Moving as an adolescent, especially moving to another country, is hard. Being forced to move, and unknowingly doing so only to realize later your life has changed, is severely difficult, but can also be fortifying. Writer and cartoonist Robin Ha knows that latter experience all too well, relaying it at Washington DC’s Fantom Comics, speaking with The Nerds of Color EIC Keith Chow about her new graphic memoir, Almost American Girl, this past February 8.
As a child in South Korea, Robin went with her mother on what she thought would be a short trip to Alabama. She would find out only after they arrived that they were moving in with her mother’s new husband and his family there. Young Robin was shell-shocked that she was forced to leave her friends and home behind, and adjust to this strange country where she didn’t even know the language. Almost American Girl is about how she learned to grow and adjust in this strange new land, and how it fortified her into the person she is today. Embracing her artistic skills and interests in Manhwa and Manga in particular, she learned to thrive and find her place in this new society.
The conversation on her life-changing experience was moving, heartbreaking, and uplifting. She had to deal with racist bullying, a severe language barrier, and an unwelcoming step-family to boot. Thankfully, their circumstances would improve as Almost American Girl retells. Her story is one of stalwart perseverance and ultimately finding where she could fit in and embracing all aspects of her cultural identity. Answering questions from the audience and engaging in conversation with them, we got to learn more about how Ha’s unique and difficult upbringing contributed to the person she is today. Overall, in relaying her experiences, Ha was very direct about what she felt as a child and how she reflected on it now after growing up in the United States.
Ha, now, bears no ill will towards her mother, recognizing her struggles as a single mom in Korea and why she would want to seek a new life for them both. She recognizes that her mother truly did want the best opportunities for her daughter in making the move to the States, though she certainly should have considerably eased the moving process had she made it transparent to her daughter. Overall, Ha recognizes how her mother could make mistakes while attempting to do the best for both of them out of sincere love. While it took a lot of convincing to have her mother’s permission to draw her as a character in the graphic novel, Ha relayed how her mother actually appreciated the story after having read it. She never sought to portray her mother as any sort of antagonist — only a supporting character and co-protagonist in their story of coming to this strange land together.
Ha recognizes that what she had to go through as a child was unjust but now seems accepting, content, and very happy with the person she is. She knows that experience contributed significantly to who she is today, helping create, for example, her wanderlust, having studied abroad in Italy and traveled to multiple countries. “I want to travel everywhere!” she told the audience.
Ha is now a successful cartoonist, textile designer, illustrator, and painter living in Falls Church, VA. There are many places she wants to visit, and she can’t wait to explore them all! For more conversations between Ha and Chow, listen to their episode of Southern Fried Asian from 2018, which recounts many of the stories told in the book. You can also watch an archived livestream of the event on Fantom’s Facebook page.
You can buy Almost American Girl at your local comic shop or wherever graphic novels are sold.