re familiar with from TV or movies, or the ones who sing the songs they sing along with on the radio or their playlists. The truth is, I’m more like everyone else here than they think: an average American teenager, born and raised in Bentonville, Arkansas, with hopes and dreams similar to theirs—­to be liked, to be understood, to feel seen. But no matter how much I explain or try to, the words are lost. Instead, I write my thoughts down, hearing them as a melody. Some people like to talk their feelings out with a friend or write them down in a journal. What I discovered about myself during the pandemic is that I need to play them. Today I write songs that convey who I am.
For the audition piece, I’d had to submit two songs. One had to be a straightforward performance of a known song. I chose to play “Blackbird” by the Beatles. Not only is it a super-­recognizable song that plays beautifully on acoustic, but it’s got a melody that is impossible not to smile at when played well, which I knew I could do. The other audition piece I could take more creative liberties on. By the time I’d finished the written portion of the application, I already had a song in my head, which helped me get it started. So I played that as my second piece. It might seem reckless to submit something like this on the fly, but sometimes a song hits you and you know it’s worth taking a chance on. So I clicked submit as soon as the file uploaded.
It wasn’t until I got my acceptance letter a month later that it hit me what I’d agreed to. In exchange for one year at Carlmont, I’d agreed to four more years at Bentonville.
I must really be a pickle, because somehow I’d gotten myself into the biggest one ever. At least I’d have a whole year to find a way to get out of it.

TWO
It’s my last night before going to LA, and we’re eating my favorite: spaghetti marinara. Just kidding—­it’s my younger sister Elise’s favorite.
My favorite is mac-­and-­cheese grilled cheese, if anyone cares. Which is exactly what it sounds like—­a mound of creamy mac and cheese smooshed between two buttery slices of bread with an extra layer of cheese for good measure. If you haven’t tried it, you haven’t lived. And before anyone can food-­shame me, I’m aware of its high fat/calorie/cholesterol content. Just let me carb in peace.
As soon as dinner’s ready, Elise and I join Mom at the table. Dad joins us a second later, setting down a bowl of pickles. We pile pasta on our plates and a generous helping of marinara sauce, and each of us takes turns grabbing a pickle spear from the bowl. For the next few minutes, manners go out the door. It’s all slurping and crunching.
“What if you don’t like the food at Crapville?” Elise asks with her mouth full.
We laugh. She’s got sauce all over her face, which makes it even more hilarious.
“It’s Carlmont,” I correct Elise. “And I’m pretty sure they’ll have spaghetti.”
“Yeah, well. They probably won’t have it with this.” Elise waves her fork-­pierced pickle at me.
“That’s true. I mean, spaghetti and pickles?” Honestly, if I wasn’t used to it, I’d probably think it was one of those every-­flavor-­under-­the-­sun jelly beans but, like, the really bad ones. Probably not worse than Dead Fish, but definitely not better than Liver & Onions, which are actual flavors. Anyway, my point is, it’s not bad . . . once you get used to it.
“What’s wrong with it? It’s a Jo family delicacy,” Dad says, slurping up a forkful of spaghetti, then taking a bite of pickle.
“Come on, Dad. Be real. It’s weird,” I say.
He shrugs as if to say, Maybe.
“Don’t yuck his yum,” Elise says. Of all the Elise-­isms, I like this one best.
“It’s my yum too,” I reassure Elise. “How’d you come up with this ‘delicacy’?” I ask Dad.
“I don’t think I know this story either,” Mom says, leaning in. She and Dad met at the University of Arkansas when she was a freshman and he was a senior. Mom jokes that he wasn’t a FOB—­fresh off the boat, that is—­by then anymore. When she met him, he was just an OB.
Dad clears his throat, wipes his mouth, and we all lean in like he’s finally going to tell us the great family secret.
“When I first came here, I was homesick for kimchi.”
Elise and I share a look.
“Not, like, your family or your home?” I ask.
“Or pets or stuffed animals?” Elise adds. Because of course.
Dad shakes his head. “I found on Google the closest Korean restaurant. Back then, there weren’t that many Asian things around us, so I had to go to Little Rock. I brought back the smallest jar of kimchi to my dormitory and put it in the minifridge I shared with my roommate. Guess he didn’t like the smell too much, so he told me to get rid of it, and I did.”
My brows quirk, wondering if there’s more. There isn’t. “That’s it?”
Dad nods. “I found a substitute.” He takes a crunchy bite of his pickle. “It’s not the same, but close enough.”
The story’s pretty underwhelming, considering Dad had to replace something that felt like home to him. He doesn’t seem to mind, though. In fact, he seems happy about it. So I won’t yuck his yum, and I smile along with the rest of them even though it makes me kinda sad.
After we finish eating, my parents hand both me and Elise rectangular boxes wrapped in brown paper. I rip open mine.
“A phone?! Thank you!” I’m probably the last person at my school to not have a phone. I have one of those watch thingies that call five numbers. I only need three. Guess I never cared, and my parents didn’t think it was worth getting me a phone until now, which is fair.
“Just remember to call us often, okay?” Mom says.
“Of course I will,” I say, hugging my parents.
Elise opens her present. It’s . . . also a phone?
“Thank you thank you thank you!” Elise is jumping up and down, shrieking with delight.
I deflate. Now the brand-­new phone looks less shiny in my hand.
It’s sort of the deal with firstborns, isn’t it? Not only do I have to be the responsible one, but I get to watch my younger, arguably less responsible sibling reap the benefits. I try but fail to pretend it doesn’t irritate me that my eleven-­year-­old sister gets a phone at the same time I do. I’m about to say something about the unfairness of it all when my mom beats me to it.
“Now you can call each other anytime you want,” she says.
Elise races over to me, hugging me so tight, the air squeezes right out of my lungs. “I’m going to call you every day so it won’t feel like we’re so far apart.”
Resentment melts away like dirt on a rainy day. See, this is the thing about Elise. She’s so completely clueless and lovable that I can’t be the slightest bit resentful toward her. I hug her back.
When I look at Elise, I see myself. Smiley eyes, high cheekbones, and unruly hair that has an insane amount of what my dad calls personality. (Let’s be real. It’s frizz.) We could pass for twins if we were closer in age. Except our looks are where our similarities end. The second she opens her mouth, you know she and I are as different as they come. For one, she’s completely random and talks nonstop. And two, she’s got this rare optimism that comes from nowhere. Actually, I know where it comes from: my dad. They both see the world as half-­full while my mom and I see it as half-­empty. Maybe that’s why we seem to butt heads when it comes to my future.
“I still can’t believe you got in,” my mom says, wiping her mouth with a napkin.
I would understand her disbelief if this were the first, second, or even third day after I received my acceptance letter. After about the tenth or eleventh time, though, it started to feel insulting.
“Well, believe it. Ya girl is LA-­bound.” I do a happy dance. Elise joins in with me, then abruptly stops.
“Wait, why am I celebrating? Tomorrow you’ll be leaving us.” She pouts.
“Not forever. Just for a year. It’ll be over before you know it.” Mom smiles at Elise, booping her on the nose.
I get the feeling that Mom thinks music is a phase. That one year is all I’ll need to “get it out of my system.” Naively, I thought going to Carlmont would show my mom the opposite. Guess it’s part of our dynamic. We’re either on the same page or we’re not. There’s no in-­between.
The thing is, music is more than just a phase. I just don’t know how to explain it to her. Because how can you put into words what it feels like to breathe or walk? Or to sleep or dream? Because these are things you do without thinking. Things that are natural and essential to living. Which is what music is to me.

FROM THE CARLMONT WEBSITE

VISUAL
AUDIO
Text on-screen: A Day in the Life of a Monty Episode One: Your First Day 
Wide shot of Dr. Warren Buckley sitting on the ledge of the water fountain on the Carlmont campus. 

Text on lower third: 
Dr. Warren Buckley, Headmaster of Carlmont Academy
Hello, I’m Dr. Warren Buckley. I’ve been the headmaster at Carlmont Academy for almost twenty-­five years now. Carlmont Academy is a ninth-­ through twelfth-­grade high school with a strong focus on the arts. We pride ourselves on a low student-­to-­teacher ratio and quality instruction with advisors who have had firsthand experience in the industry. The largest enrollment is for our incoming freshman class, with only a few acceptances for our junior and senior years, as there are limited spaces and a high volume of applicants each year.
As part of our ongoing emphasis on creativity and ingenuity, we encourage students to take leadership and initiative in their pursuits. This year, it’s my pleasure to introduce A Day in the Life of a Monty, a new web series developed by a Carlmont student in our world-­class documentary program.
Drone shot of Carlmont main campus: 

Aerial lush hills with scattered terra-cotta roof buildings and a tall bell tower in the background.
Dr. Warren Buckley voice-over:
Congratulations. You’ve made it to Carlmont Academy. Here’s what to expect on your first day.
Tracking/gimbal shot entering the gates of Carlmont, past the security guard, and up through the campus.
Dr. Warren Buckley voice-over: 
We have one main entrance that is gated and guarded twenty-­four hours a day. The safety of our students here at Carlmont is our number-­one priority.
Once you arrive, show the guard your student ID card that you should have received with your welcome packet. After you enter the gates, follow the long, windy road until you reach an intersection. To the right are the administration buildings and main campus, and on the left are the dormitories.
Footage of boys’ dormitory: 

A U-shaped building with an outdoor courtyard in the middle for recreational socializing. 
Dr. Warren Buckley voice-over: 
The boys’ dorms are located on the northwest side of the campus.
Footage of girls’ dormitory: 

A two-story building with a lawn and benches scattered in front.
Dr. Warren Buckley voice-over: 
And the girls’ dorms are located on the northeast side of the campus.
Animated PNG of welcome letter.
Dr. Warren Buckley voice-over:  
You should receive your room assignment, door code, and map of the campus prior to your arrival. Roommates are assigned closer to move-­in day, so you’ll find that information after you arrive.
Footage of dining hall.

Tall arched ceilings with chandeliers hanging over rows of wooden tables.
Dr. Warren Buckley voice-over:
Meals are served throughout the day in the main dining hall.
Footage of students selling snack items behind a counter in the student union. 
Dr. Warren Buckley voice-over:  
There’s also a snack shack in the student union that stays open until study hours, then reopens for the hour of recreation time before lights out.
Animated PNG of skull flashing.
Dr. Warren Buckley voice-over: 
We take education here very seriously. In addition to two hours in the evening between seven and nine, the library, tech rooms, and sound booths are open throughout the day. The staff is also available around the clock and offer office hours for those who request additional help.
Wide shot of Dr. Warren Buckley.
We hope you enjoyed the first episode of A Day in the Life of a Monty. Stay tuned for our next one, when we talk all things arts programs.
Text on-screen:
Producer: Xander McNeil

Praise

Praise for Not Your Average Jo By Grace K. Shim:

This enjoyable coming-of-age story explores a number of powerful themes connected to the music industry, nepotism, race, discrimination, and speaking up against prejudice...A compelling, music-centered story of self-discovery and finding your voice. -- Kirkus Reviews

"
The light tone and happy conclusion make this a good choice for younger teens who enjoy themes of being true to yourself, finding your voice, and changing the entertainment industry in the process." --- Booklist

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