Sarah Kuhn's I Love You So Mochi begins with Japanese American student Kimi Nakamura at a crossroad. Her last spring break of high school is coming up, she's about to graduate and start attending a prestigious art school. But here's the thing: She's not so sure anymore that she wants to be a painter like her mom. She's not sure what she wants.
When Kimi's estranged maternal grandparents invite her to stay with them in Japan for spring break, she jumps at the opportunity, hoping the trip to her ancestral home will spark some big life revelations. And as if meeting her grandparents for the first time, in a country she's never been to weren't enough, Kimi stumbles into a cute and charming boy named Akira, kicking off a whirlwind vacation romance.
The book is light and sweet — easy to nibble slowly but equally easy to gobble (I gobbled, finishing it during a relaxing Saturday afternoon). Kimi is a likeable and relatable protagonist, even when I found her indecision and obtuseness frustrating, and her "spring fling" with Akira feels natural and easy, a fantasy that teen me would have savored like Kimi's favorite treats. Kuhn's prose is conversational — it feels like Kimi's spilling her secrets to you, the reader, a trusted friend. But I'd recommend having a snack handy while reading; Kuhn describes the Japanese food Kimi eats with such gusto, I found myself wishing I had my own fresh-from-the-fryer croquette or black sesame sofuto kurimu -- soft serve.
It's not all shrimp filets and the giddiness of a young romance. There's also an emotional weight to the story that I wasn't quite expecting. Mochi sits solidly within a genre of YA that I adore: "teen goes on a trip to x country, and it changes her life." What makes this book special, for me, is the reflection of my own lived experience — specifically as someone who was once a teenaged Asian American.
As I read the book, I felt a deep sense of recognition, not because I'd read it before but because there are so many details in it that felt familiar. It wasn't just that I grew up in Southern California or that I'd recently been to Japan, but in the details: Kimi's search for the answer to the Big Question "Who am I?" is at once universally relatable and specifically Asian American.
Kimi spends the book torn between honoring her mother's hard work and sacrifice by following in her footsteps, or exploring her own creative passion. It's a conundrum that I — and many Asian Americans — have felt at one point or another in our lives, and the pressure and guilt many of us feel about letting our parents down after so much sacrifice can be paralyzing and isolating. The emphasis in our cultures of respecting our elders can — and does — chafe against the independence that Western society encourages. When Kuhn describes Kimi's initial estrangement from her grandparents and their country, it reminded me so strongly of the way I felt when I visited my father's home country of Taiwan for the first time that I got a bit misty-eyed.
"There are things that are so familiar to me," Kimi says, "but the, like, locational fabric around them is so different. It's a weird mishmash of feeling like there are these important 'home' touchstones, but they're wrapped up in the unfamiliar." I'd described my own trip in a similar way. Kuhn captures the disorienting, sometimes painful, always curious experience of being to a country where you're supposedly "from" and feeling at once like you're a foreigner and like you're home. It was comforting to watch Kimi begin to orient herself in a country that's both hers and not; it's how I feel when I'm in the countries where my parents were born.
And as she does so, her relationship with her grandparents unfolds in a similar way. At first, all Kimi can see are the ways her grandparents are the same as or different from her mother, their daughter. But the more she connects with them — over a mutual love of snacks, a passion for sewing and food — she forms her own bonds with them apart from their blood relation.
Kuhn describes mochi as "somehow smooth and soft and chewy ... practically melting in your mouth." Reading I Love You So Mochi is a little like eating one: A small but surprisingly substantial morsel.