A Review of Happy Birthday or Whatever

Happy Birthday or WhateverOnce I finished Schooled in Europe, I moved onto Annie Choi’s Happy Birthday or Whatever: Track Suits, Kim Chee, and Other Family Disasters. I picked my travel reading well, since this was another quick-read that didn’t completely consume my attention, making me forgo all other obligations to stay in bed all day to read (um, not that that has happened).

Happy Birthday or Whatever is a collection of essays by Korean American Annie Choi about her crazy mom, crazy family, and crazy antics. It’s described as:

Meet Annie Choi. She fears cable cars and refuses to eat anything that casts a shadow. Her brother thinks chicken is a vegetable. Her father occasionally starts fires at work. Her mother collects Jesus trading cards and wears plaid like it’s a job. No matter how hard Annie and her family try to understand one another, they often come up hilariously short. But in the midst of a family crisis, Annie comes to realize that the only way to survive one another is to stick together . . . as difficult as that might be. Annie Choi’s Happy Birthday or Whatever is a sidesplitting, eye-opening, and transcendent tale of coping with an infuriating, demanding, but ultimately loving Korean family.

It’s partially the format that keeps me from getting too involved. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but short stories and essays don’t hold my attention quite as much as longer form works.

Still, as skeptical as I was in the beginning of the book (and I was skeptical), I grew to like Annie and the outrageous things that happen to her. I thought I wouldn’t relate much, what with the focus being on a completely different culture. However, as I read on, the very funny goings on -eminded me that all crazy families are relatively the same. For example, Annie talks about her mom’s utter dismay over Annie’s B+ on a fourth grade spelling test. What’s the big deal, right? Except I have heard the story on more than one occasion of my own grandma, in the face of my dad’s 99 on a paper or a test, asking him what happened to that last point. Like, I said, all crazy families are alike.

Nevertheless, even though Annie’s mom dresses her in ridiculous clothes, puts enormous academic pressure on her, and in general tries to mold her into the perfect Korean girl, you can tell it’s with love. And, better still, you can tell that as much as it drives Annie nuts, she also loves and respects her mom, all mocking aside.

As I said in the beginning, Happy Birthday or Whatever turned out to be the perfect book for my travels. I could pick it up, laugh at the stories, put it down, visit the Louvre, eat a croissant, and pick it back up whenever I got around to it.


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