Korean author publishes memoir on growing up in Queens before the digital age

Photo courtesy of Yongsoo Park

Writer Yongsoo Park is recounting what life was like for him and his immigrant family in the early 1980s in Elmhurst in his new memoir, “Rated R Boy: Growing Up Korean in 1980s Queens.” 

When asked what prompted him to write the book, Park said, “I wrote the book in part to share what my childhood was like with my two children, whose lives are good but so very different from mine.” 

Yongoo Park is the author of the novels “Boy Genius” and “Las Cucarachas,” as well as the essay collection “The Art of Eating Bitter: A Hausfrau Dad’s Journey with Kids,” about his quixotic one-man crusade to give his children an analog childhood.

Park and his family moved from South Korea to the United States in the summer of 1980. He grew up in a tenement on 80th Street kitty-corner from what was then the Leben Home, a facility to house the many patients who’d been dumped there by the city’s psychiatric wards. 

Park, who now lives in Harlem, attended P.S. 12 in Woodside and J.H.S. 125 in Sunnyside. Although he no longer lives in his childhood neighborhood, the love he has for Queens and the 1980s comes through in the book, which chronicle’s his family’s first four years in America and the struggles they endured to assimilate to life in their new home. 

The book details Park’s travails at school, where he often felt like the class dunce before he learned to speak English, and his struggles to fit in in the social hierarchy of the mini children’s society on his block. He describes having to learn to play sports, specifically touch football, to fit in.

“For a long time, I didn’t know what a field goal was or that a touchdown was worth six points and not seven, which was how we kept score,” Park said in his book. “It would be a long while before I’d figure out that the football we played was a watered-down version of the game on TV, and not the other way around.”

Another chapter describes how Park, a former Van Lier Fellow at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and whose previous books include “Boy Genius” and “Las Cucarachas,” (which were also set in Queens) frequented the Jackson, a now-defunct theater in Jackson Heights, and the education he received from the movies there at a young age. 

The adventures that are described in the memoir may seem startling to children today, but the memoir is set in a different era before the advent of digital technology when children were free to roam about freely, according to Park.  Indeed, Park describes children’s life in the early 1980s as one devoid of adults:

“When not riding bikes or rollerskating up and down the block, we played kick-the-can, manhunt, stoop ball, red-light green-light one two three, and Johnny-the-pony,” Park said. “Those last two games were identical to games I’d played in Korea and were a great comfort to me. But kick-the-can soon became my favorite. It felt wonderful to kick the can and send it flying, freeing everyone who’d been caught and making whoever was it chase it down.”

According to Park, “Rated R Boy” is a fast read and vividly brings to life a bygone era peopled with latchkey kids who played unsupervised and even got into a scuffle or two.

“The memoir will be enjoyed by everyone, but especially by those who remember the analog world when a slice of pizza could be bought with a subway token and the fat Sunday Times cost just a dollar,” Park said.

Park’s memoir, “Rated R Boy: Growing up Korean in 1980s Queens,” is available on Kindle for $1.99 and the paperback edition can be purchased on Amazon for $6. 

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