By Linda Wing. Posted December 13, 2022.
One day I met a fourth grader whom I will always remember. I was visiting a special education classroom in an elementary school on the South Side of Chicago. The teacher had focused the morning’s lesson on prepositions. Afterwards she asked the students to choose a preposition and illustrate the meaning of the word in a drawing. The drawings decorated the walls. I took a tour, freezing when I came upon a fourth grader’s picture. I saw two tall buildings. Two planes were flying towards them. I felt a chill. I turned to the fourth grader. He directed me to look at the building windows that he had drawn. They were empty. “I saved all the people,” said the child, pointing to the sidewalk where he had drawn crowds of people exiting the twin towers.
“You’re a hero!” I exclaimed to the boy. “You’re the one we have been waiting for!” And yes, he had correctly illustrated the meaning of the preposition “through.”
9/11 occurred a dozen years before I met the fourth grader. He had not yet been born. How had the child learned about the horrific hijacking of innocent people on planes to attack the World Trade Center and commit mass murder? Who or what motivated and enabled him to figure out how and why he could and should help people avoid a wholesale disaster? 9/11 was certainly not part of the teacher’s curriculum or the child’s individualized education plan that guided the teacher’s instruction.
I wanted to understand whether I could learn how to help other children trump hate with love, as the fourth grader had done in his drawing; but I was traumatized by the picture almost as much as I was inspired. Although I was a longtime educator, I lost my power of speech, unable to ask the child how he came to draw the picture. The teacher was similarly affected by PTSD. Yet she had not hesitated to post the child’s picture in order to celebrate his lifesaving heroism and his mastery of the preposition “through.”
It was not until I read the book Troublemaker that I began to understand how not to be rendered silent and powerless by the world’s grief. The novel gave me insights into how a twelve-year-old boy and his father emerged from estrangement and a city in upheaval with newfound humility, efficacy, and grace. Although they are imagined characters, their story suggests that the remarkable fourth grade student on the South Side of Chicago need not be alone in trying to make the world a better place against incredible odds – if only we adults could see children and ourselves with greater hope and humanity.
Published in 2022, Troublemaker is a work of fiction by the actor John Cho. He wrote the book with an audience of nine-to-twelve-year-olds in mind. Equally, Troublemaker is for adults.
The novel’s real-life setting is Los Angeles in 1992. The story takes place on a single day, April 29, when a jury announces the acquittal of the four police officers who beat Rodney King. A mere five months earlier, a judge had suspended the sentence of Soon Ja Du, a storeowner who had shot and killed teenager Latasha Harlins. The city is tense. To many, the acquittal of the police officers is incomprehensible. The beating had been caught on videotape. Why had there even been a trial? Unrest begins.
Twelve-year-old Jordan is the protagonist of Troublemaker. At age three, he immigrated with his family from Korea to the U.S. When the novel opens, Jordan is arriving home from school. He’s dragging his feet, reluctant to tell Umma and Appa he has been suspended for cheating on a Spanish test. Moreover, Jordan is a hot mess: a mixture of defiance and shame. For two weeks, he has maintained a stony silence towards his father. Appa had angrily confronted Jordan when he discovered him in the act of spray painting the wall of the church attended by their family. After disparaging Jordan for not caring about the sacrifices he and Umma had made for him by immigrating to the US, Appa said, “You are my biggest disappointment. Jordan retorted, “Well, maybe you’re mine too. All this talk about doing everything for me and you couldn’t even keep our last store open. Why’d we even come here if you can’t do that?” Too late, Jordan realizes he had gone a bridge too far.
Now, however, Jordan can hear Umma yelling at Appa. Umma, famous for saying geokjeonghajima – don’t worry – whenever there is a hint of a problem, is now thunder, maybe lightning too, thinks Jordan. Because of Radio Korea reports of possible protests, Umma wants to board up the family’s liquor store in Koreatown. Appa thinks it is sufficient that they had closed early, locked up, and come home. Urgently, Umma differs: “I won’t let this store fail like the last one. Someone has to think of the family.” Jordan, who is holding his breath, is stunned to see Appa “sucker-punched” by Umma’s words. Taking the car keys, Appa says quietly that he will go board up the store.
Hours later, Jordon, his big sister Sarah, his grandfather, and Umma have eaten dinner. They have heard nothing from Appa. The family is glued to the TV. Footage of the beating of Rodney King and the announcement of the acquittal is replayed, replayed, and replayed. And there’s a live camera showing people marching, shouting “no justice, no peace.” Anxiety for his father tips Jordan from a stance of defiance and shame to one of atonement. He decides to apologize by taking a gun to Appa, to help him, rationalizing that the gun is “for protection.” But Jordan is no less a complete mess: 1) Appa has forbidden him to touch the gun; 2) He decides to sneak out of the house without anyone knowing; 3) He leaves with Mike, his spray-painting partner with whom Appa told Jordan not to hang out; and 4) His suspension from school is still a secret from his family.
What follows is Jordan’s misguided, circuitous, and harrowing journey through the night. At one point, he even misplaces the gun. It’s the kindness of strangers and, at the last moment, his big sister Sarah who save Jordan from complete failure. After a three-hour-long trek, he finally arrives at the liquor store to give Appa the gun “for protection.” And Jordan and Appa break their long silence. Their father-and-son talk is the heart and soul of the book. Appa’s tone of voice by itself conveys the deeply felt revelations made in the moment; it is “kind of complicated and sad and angry and gentle all at once,” observes Jordan.
Troublemaker must be read in order for the import and impact of The Talk and its aftereffects to be felt and understood. No spoiler is intended here. However, that John Cho put a weapon at the center of the novel demands a look at that part of The Talk that focuses on the gun.
When he learns that Jordan has brought him the gun, Appa refrains from expressing anger, even though it would be righteous anger. Instead he painstakingly and painfully explains how he came to understand the purpose of a gun. He learned how to use weapons while doing mandatory military service in Korea. Yet he had nearly shot a man senselessly, out of anger, with his air force pistol. “Why do we have one then, if it’s such a bad thing?” asks Jordan. Appa answers ruefully and honestly, saying he mistakenly believed he needed a gun to protect his family. The gunshot killing of a child – 15-year-old Latasha Harlins – taught Appa that “a lot of terrible choices are made in the name of protection.” He acted upon what he had learned by intentionally and deliberately bringing the gun home from the store after the teenager was murdered and just as intentionally and deliberately leaving it at home before departing to board up the store. Listening to Appa, Jordan reasons that “a gun isn’t a shield. A gun is a gun. It’s meant to kill people.” He realizes that for Latasha Harlins, the gun in Sun Ja Du’s hand was not protection. “It was death.”
A Children’s Book for Adults Too
John Cho’s intent was to write Troublemaker for middle school-aged children. Yet the story evolved into a love story between a father and his son and so is equally written for adults. The double impact of the book seems to have emerged out of the author being true to his own experiences as a father of a son, reflective of his experiences as his own father’s son, and empathetic to the experiences of his own son, who was 12 years old at the time. The term “authenticity” is in vogue these days, and Cho’s voice as the author of Troublemaker exemplifies the nuanced meaning of this concept.
The relevance of the Troublemaker to both adults and children is unusual. Most adults, myself included, are reluctant to expose children to news about gun-related violence, police brutality, hate crimes, the list goes on. Much less are we inclined to discuss these complicated and frightening phenomena with children, even when the children are directly affected. Parents may be especially disinclined. What motivated John Cho to risk venturing into the void of silence and denial?
The idea to write Troublemaker emerged in 2020, during the covid quarantine. Cho remembers the pandemic was “killing us” while George Floyd’s murder “broke our hearts.” The protesters demanding justice in his name “uplifted us.” Yet the acts of anti-Asian hate prompted cautionary calls to the author’s parents to protect themselves, essentially by curbing their lives. Cho was reminded of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the LaTasha Harlins killing. Had there been progress towards justice and the end to police brutality since then? Did his parents, who had brought him and his brother to the U.S. from Korea in 1978, believe that they were all seen as Americans some 40 years later? Cho puzzled over how to talk with his twelve-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter about the events of 2020 and how they echoed those of 1992. He ultimately concluded that “sanitizing the truth” would be a disservice to their growing up to be independent thinkers who could get into “good trouble,” as John Lewis advocated. Bottom line: “No one’s BS meter is sharper than a middle (school) age kid’s,” observed Cho to a podcast interviewer. His kids had been watching the news and knew why protesters were marching. They had seen the Asian hate sign at the end of their street and knew that people were attacking Asians. And they had been in active shooter drills at school. Moreover, as southern Californians, Cho’s children must have seen, like most of Korean America, images of Koreans on rooftops holding weapons to guard their stores during the Los Angeles uprising, waiting for police who never came. While pondering how and why to converse with his children about the trouble and turbulence of our country, Cho decided to engage in The Talk by writing Troublemaker.
A final note. As a writer, Cho is cinematic, good with dialogue. The reader moves through the streets of Los Angeles seeing people and places through Jordan’s eyes, hearing words in Jordan’s voice. The book is a page turner, embodying the dynamic pace of Jordon’s journey. When Appa moves into the center of the story, Cho’s skills as a writer (and undoubtedly as an actor too) enable us to experience what Appa knows and feels about Jordan and himself in the ways a real Appa would know and feel.
All in all, Troublemaker is a children’s book for adults too. Adult readers can leverage the wisdom in Troublemaker to engage in our own self-reflections and in our own talks with children about the crises of our times in order to keep compassion and courage alive.