John Cho: I struggled explaining the turmoil of the past two years to my kids

In his own words, actor John Cho shares how the turmoil of the past few years led to tough (but necessary) conversations with his kids — and the creation of his new YA novel Troublemaker (out now).

In early 2020, my whole family was locked up at home. My son and daughter were doing remote junior high and elementary school, so we were spending a lot of time together and CNN was always on. It was the early days of the pandemic. George Floyd had been murdered. There were protests. There was anti-Asian violence. On a stop sign on our street, somebody spray-painted the word "China" below the word "stop." And it was really startling. We were calling the children's grandparents and discussing safety measures when they take their walks. The kids had a lot of questions — and frankly, I was struggling to understand what was happening to the United States of America.

As my wife and I attempted to put things into context for our kids, I started reflecting on my family's journey in this country, immigrating here, our assumptions about progress and our assumptions about what this country was about. My thoughts drifted to the beating of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and what it did to the city, how it affected the Korean American community. I actually was in college at Berkeley during the riots. I recall feeling a lot of helplessness and asking myself, "How is this happening?" The police beatings had been caught on camera — it was plain as day — and yet the officers were acquitted. It was such a sense of deflation. It was such a sense of betrayal by the justice system. And I remember worrying about the Koreans who were defending their stores with guns because the police had left South Central and Koreatown to go surround the federal building in Westwood. There was no police presence. It seemed like a bizarre failure on the part of law enforcement all around.

John Cho
John Cho

Vivien Killilea/Getty Images John Cho

Because I was thinking about my kids so much, I thought, "Well, what would the riots have looked like to a kid?" I was already working on ideas for a young-adult book with my publisher and had thought it might be a mystery novel or something. But I became so consumed with these thoughts that I called my editor and said, "I think I want to write a different book. And I think it has to be this…"

The result was Troublemaker, which follows a 12-year-old boy on the night of the 1992 riots. When his dad goes to board up their liquor store in South Central in case there's unrest, the boy sneaks out of the house to deliver him a gun for protection.

My co-writer Sarah Suk and I had to walk a difficult line of balancing what was appropriate for a young person while also being realistic about what they are exposed to today: My children go through active-shooter drills at school, so it felt ridiculous to deny that there are guns in the world — and there are obviously racial tensions. But my focus wasn't just on social issues. I also wanted it to be a story that moved, that was entertaining, and something that kept children's attention. And we wanted to paint a portrait that went beyond the typical depiction of a first-generation Asian American family driven by either custom or shame rather than love. In our story, the relationships of love are visible and central.

John Cho
John Cho

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers The cover of 'Troublemaker,' by John Cho

As an immigrant, I thought things were supposed to get better from generation to generation. I think in the back of my mind, prior to 2020, I must have thought we didn't have to talk to our children about racial animus anymore… at least not the way my parents had to talk to me about it. But I've realized, no, kids do need some education on this. They need an outlet to discuss this stuff. And so we have to be sensitive, but also be responsible. That is to say, be honest. Kids are smart, and there's too much going on for them not to have questions about it. As guardians, it would be an abdication of our responsibilities to not allow them to know, and to ask questions. It's the only way it does get better for the next generation.

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