“The sky is about to fall. Where do you go?” Seventeen-year-old Ginny Park would give anything to find the answer. Multidisciplinary author Chesil uses Ginny to tell her own story in The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart, a thought-provoking young adult novel about life in Japan as a Zainichi Korean teenager. 

Chesil portrays herself through the eyes of Pak Jinhee, a girl who can’t seem to fit in. At the beginning of the novel Jinhee is relatively happy at her Japanese elementary school in Tokyo, even if she is the only Korean student in her class. True, some right-wingers trouble the school with anti-Korean paraphernalia, but most of her Japanese classmates are nice and her teachers are respectful. 

Things get messy when it’s time for junior high. Jinhee has three options: continue in a Japanese school, go to a South Korean school (mostly for South Korean nationals), or go to a North Korean school (allows students to keep Japanese citizenship but is run in Korean). Jinhee doesn’t want to leave her friends, but her parents fear the Japanese junior high won’t be as forgiving as her elementary school was, and enroll her in a North Korean school.

This is where Chesil’s novel transitions from paint-by-numbers teen fiction to a sensitive, inquisitive conversation about what it means to be “other.” Jinhee only speaks Japanese, so the “Korean refuge” her parents planned is anything but. The chima jeogori that is supposed to blend in at school draws glares on the train on her way there; when Jinhee forgets it and wears gym clothes to class she’s mocked by students and teachers alike. Too Korean to be Japanese, and too Japanese to be Korean, she trudges through each day until

The Taepodong.

North Korea launches a Taepodong missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean on the first day of school her second year. Jinhee barely makes it home beneath all the finger-pointing and threats. The next day she simply cannot bear the shame of wearing her chima jeogori in a stifling crowd of hateful people all the way to a North Korean school. She’s just a kid. What does she care about North Korea anyway?

Jinhee gets off the train at a shopping mall and quickly buys clothes so she can hide her uniform. She doesn’t have time to return to her train before she’s caught by two ill-intentioned men. What unfolds in the next five minutes damages not just how Jinhee sees herself as a Korean, but how she saw herself as a child  – and now a woman:

I chose to grow up. I didn’t have a choice really. If you acted wild, you were always going to be the one who got blamed. If you acted wild, even if it was because you’d experienced some kind of discrimination, it was all over for you. (50)

So Jinhee doesn’t act wild. She bottles up her emotions until she has a nervous breakdown that lands her in Multnomah Falls, Oregon, five years later. She goes by Ginny Park now, but her distrust of people and disdain for herself have only grown with time. Crossing the ocean, learning a new language, integrating with a new culture – nothing can heal Ginny of her scars from that day in the train station. Until she meets Stephanie. Stephanie’s face is bright and innocent, and she’s never heard of North Korean Schools or Zainichi Koreans. But Stephanie is an award-winning children’s book author and loves to ask questions. The sky is about to fall. Where do you go? Ginny must discover she already knows the answer, for herself and for us, her readers.

Previous article‘Cat Country’ is a Cantopop musical about a Chinese American women in racist-sexist-1980-post-Vietnam NYC
Next article‘Hometown Boy’ by Keiko Green asks who gets to move on from memory?