When it comes to fatherhood, John Cho jokes that he's "flawless." When it comes to writing his first book, he's flexible. The Star Trek actor had originally intended to dazzle young readers with a mystery aimed at a middle school audience — an age that resonated due to his own adolescent memories of turning to books to help navigate changes and uncertainty during that time. Then 2020 happened.
"As we are finalizing what [the book] might look like, the pandemic hit and along with it a lot of other unfortunate events, amongst them the George Floyd murder and the ensuing protests, the anti-Asian violence," Cho tells Yahoo Life's So Mini Ways. Because of the pandemic, his son and daughter, now aged 13 and 9, were spending all their time at home with Cho and his wife, actress Kerri Higuchi.
"[With] everything that was happening, I was filtering through the mindset of, what must my kids think about it? And so that put me in their heads," Cho, 49, says.
Instead of the lighter mystery he had envisioned, the California-raised Harold & Kumar star drew parallels between the turmoil of 2020 and another period of unrest that hit close to home: the 1992 Los Angeles riots, in which violence erupted in South Central L.A. following the acquittal of the four LAPD officers charged with using excessive force against Rodney King in a beating caught on camera the year before. The result is Troublemaker, his debut novel following a 12-year-old Korean-American boy named Jordan as he braves the brewing tensions to track down his father at his Koreatown store in the hours immediately following the reading of the King verdict on April 29, 1992. The first day of the riots is now referred to as "Sa-I-Gu" — or, 4-2-9 — among L.A.-based Korean-Americans, a community that had already been rattled by the 1991 fatal shooting of a 15-year-old Black girl, Latasha Harlins, by convenience store owner Soon Ja Du. Du's light sentence, which included no prison time, was upheld by an appeals court just a week before the riots kicked off.
In his author's note, Cho refers to his two children as his "ace-in-the-hole authenticity readers." While he hasn't shied from sharing Troublemaker's more serious, and "unfortunately still relevant," themes — racial tension, gun violence — with them, he approaches these conversations with the intent to educate, not alarm.
"We try to be honest without freaking them out. But we do feel that it's important to be plainspoken with them and not to necessarily shield them, but also to not overemphasize it," he says, adding that he hopes Troublemaker's lighter moments and ’90s setting will give readers some distance and a sense of adventure while still addressing important issues.
The trickiest part of the writing process, Cho shares, was getting the relationship between Jordan and his stern "Appa," or father, to feel authentic. The actor, who credits wife Higuchi for guiding him through parenthood, says he's hardly the disciplinarian his dad was — for the most part.
"The thing that probably sets me off is is the thing that set my father off if I think about it," he admits of his top dad rule. "Don't talk back to your mother. Say whatever you want to me, but that sets me off."
Otherwise, Cho has moved away from some of the parenting norms he grew up with.
"I think a lot of Korean culture, especially when it comes to child-rearing, is based a little bit on shame, and that's how you kind of keep people in line," he says. "Shame is a very important part of how people were kept in line in my childhood. And I think we have taken that down a lot in our house."
Ultimately, Cho prides himself on raising an ordinary family — one with grandparents and playdates and homework and a new puppy and a home where "Encanto is being played on a loop." That's something he and Higuchi take pains to protect by keeping the kids off social media and away from the limelight.
"We have kept our children out of the public eye and that is by design," he says. "They're not on my social media feeds and neither is my wife. It's not their choice that I'm a known person; it was my choice. And so whatever they want to do is fine by me when they're old enough. ... They didn't ask for this. So until they are old enough, I'm gonna give them the option of being invisible, which is a wonderful place to be."
Final question: Have they seen the Harold & Kumar films yet?
"I'll give that to 'em when they're 30. Maybe I'll get a pat on the back."
—Video produced by Stacy Jackman.
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