Kimchi & Calamari by Rose Kent (Harper)

This is a title for all those kids who were adoptees and may have faced having an identity crisis at one time or another from not knowing their biological parents.  Although I’m not an adoptee, I couldn’t pass up this book with its interesting title.  However, on a personal note, I met a friend of my sister’s who was going on her own around-the-world solo tour; one of her destinations was a small town in Korea.  Like the protagonist of this book, she also was an adoptee from Korea and decided to go in search of her roots.

Drummer Joseph Calderaro is one mixed-up kid!  Why is that you ask?  Because he has one serious problem.  Joseph is fourteen and is in the 8th grade and his social studies teacher has just handed out an assignment to the class – to write an essay about your ancestors.

Since Joseph has an Italian-American family, this wouldn’t seem to be too much of a problem.  But he was adopted.  The only thing he knows about his biological parents is that “they shipped his diapered butt on a plane from Korea and he landed in New Jersey.”  How is an adopted Korean boy going to write about his family or ancestors he’s never met?

At home, for Joseph’s fourteenth birthday, his father has given him a Corno, a goat horn that Italian men wear for good luck.  His father explains that it’s to protect against malocchio, the “Evil Eye”.  However, Joseph shows no excitement and refuses to wear it.  He makes up some excuse for his father but really he feels that the guys in his class would think it’s weird. If they knew what a cornois, it probably meant that they’re Italian and would wonder why some Korean kid would be wearing this around his neck.  Ah, the trials and tribulations of adolescence.

Joseph’s friend Nash has a great idea.  He suggests to Joseph to look up his ancestors on the internet.  Joseph thought that might be easier than asking his parents for help.  His dad is not pleased with Joseph’s reaction to the corno and when he tries to talk with this mother about his adoption, she always breaks down in tears.  His parents had told him about the day he became part of the Calderaro family.  But what they never told him, was his “MBA – Me Before America”.  His mother had only told him, back when he was in the third grade, that his biological mother had named him Duk-kee and Park was added by the adoption agency.

While Joseph is still worried about writing his essay, the only thing his friend Nash discovers is that Pusan had a record rain fall on the day that Joseph was born.  Thinking of ways to expand his report to 1500 words, Joseph decides to head to his local library.  At the same time, he runs an errand for his mother, taking towels from his mother’s business, a hair salon called Shear Impressions, to the Jiffy Wash Laundry.  Joseph is surprised to find out the owners of Jiffy Wash have sold their business and will be moving to Florida.  He gets another surprise when the current owner mentions that the new owners are Korean!

There is also a new student at school who is in Joseph’s band class.  One look at the new boy and Joseph just knows that he is Korean too.  The following day Joseph is once again the “towel boy” for his mother and heads to Jiffy Wash.  As he opens the door there he runs into the new kid.  Joseph introduces himself and says that they’re in the same band class.  New Kid says his name is Yongsu Han.

When Yongsu calls his “Uhmma” and a Korean lady comes into the room, Joseph figures that “Uhmma” must mean Mom.  When Yongsu’s mother greets Joseph with “Ahn nyong has seh yoh?”, not only does it make Joseph feel a little insecure, he suddenly feels totally out of place.  It doesn’t help matters any when he’s asked if his mother is Korean.  Once he explains that he was adopted he feels like Yongsu’s mother sees him in a different light – a fake Korean who doesn’t speak or understand the language.  The only thing Joseph wants is to get the heck out of Jiffy Wash as fast as he can, but it also makes him want to know more about his Korean heritage.

Back home, Joseph looks through a book on Korean history that he borrowed from the library.  Although he becomes familiar with Korean history from the Yi Dynasty up until the Korean War, he can’t figure a way to making the history a part of his heritage.  Then he comes upon a picture of a man wearing a Gold Medal.  The caption says his name was Sohn Kee Chung who represented Japan during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

A light bulb goes off in Joseph’s head.  He now knows who and how he is  going to write that essay.  Joseph titles his essay “A Medal for Speed and a Life of Honor: My Grandpa Sohn”.  Little does he know, this little white lie will lead to an even bigger problem.  His teacher announces to the class that his essay was chosen to be entered in a National Essay contest!  What is Joseph going to do now?

But I wouldn’t want to spoil the entire story for those who may have had a similar experience.  I think this would be a great story for anyone who was adopted and suffers from having an identity crisis at one point in their life.  Joseph was lucky enough to become part of a loving family and yet, not knowing his heritage seems to have left a little hole in his life.  Although I am not an adoptee, I am the product of a mixed marriage and was brought up bi-culturally, so I can understand wanting to know my own family’s heritage.  Even if you are not an adoptee, it’s a very heartwarming story and you can’t help but feel for Joseph and his growing pains.