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What's Eating Jackie Oh?

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A Korean American teen tries to balance her dream to become a chef with the cultural expectations of her family when she enters the competitive world of a TV cooking show. A hilarious and heartfelt YA novel from the award-winning author of Imposter Syndrome and Other Confessions of Alejandra Kim and Re Jane.

"Park’s novel delivers authentic characters who will make you laugh…and cry. Not to be missed!" --Ellen Oh, author of The Colliding Worlds of Mina Lee

Jackie Oh is done being your model minority.

She’s tired of perfect GPAs, PSATs, SATs, all of it. Jackie longs to become a professional chef. But her Korean American parents are Ivy League corporate workaholics who would never understand her dream. Just ask her brother, Justin, who hasn’t heard from them since he was sent to Rikers Island.

Jackie works at her grandparents’ Midtown Manhattan deli after school and practices French cooking techniques at night—when she should be studying. But the kitchen’s the only place Jackie is free from all the stresses eating at her—school, family, and the increasing violence targeting the Asian community.

Then the most unexpected thing happens: Jackie becomes a teen contestant on her favorite cooking show, Burn Off! Soon Jackie is thrown headfirst into a cutthroat TV world filled with showboating child actors, snarky judges, and gimmicky “gotcha!” challenges.

All Jackie wants to do is cook her way. But what is her way? In a novel that will make you laugh and cry, Jackie proves who she is both on and off the plate.

Patricia Park's hilarious and stunning What’s Eating Jackie Oh? explores the delicate balance of identity, ambition, and the cultural expectations to perform.
© Matthew Gilbertson
Patricia Park is a tenured professor of creative writing at American University, a Fulbright Scholar in Creative Arts, and a Jerome Hill Artist Fellow. Her debut YA novel, Imposter Syndrome and Other Confessions of Alejandra Kim, received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal and was an NPR Book of the Day. Her acclaimed adult novel Re Jane was named an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Book Review; the winner of an American Library Association award; an O, The Oprah Magazine pick; and an NPR Fresh Air pick, among other honors. What’s Eating Jackie Oh? is inspired byher love of watching competitive TV cooking shows and creating somewhat edible meals from leftovers. It was also inspired by Patricia’s New York Times op-ed, “I’m Done Being Your Model Minority.”Patricia’s writing has also appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Guardian, Salon, and others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York View titles by Patricia Park
Not Your Model Minority

I’m not one of those TI-­84 Plus, Princeton Review, Barron’s, Kaplan, Khan, Kumon, hagwon, AP-­everything Asian kids with the turtle backpacks crawling all over the 7 train. I used to be. But I’m done with all that.

I just haven’t told my parents yet.

Umma went to Bronx Science, like me, and Appa went to Stuyvesant. Unlike me, they were straight A students who went on to Harvard and Yale Law School (Umma), and Carnegie Mellon and Columbia Business School (Appa). That my dad’s not a double-­Ivy like my mom is kind of a sore spot, and even though he fronts like it isn’t, I can tell Appa’s still carrying that ginormous chip on his shoulder. But then again, Umma “only” went to Science instead of Stuy—­so I guess their “educational disparity” sort of evens out.

These are the things my parents care about. Potato, potahto.

They’d seriously lose it if they found out I was flunking out of Science.

***

Okay, “flunk” is a strong word. Really, I’m just barely passing one class, Global History (70%), and I’m doing “mediocre” (90.1%) in my other classes. My gripe with Global History is that there’s got to be more to life than memorizing pointless historical facts about someone else’s past, when—­shouldn’t I be concentrating on my future?

Also, Mr. Doumann keeps confusing me for Jennifer Oh, because to him we’re All the Same. Most of my teachers are “woke” or whatever, but Mr. D is a relic from the past—­not unlike the very subject he teaches. The DOE should just fire him already, but probably can’t (because tenure, teacher’s union, pension, etc.). I don’t tell Umma and Appa about Mr. Doumann because they’ll have no sympathy: Stop making excuses. Tough it out. The same things they used to tell my older brother (“Oppa” to me, Justin to the outside world).

For us Ohs, to be anything less than perfect means you’re already a failure. Just ask Oppa.

Back when I used to drink the model minority Kool-­Aid, I was all about the Ivy Leagues, too. I thought that was what you were supposed to do. The purpose of life was to study hard, get into Harvard/Princeton/Yale, land a corporate job with a sweet 401k, and make babies that would study hard, get into Harvard/Princeton/Yale, etc., and continue your whole miserable corporate life cycle.

My parents are workaholics, which they’d probably take as the compliment it isn’t. Things cost money is Appa’s favorite catchphrase. He works in private equity and has a closetful of suits that I’m constantly picking up and dropping off at the dry cleaners, and I only see his shadow darting into the apartment when he comes home from work, long after I’m already in bed.

Umma’s up for managing partner at Leviathan, White & Gross LLP. According to Appa, the promotion is hers to lose. “Your mom’s put in the ‘sweat equity,’ ” and the other candidate’s always blowing off work for—­Appa curls his fingers into sarcastic air quotes—­“self-­care days,” leaving Umma to pick up the slack. Umma’s never been more keyed up and stressed out about this potential promotion. Mostly I try to stay out of her way.

Study hard, get into an Ivy, land a corporate job, make babies. Repeat. These are the Oh Family Core Values.

In other words, it’s our American dream.

When I turned one year old, I grabbed a dollar bill and my fate was sealed—­I’d be financially successful for the rest of my life. Instead of all the other objects (fates) my infant self could have reached for during my doljabi ceremony: pencil (scholar), calculator (accountant), paintbrush (artist), golf ball (LPGA pro), iPhone (the next Steve Jobs), and so on.

“Pay up!” Halmoni, ever the hustler, had placed bets with her friends. “My granddaughter’s going to be rich!”

Apparently she told Haraboji to pay up, too. My grandfather fished for his wallet and grumbled, “알았어.” Fine/Got it/Capisce. (My Korean’s not great, so that’s my lost-­in-­translation translation.)

Haraboji had bet on the bowl of rice—­because he wanted me to never go hungry in life.

H&H are my bedrock. My grandparents basically raised me in the kitchen of Melty’s, their deli in Midtown. Apparently Umma took the bare-minimum maternity leave because it wasn’t a good look to take longer than that. She’d drop me off at Melty’s each morning on her way to the office. I’d cry and cry, and Halmoni would shush me: “Jackie-­ya, you want Umma lose her job? Then how she gonna pay your food? Toys? College? Be good girl, stop crying.”

Eventually, I learned to stop crying.

Eventually, I learned to stop depending on my mother at all.

As soon as I was old enough to hold a knife, I was put to work. Which I’m pretty sure is a DOH violation, as well as a Child Services one.

It’s the immigrant way.

Umma, whose idea of “cooking” is pressing a button to order delivery, insisted on negotiating my pay at Melty’s because “I’ll not have you repeat my exploited childhood in that kitchen.”

But I’d work at Melty’s for free. Cooking’s my passion. Which I know sounds like some BS you’d write on a college ­application—­my passions include Ultimate Frisbee, AP Physics, cleaning puppy poop at the animal shelter!—­but I’m actually for real.

I think it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.

Bayside

On Fridays after hagwon—­that’s Korean for “the school you go to after school because regular school isn’t enough”—­I head to H&H’s house in Bayside for Burn Off!

Yes, my Friday-night jam is watching a cooking show with my grandparents and their dog.

Don’t judge.

We’re sitting at the kitchen table, eating candied kelp. Bingsu, the jindo, sits alert at Haraboji’s feet. She’s too dignified to lie down and beg for scraps. Her foxlike ears are perked up, like an attack could come from anywhere at any time.

Dogs are funny like that. They are their own people.

Host Dennis appears on the TV screen in his usual toga and laurels. He’s so white, he’s orange—­if that makes any sense—­like he’s been steeped in Tang. His eyes are the same shade as chlorine pool water. Halmoni is in love with him.

He starts his opening spiel: “Ladies, gentlemen, countrymen! Lend me your ears! Coming to you hot from Kitchen Coliseum, it’s Burn Off!

Host Dennis smiles his bleachy grin. When he’s not hosting Burn Off!, he’s flashing his pearls in all those toothpaste ads. Halmoni claps and swoons, and Haraboji and I exchange an eye roll.

The camera pans to a Roman gladiator blowing on a long Viking horn. It’s completely culturally inaccurate. I say this as someone flunking Global History.

Speaking of which, my last exam is still crammed in the bottom of my backpack. I don’t want to think about it. Just like I don’t want to think about how my Global final is next month, and I’m so not prepared. I fix my attention back to the screen.

Host Dennis goes, “Today’s contestants will slice. They’ll dice. They’ll fight to the finish! But only one chef will win the crown of—­”

The crowd finishes for him: “Burn Off! champion!”

The TV fritzes out.

“이놈 . . . !” Haraboji grunts, which is Korean for You little misbehaving bastard! He slaps the side of the TV: nothing. It’s so old, H&H should have curbed it last millennium. Bingsu snarls at the “misbehaving” TV because she always has Haraboji’s back. He’s her favorite. Bingsu likes Halmoni okay, and she and I just coexist.

The TV comes back to life.

“—­secret ingredients are! Zucchini! Toasted sesame seeds! Red wine vinegar! Prime rib! Strawberry lollipops! And . . . chocolate-­covered ants!” says Host Dennis. “Chefs, you get thirty-­seven minutes to complete your dish! So cook off or—­”

Discussion Guide for What's Eating Jackie Oh?

Provides questions, discussion topics, suggested reading lists, introductions and/or author Q&As, which are intended to enhance reading groups’ experiences.

(Please note: the guide displayed here is the most recently uploaded version; while unlikely, any page citation discrepancies between the guide and book is likely due to pagination differences between a book’s different formats.)

★ "An engrossing tale full of appealing characters, foodie elements, and heart." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"A perfect fit for teens obsessed with food tv or grappling with the pressure of parental expectations." —Booklist

"Park dishes out a searing indictment of model minority expectations in her deliciously sharp and meaty sophomore young adult novel....The result is a candid and empathetic, if hunger-inducing, feast for teen readers." Shelf Awareness

About

A Korean American teen tries to balance her dream to become a chef with the cultural expectations of her family when she enters the competitive world of a TV cooking show. A hilarious and heartfelt YA novel from the award-winning author of Imposter Syndrome and Other Confessions of Alejandra Kim and Re Jane.

"Park’s novel delivers authentic characters who will make you laugh…and cry. Not to be missed!" --Ellen Oh, author of The Colliding Worlds of Mina Lee

Jackie Oh is done being your model minority.

She’s tired of perfect GPAs, PSATs, SATs, all of it. Jackie longs to become a professional chef. But her Korean American parents are Ivy League corporate workaholics who would never understand her dream. Just ask her brother, Justin, who hasn’t heard from them since he was sent to Rikers Island.

Jackie works at her grandparents’ Midtown Manhattan deli after school and practices French cooking techniques at night—when she should be studying. But the kitchen’s the only place Jackie is free from all the stresses eating at her—school, family, and the increasing violence targeting the Asian community.

Then the most unexpected thing happens: Jackie becomes a teen contestant on her favorite cooking show, Burn Off! Soon Jackie is thrown headfirst into a cutthroat TV world filled with showboating child actors, snarky judges, and gimmicky “gotcha!” challenges.

All Jackie wants to do is cook her way. But what is her way? In a novel that will make you laugh and cry, Jackie proves who she is both on and off the plate.

Patricia Park's hilarious and stunning What’s Eating Jackie Oh? explores the delicate balance of identity, ambition, and the cultural expectations to perform.

Author

© Matthew Gilbertson
Patricia Park is a tenured professor of creative writing at American University, a Fulbright Scholar in Creative Arts, and a Jerome Hill Artist Fellow. Her debut YA novel, Imposter Syndrome and Other Confessions of Alejandra Kim, received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal and was an NPR Book of the Day. Her acclaimed adult novel Re Jane was named an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Book Review; the winner of an American Library Association award; an O, The Oprah Magazine pick; and an NPR Fresh Air pick, among other honors. What’s Eating Jackie Oh? is inspired byher love of watching competitive TV cooking shows and creating somewhat edible meals from leftovers. It was also inspired by Patricia’s New York Times op-ed, “I’m Done Being Your Model Minority.”Patricia’s writing has also appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Guardian, Salon, and others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York View titles by Patricia Park

Excerpt

Not Your Model Minority

I’m not one of those TI-­84 Plus, Princeton Review, Barron’s, Kaplan, Khan, Kumon, hagwon, AP-­everything Asian kids with the turtle backpacks crawling all over the 7 train. I used to be. But I’m done with all that.

I just haven’t told my parents yet.

Umma went to Bronx Science, like me, and Appa went to Stuyvesant. Unlike me, they were straight A students who went on to Harvard and Yale Law School (Umma), and Carnegie Mellon and Columbia Business School (Appa). That my dad’s not a double-­Ivy like my mom is kind of a sore spot, and even though he fronts like it isn’t, I can tell Appa’s still carrying that ginormous chip on his shoulder. But then again, Umma “only” went to Science instead of Stuy—­so I guess their “educational disparity” sort of evens out.

These are the things my parents care about. Potato, potahto.

They’d seriously lose it if they found out I was flunking out of Science.

***

Okay, “flunk” is a strong word. Really, I’m just barely passing one class, Global History (70%), and I’m doing “mediocre” (90.1%) in my other classes. My gripe with Global History is that there’s got to be more to life than memorizing pointless historical facts about someone else’s past, when—­shouldn’t I be concentrating on my future?

Also, Mr. Doumann keeps confusing me for Jennifer Oh, because to him we’re All the Same. Most of my teachers are “woke” or whatever, but Mr. D is a relic from the past—­not unlike the very subject he teaches. The DOE should just fire him already, but probably can’t (because tenure, teacher’s union, pension, etc.). I don’t tell Umma and Appa about Mr. Doumann because they’ll have no sympathy: Stop making excuses. Tough it out. The same things they used to tell my older brother (“Oppa” to me, Justin to the outside world).

For us Ohs, to be anything less than perfect means you’re already a failure. Just ask Oppa.

Back when I used to drink the model minority Kool-­Aid, I was all about the Ivy Leagues, too. I thought that was what you were supposed to do. The purpose of life was to study hard, get into Harvard/Princeton/Yale, land a corporate job with a sweet 401k, and make babies that would study hard, get into Harvard/Princeton/Yale, etc., and continue your whole miserable corporate life cycle.

My parents are workaholics, which they’d probably take as the compliment it isn’t. Things cost money is Appa’s favorite catchphrase. He works in private equity and has a closetful of suits that I’m constantly picking up and dropping off at the dry cleaners, and I only see his shadow darting into the apartment when he comes home from work, long after I’m already in bed.

Umma’s up for managing partner at Leviathan, White & Gross LLP. According to Appa, the promotion is hers to lose. “Your mom’s put in the ‘sweat equity,’ ” and the other candidate’s always blowing off work for—­Appa curls his fingers into sarcastic air quotes—­“self-­care days,” leaving Umma to pick up the slack. Umma’s never been more keyed up and stressed out about this potential promotion. Mostly I try to stay out of her way.

Study hard, get into an Ivy, land a corporate job, make babies. Repeat. These are the Oh Family Core Values.

In other words, it’s our American dream.

When I turned one year old, I grabbed a dollar bill and my fate was sealed—­I’d be financially successful for the rest of my life. Instead of all the other objects (fates) my infant self could have reached for during my doljabi ceremony: pencil (scholar), calculator (accountant), paintbrush (artist), golf ball (LPGA pro), iPhone (the next Steve Jobs), and so on.

“Pay up!” Halmoni, ever the hustler, had placed bets with her friends. “My granddaughter’s going to be rich!”

Apparently she told Haraboji to pay up, too. My grandfather fished for his wallet and grumbled, “알았어.” Fine/Got it/Capisce. (My Korean’s not great, so that’s my lost-­in-­translation translation.)

Haraboji had bet on the bowl of rice—­because he wanted me to never go hungry in life.

H&H are my bedrock. My grandparents basically raised me in the kitchen of Melty’s, their deli in Midtown. Apparently Umma took the bare-minimum maternity leave because it wasn’t a good look to take longer than that. She’d drop me off at Melty’s each morning on her way to the office. I’d cry and cry, and Halmoni would shush me: “Jackie-­ya, you want Umma lose her job? Then how she gonna pay your food? Toys? College? Be good girl, stop crying.”

Eventually, I learned to stop crying.

Eventually, I learned to stop depending on my mother at all.

As soon as I was old enough to hold a knife, I was put to work. Which I’m pretty sure is a DOH violation, as well as a Child Services one.

It’s the immigrant way.

Umma, whose idea of “cooking” is pressing a button to order delivery, insisted on negotiating my pay at Melty’s because “I’ll not have you repeat my exploited childhood in that kitchen.”

But I’d work at Melty’s for free. Cooking’s my passion. Which I know sounds like some BS you’d write on a college ­application—­my passions include Ultimate Frisbee, AP Physics, cleaning puppy poop at the animal shelter!—­but I’m actually for real.

I think it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.

Bayside

On Fridays after hagwon—­that’s Korean for “the school you go to after school because regular school isn’t enough”—­I head to H&H’s house in Bayside for Burn Off!

Yes, my Friday-night jam is watching a cooking show with my grandparents and their dog.

Don’t judge.

We’re sitting at the kitchen table, eating candied kelp. Bingsu, the jindo, sits alert at Haraboji’s feet. She’s too dignified to lie down and beg for scraps. Her foxlike ears are perked up, like an attack could come from anywhere at any time.

Dogs are funny like that. They are their own people.

Host Dennis appears on the TV screen in his usual toga and laurels. He’s so white, he’s orange—­if that makes any sense—­like he’s been steeped in Tang. His eyes are the same shade as chlorine pool water. Halmoni is in love with him.

He starts his opening spiel: “Ladies, gentlemen, countrymen! Lend me your ears! Coming to you hot from Kitchen Coliseum, it’s Burn Off!

Host Dennis smiles his bleachy grin. When he’s not hosting Burn Off!, he’s flashing his pearls in all those toothpaste ads. Halmoni claps and swoons, and Haraboji and I exchange an eye roll.

The camera pans to a Roman gladiator blowing on a long Viking horn. It’s completely culturally inaccurate. I say this as someone flunking Global History.

Speaking of which, my last exam is still crammed in the bottom of my backpack. I don’t want to think about it. Just like I don’t want to think about how my Global final is next month, and I’m so not prepared. I fix my attention back to the screen.

Host Dennis goes, “Today’s contestants will slice. They’ll dice. They’ll fight to the finish! But only one chef will win the crown of—­”

The crowd finishes for him: “Burn Off! champion!”

The TV fritzes out.

“이놈 . . . !” Haraboji grunts, which is Korean for You little misbehaving bastard! He slaps the side of the TV: nothing. It’s so old, H&H should have curbed it last millennium. Bingsu snarls at the “misbehaving” TV because she always has Haraboji’s back. He’s her favorite. Bingsu likes Halmoni okay, and she and I just coexist.

The TV comes back to life.

“—­secret ingredients are! Zucchini! Toasted sesame seeds! Red wine vinegar! Prime rib! Strawberry lollipops! And . . . chocolate-­covered ants!” says Host Dennis. “Chefs, you get thirty-­seven minutes to complete your dish! So cook off or—­”

Guides

Discussion Guide for What's Eating Jackie Oh?

Provides questions, discussion topics, suggested reading lists, introductions and/or author Q&As, which are intended to enhance reading groups’ experiences.

(Please note: the guide displayed here is the most recently uploaded version; while unlikely, any page citation discrepancies between the guide and book is likely due to pagination differences between a book’s different formats.)

Praise

★ "An engrossing tale full of appealing characters, foodie elements, and heart." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"A perfect fit for teens obsessed with food tv or grappling with the pressure of parental expectations." —Booklist

"Park dishes out a searing indictment of model minority expectations in her deliciously sharp and meaty sophomore young adult novel....The result is a candid and empathetic, if hunger-inducing, feast for teen readers." Shelf Awareness

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