'Choke Artist' On Lowering Expectations

Many parents push their kids to get straight A's, excel at sports, and behave at home. But some kids won't march to that drum beat. In his memoir The Choke Artist: Confessions of a Chronic Underachiever, David Yoo writes about making a concerted effort to fall short of his parents' expectations. He talks with host Michel Martin.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

Yale law professor and author, Amy Chua, scored a best seller last year with her memoir, "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." In it, she describes herself and other so-called Tiger Mothers who go to almost any length to push their kids toward perfection, holding back dinner until she nails that violin cadenza, threatening to put him out for being disobedient or demanding that she get straight As and become a doctor or a lawyer or maybe both.

But, as even Amy Chua found out, not all kids are willing to march to the drum of the tiger mother. Take Korean-American David Yoo. Growing up, he made a point not to study, not to excel at school. Instead, he poured his efforts into trying to fit in with the white kids. How that all turned out is the subject of his memoir. It's called "The Choke Artist: Confessions of a Chronic Underachiever."

Earlier, Michel Martin sat down with David Yoo to talk about his memoir and his life.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Thanks so much for joining us.

DAVID YOO: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Let me just start by saying that the book is very funny, but that doesn't mean that everything you went through was funny. So let me start where you do in the book. You write that, pretty much the second my family moved back to the states from Seoul, South Korea in the summer before third grade, I immediately started developing what would eventually, by the time I reached high school, turn into a full-blown deep-seeded ambivalence about my ethnicity. This was due to the simple fact that, in Avon - that's Avon, Connecticut - I was the token Asian guy and basically my entire adolescence was spent trying to not be seen as different.

I don't know if ambivalence is the word I'd use. Seems a little more serious than that. I don't know. What were some of the things you did to try to fit in?

YOO: Growing up, I very quickly came to the conclusion that the main reason for my lack of popularity or having a girlfriend or what have you was because I was Korean-American, which incidentally is a really convenient excuse to ignore all the other appalling traits that you have that are contributing to that problem.

But I just tried to be the exact opposite of what I felt was the cliché, stereotypical Asian-American teen that you'd see in movies and whatnot. I didn't study, ever. I was not an obedient son and just, basically, I molded myself into being kind of the opposite of the model minority.

MARTIN: You talked about a lot of things. As I said, the book is funny, even though the things that you're describing are, in many ways, very painful. You talked about things like trying to hide your eyes. Talk a little bit about that, if you would.

YOO: Yeah. I would wear a white baseball cap with the brim pulled really low, so you know, in hindsight, of course, it didn't make me look any less Asian, but the 16-year-old me kind of felt like it kind of shielded my eyes a little bit, which made it a little more ambiguous what my ethnic background was.

MARTIN: You know, you write about being caught between two worlds, two cultures. That's not an uncommon experience, I think, for lots of people and particularly people with immigrant backgrounds, but you talk about how, you know, to your classmates, you were the token Asian guy but then, when you went to church, you weren't Asian enough. Could you talk a little bit about that?

YOO: Yeah. It's like I - when you go to church on Sundays and you're surrounded by other Asian students, other Korean-American kids, I stuck out like a sore thumb because I was the - you know, there's this term, Twinkie, which means, you know, white on the inside, yellow on the outside. And to give you an idea of how self-loathing I was back then, I actually took it as a compliment and whereas, in high school or at the mall when strangers would see me, I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb.

MARTIN: Did your parents know all this was going on?

YOO: I don't know. I don't think so. They - I think they assumed I was a typical rebellious teenager - is how they saw me.

MARTIN: Do you think they were tiger parents, always pushing, pushing, pushing?

YOO: You know, I'm a little hesitant to categorize them as tiger parents for a couple of reasons, but you know, at the same time, they definitely did share a lot of the same values as a typical tiger parent, I suppose. But I think, in terms of their parenting, they were a little milder than - you know, for instance, in Amy Chua's novel, you know, there's that scene where, you know, she rejected a birthday card from one of her daughters for - she thought it wasn't thoughtful enough or what have you and, you know, by comparison, for every year of middle school, for Christmas, I'd give my dad a Nintendo game that happened to be the exact same title that they'd refused to give me in the fall. And rather than, you know, punish me or yell at me for it, they would just - I mean, the most my parents ever did was employ a really aggressive form of eye rolling, which I'm grateful for.

MARTIN: Just two things, though, and if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with David Yoo. He's the author of the new memoir, "The Choke Artist: Confessions of a Chronic Underachiever." It's a memoir of how he tried to subvert every stereotype that people ever had of the overachieving Asian kid, especially Asian immigrant kid.

But, you know, David, there are a couple of things that are serious that we do want to talk about and one is that your sister, whom you call Liz in the book, although you've changed, you know, names for privacy, did all of the things that people kind of associate with the path to success, became the star violinist, went to Yale, went to Columbia. But then something tragic happened. Do you mind talking about that?

YOO: No. When she was in high school and I was in middle school at the time, at one point, she did, you know, a half-hearted suicide attempt. For me, when she attempted suicide, that was kind of the moment when my intentional self-saboteur strategy kind of crystallized. You know, for many years, I'd always been in awe of my sister's achievements and, at the same time, you know, I deeply resented her and wilted in her considerable shadow, you know.

And, after this night, I linked success and the intensity with which she perceived success with danger, basically, and you know, this is - mind you, this is a middle school kid processing this experience, but at the time, you know, I kind of deduced that the problem with trying your hardest the way my sister did was that eventually you realize you're a mortal or that you're not quite the best. And so, as a result...

MARTIN: And what set this off was that she got a grade that was less than great and...

YOO: Less than great. Yeah.

MARTIN: And it just knocked her off her pins, you know.

YOO: Yeah. And so, as a result, you know, I stopped trying my hardest at anything, in part, as a form of protection and, you know, this is, you know, how my middle school-aged mind processed the incident, but it's a strategy I proceeded to run with for the next 15 years.

MARTIN: So fast forward a couple years, a couple decades and you actually have become a writer and you've actually published a couple of young adult novels and married and you're a dad. Congratulations.

YOO: Thank you.

MARTIN: What is it that you think you draw from this experience? And, clearly, what do you want other people to draw from this experience?

YOO: For me, you know, writing this book was therapeutic. Growing up, I never - and when I would read books, I never read books about the type of kid that I was. You know, they may have existed - some of them, a few - but I never had a coming of age novel, for instance, you know, about a Korean-American kid in a similar situation like me to take comfort in.

MARTIN: David Yoo is the author of the new memoir, "The Choke Artist: Confessions of a Chronic Underachiever." He was kind enough to join us from NPR member station, WBUR in Boston. David Yoo, thanks so much for speaking with us.

YOO: Thanks for having me.

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