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When I was little, I didn’t like being asked “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” because it made me feel like I didn’t really belong. I would answer, “I’m from here, I’m an American born in Brooklyn.”
I just wanted to fit in.
But when I began to think about my parents immigrating to the United States, I realized how easy I had it.
My mom and dad were born and raised in South Korea, and like so many others, they believed in the American dream. They loved what this country stood for and had faith that coming to America would make their lives better, and make their children’s futures brighter.
My dad was in the 1960 and 1964 Olympics; he was a discus and hammer thrower, and he was pretty good. So when he was among a group of international athletes invited to participate in a US-sponsored athletic program, he jumped at the opportunity. And in 1967, my parents packed up their lives, took about five different connecting flights, and moved to the United States of America.
Life was an adjustment to say the least.
They moved around a bit for various job opportunities, and without another Korean soul in sight, they had a lot to learn on their own. My parents not only looked different and hardly spoke English, but they came with an entirely different set of traditions.
“What are you?” and “Where do you come from?” were accompanied with “Can’t you speak English?” and “Don’t you know how to do this?” They endured lots of stares and even some spying by curious neighbors. As you can imagine, it wasn’t always comfortable. But no matter how lost they felt and how confusing it was just to go grocery shopping (where was the kimchi aisle?), my mom and dad hung in there.
Sure, there were some hard times and tears of frustration, but they made a home for themselves, and they did it by being true to who they are. I am so proud of them.
Their journey was the inspiration for the Loo family. Since pandas are most commonly found in China, and my parents come from Korea, I decided to draw from both Asian cultures to create the fictional Island of Coney. While there are nods to both countries in the artwork, my favorite detail is in the sailboat that the Loo family arrives in: I made the sail from an old Korean newspaper article I found about my dad and his days as an athlete.
This book is a valentine to my mom and dad, but it’s also dedicated to anyone who has ever felt like fish out of water, an odd bird…or a chubby little panda in a big bear of a world.
Sujean Rim wrote and illustrated the Birdie series, as well as illustrated many campaigns for clients including Target, UNAIDS, Tiffany & Co., Bloomingdale’s, and more. Sujean lives with family in New York. Visit her online at sujeanrim.com or on Twitter at @.
The Loo family has traveled very far to start a new life. In Bearland, none of the other bears look, talk, or act like the Loo family. For Chee-Kee Loo, everything is strange; and he feels like he’ll never fit in. But one day, some bears find themselves in a jam, and Chee-Kee might be just the right panda to save the day.
In this heartfelt and lovable story, meet Chee-Kee the panda, a one-of-a-kind bear in all the best ways. Based on Sujean’s family’s experience immigrating from South Korea to the United States, this picture book is full of many layers of meaning, humor and heart with universal appeal and a fresh perspective.