In “Troublemaker,” actor-turned-author John Cho confronts the difficulties of coming of age as an Asian American in an era that parallels today’s issues.
The cover of John Cho’s first book “Troublemaker” features the book’s protagonist Jordan, a young Asian American teenager, dressed simply in a white T-shirt and jeans and standing resolutely in the center of the street, his hands in fists, staring straight ahead at a point beyond the reader.
When I asked Cho about his journey writing a book, it was clear that the end product, this symbolic cover, had always been fixed in his mind.
“I thought it would be really cool to have an Asian American boy on the cover and have it on a shelf somewhere in a library that some other kid might discover. I was very excited about that.”
“Troublemaker,” which was written with Sarah Suk, follows Jordan’s journey across Los Angeles in a single evening in 1992 – April 29. That same day, a jury acquitted four LAPD officers who were caught on video brutally beating Rodney King, a Black man, during a traffic stop. Jordan ventures out amid the beginning of what we as the contemporary audience know to be the Los Angeles riots of 1992, on a mission to find his father, who owns a business near L.A.’s Koreatown.
The book is targeted toward a middle-school readership, which Cho told me he had always imagined himself writing for.
“That’s when, not only did I become an avid reader, but that’s when books were most important to me. At that age, 10-12, that age range, I was moving around a lot, and I needed books to feel safe and good about myself. And those are the years also when I was sort of trying on identities and figuring out what kind of adult I was going to be. So books were a place to go.”
Originally, Cho was interested in writing a mystery novel, the genre he said he most enjoyed when he himself was a middle-school reader. But, like so many other artists and writers, the events of 2020 had a profound impact on his subject matter.
“The summer and spring of 2020 happened, and we were dealing with a lot of stuff that my kids were struggling to understand – COVID, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests and anti-Asian violence.”
“That put me in a contemplative place – contemplative slash panicky – I think I was really looking backward at the arc of my life, as an immigrant, and the relationship to the country I lived in and the country I thought my kids would live in. So I was looking backward. I thought about a parallel event, Rodney King.”
The complexities of the 1992 Los Angeles riots make “Troublemaker” fraught from the beginning, and different members of Jordan’s family navigate them differently. During the riots, non-fictional Korean American communities in L.A., which included many store and restaurant owners, were particularly affected by the material damages. Tensions between Korean shopkeepers and the communities they operated within were already high.
About a year before the riots, in March of 1991, Korean shopkeeper Soon Da Ju shot and killed ninth-grader Latasha Harlins, suspecting Harlins was trying to steal orange juice. When she was shot, Harlins had the money in her hand to pay for the juice. Du did not serve any time in jail for Harlins’ murder.
While conducting research for his book, Cho interviewed Richard Choi, a broadcaster on Radio Korea in the 1990s to learn more about what changed for Korean Americans after the riots.
“His observation was that prior to April 29, 1992, Koreans, in general, felt like sojourners in America, and that a lot of people were wondering if they would ultimately plant roots here. They were still entertaining the idea of perhaps returning to Korea someday. But this tragic event led to a change in the sentiment in the Korean community, where he felt like then definitely planted roots. We spilled blood here, and we became Korean Americans.”
That these events could be seen as some kind of turning point interested Cho.
“[Choi] saw a rise in the number of people in politics and advocating for social change and justice, so there were some positives that came out of it in that way, if you choose to see it.”
At the same time, Cho said, writing this book in 2020 reminded him of all the things that actually had not changed – the patterns of police brutality, anti-Asian sentiment and racial tensions that continued to repeat themselves.
“My general sense was whatever has changed, it’s not enough. It’s still happening, in the present tense. Measuring it against what should’ve happened, I think we’ve fallen short.”
Stuck in the middle
A compelling aspect of “Troublemaker” is Jordan’s intergenerational family experience. He lives with his grandfather as well as his parents and his sister. Each of them reckons with a different understanding of immigration, racism and the riots.
Cho was interested in how different generations of Korean Americans reacted to these complex, layered dynamics.
“I was very keen on having three generations represented in the book because I wanted to understand this seminal event for Korean Americans from three different perspectives.”
Jordan’s grandfather, his parents and Jordan himself all react to the destruction in the Los Angeles Koreatown community differently.
“The older, the grandpa, sees it as kind of in this line of historical tragedies that have happened to Koreans over a millennium. The parents see it as primarily an economic tragedy in their lives. The kids are confused and see it as a social problem.”
In Cho’s own life, he has felt like a generational bridge as well. Cho was born in South Korea and moved to the United States when he was 6 years old. When it came to race and discrimination, he says that his parents didn’t necessarily have a lot of optimism.
“I was raised with a fatalistic attitude about anti-Asian sentiment. It was matter-of-fact. We were different, and that was kind of the deal.”
As a father himself now, Cho hopes that he is raising his children to not accept this sort of fatalism.
“I hope it remains true that my kids would consider themselves rightfully American and demand to be treated fairly and not accept injustice based on how they look.” Of his own perspective, he says, “I think I was the crossover, the bridge generation trying to figure it out. Starting in one place and ending up in another.”
I couldn’t help feeling there was an underlying sense of unease in being between these two generations, although it seemed like Cho had made peace with that feeling of bridging two cultures. It was a feeling that came up once again when we discussed a conversation in the book that Jordan has with a Black neighbor who helps him along the way. Jordan questions the space Asian Americans occupy in the larger culture.
“That is our existence. We occupy a very in-between space in American culture,” said Cho.
“Part of that is because ‘Asian’ is not a culture. It’s a political grouping, maybe a racial grouping, but it’s not a culture. Being Korean is a culture, being Chinese is a culture, being Thai is a culture. But being Asian is not. So it’s kind of an unnatural identity to begin with, but a politically useful one, perhaps, being optimistic about it.”
On top of having difficulty defining or carving out a cohesive cultural space as Asian Americans, Cho said, there’s also the complication of our overall space in American culture at large.
“Then there’s the model minority myth, which was designed to sort of put us on a pedestal to keep the status quo and teach a lesson to brown and Black people. So that puts us in an awkward place, as people of color. So we have a very shifting – the ground beneath us in terms of identity is very sandy and shifting. I just wanted to sort of evoke those issues for Jordan because I think that sort of complicates his passage into adulthood. It’s a thing that every Asian American sort of has to confront in their lives.”
Career and ‘Cowboy Bebop’
At various moments during our conversation, Cho injected an addendum of optimism, after expressing a sentiment that seemed, truthfully, not particularly optimistic. He expressed that Asian American identity was complicated, but tried to qualify with some positive sentiment at the end. He discussed the difficulty of facing racism and bias, but tried to be hopeful about his childrens’ future. I didn’t feel that his attempts at looking on the bright side of things were disingenuous; it felt that he just had a very nuanced and perhaps realpolitik set of beliefs.
He genuinely appeared more hopeful, however, when our conversation turned to his experiences in Hollywood.
“I see so much talent out there, I think there’s really a lot of reason to feel optimistic.” Still, he qualified, “I’m still understanding it, and it’s actually happening right now, and only time will tell what’s going on.”
He believes the reasons for change in the industry stem from a couple different factors.
“Two things: technology and the fracturing of the entertainment market. Meaning there are a lot more outlets, so there’s a lot more positions to be filled, a lot more opportunities. Then there’s the globalization of the market. It can’t be understated how important the product from Asia has been for Asian Americans.”
“The thing that we have to watch out for is to – and I have to watch out for – is to not paint myself in a hole by having others define what an Asian story is, or what kind of a story an Asian artist is supposed to tell. But it’s a multi-pronged approach. It’s about performers, and writers, and directors and executives being open.”
Cho’s own career, of course, has been marked by roles that subverted social expectations. His stoner character Harold in the “Harold & Kumar” film series was notably defiant of East Asian stereotypes. He tells me that being a performer should be less about expectations of the audience and more about a personal craft or, as he phrases it, “a delight and a sense of freedom.”
But Cho does feel pressure when it comes to taking roles, knowing he’s often seen as a key figure of Asian American representation in Hollywood.
“I wish no one’s reaction was important to me,” he admitted. “I wish I could be free of that, completely self-assured.”
In that vein, I asked him about his reaction to the cancellation of “Cowboy Bebop.” The show, based on a beloved Japanese anime, was highly anticipated when it debuted on Netflix in late 2021; however, it debuted to mixed reviews and some disappointment among fans over how it compared to the original anime. It was then canceled abruptly by Netflix.
“Primarily, it was difficult for me because it was a big part of my life. It was the longest I’d been with any single project, because we shot a whole season. I put a lot into it. I broke my knee during it and had rehab back. I moved my family to New Zealand to shoot it. So it felt like this very large event in my life, and it was no longer happening. I grieved that. I may still be in the grieving process, I don’t know.”
“I try not to look too much online, because that can be a dangerous activity. But from what I saw, people were very kind for the most part, and I was just so appreciative. I guess at my age I’m looking back and thinking people were very sweet with me. A lot of people were patting me on the back electronically, and that felt good, that helped.”
Throughout his career, Cho says, he has always wanted to do the right thing for the Asian American community.
“I want to do right by them – and by them, meaning us. Sometimes it feels heavy… And, in a way, that’s contradictory sometimes to what being an artist is, which should feel like play.”
He still manages to again land on that note of hope, though.
“It feels much less so these days, that kind of heaviness, because there’s so many other people doing it.”
“Troublemaker” is published by Little, Brown, and Company and will be available for sale on March 22.