Happy Birthday or Whatever: Track Suits, Kim Chee, and Other Family Disasters
  • Happy Birthday or Whatever: Track Suits, Kim Chee, and Other Family Disasters
  • Happy Birthday or Whatever: Track Suits, Kim Chee, and Other Family Disasters

Happy Birthday or Whatever: Track Suits, Kim Chee, and Other Family Disasters

4.7 12
by Annie Choi

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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

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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.

Editorial Reviews

Jancee Dunn
“Hilarious and heartfelt — an exasperated valentine to Annie Choi’s unforgettable family.”
“[I]ndelible, poignant, and often riotously funny scenes of a daughter’s frustrations and indestructible love.”
Publishers Weekly

Choi's volatile relationship with her domineering, chronically dissatisfied mother is at the heart of this memoir, a funny and often moving account of growing up in a family of Korean immigrants. The parent/child compact in Choi's childhood home was as follows: Mommy and Daddy's job is to take care of the child; the child's job is to study hard, go to Harvard and become a doctor. But Choi and her mother face each other across a seemingly unbridgeable divide: Annie has little desire to embody traditional Korean feminine virtues (and no desire to be a doctor); her mother—to whom social status is everything—cannot countenance her daughter's "shortcomings." Whether recounting the shame of bringing home a B-plus on a fourth-grade spelling test (a clear indicator that she's destined for an inferior institution) or the greater horror of having to wear Korean clothes to American school ("The fun of soup bring Spring" reads one pair of her tracksuit bottoms), Choi adds acid wit—mixed with compassion—to her descriptions of immigrant life in the San Fernando Valley. This is that rare book that delivers more than it promises; Choi tackles the theme of mother/daughter conflict with grace and humor. (Apr.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A debut offering tedious recollections of childhood. Choi has strung together 13 essays about growing up in a tight-knit Korean-American family. The title piece is a meandering account of how Choi spent her 27th birthday: alone. All of her friends bailed on her, and her parents forgot to call. Then Choi moves to "Animals," a meditation about her childhood and adolescent love of teddy bears, squishy lobsters and other stuffed animals. "Spelling B" is a light-hearted examination of her parents' obsession with academic excellence: As Choi's mother said, the parents' job was to provide for their kids, and the kids' job was to go to Harvard. Characteristically, this essay ends on a confusing note. Having recounted her less-than-triumphant performance in a school spelling bee, Choi-who holds an MFA from Columbia-describes her nightly study of "exotic and challenging words. My favorite was ytterbium. I wondered what it meant." (Does she imagine that this sounds profound?) Throughout, the author focuses on common battles between girls and their mothers, arguments over clothes and diet. Unfortunately, in her hands, these fights are little more than trite set pieces. The titles of the essays are exceedingly cutesy-the reflection about the onset of Choi's menses is called "Period Piece." Still, there are a few redeeming moments. Choi's meditation about her mother's breast cancer is tender, and her discussion of the pressure she feels to get married is laugh-out-loud funny. Choi uses dialogue to good effect, though even that faint praise must be tempered, as her rendition of her mother's broken English-"You make Mommy so tire!"-quickly gets old. Lackluster.

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Happy Birthday or Whatever Track Suits, Kim Chee, and Other Family Disasters

By Annie Choi Harper Paperbacks Copyright © 2007 Annie Choi
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-113222-3

Chapter One Happy Birthday or Whatever

I was going to have the best birthday ever. It would start with a parade-a dizzying spectacle of floats, prancing palominos, and the country's loudest marching bands. There would be troupes of mimes and contortionists, foul-mouthed drag queens, and a man juggling little girls on fire. Monkeys dressed in powder blue tuxedos would throw candy and tiny bottles of whiskey to the hordes of my fans lined up along Sixth Avenue. A dozen Michael Jackson impersonators, from his pre-op "Rock with You" days to his current noseless incarnation, would handle the sixty-foot helium balloon version of me. As the Grand Marshal, I would ride on the back of an elephant and wave as streamers, confetti, and twenty-dollar bills cascaded over me. After the procession, my friends and I would drink all the liquor in Manhattan, break tequila bottles over our heads, and pick fights with the Hell's Angels. The next morning we would crawl into work at the crack of noon, nursing hangovers and picking glass out of last night's clothes, and proclaim that the only birthday that could've been more historic was Jesus' bar mitzvah.

The morning of my twenty-seventh birthday, I received several e-mails from friends sheepishly bowing out of dinner, bar-hopping, and whatever mischief the night might bring. "No problem," I replied, "more liquor for the rest of us." Later, two more friends cancelled: "But maybe we'll make it-call us later tonight." No matter, I thought, the rest of us can still level every bar in the city. Then another friend explained he was "just too tired." I called him a geriatric and crossed him off my list. Seeing the members of my posse dwindle, I called my remaining friends to confirm our night of debauchery. One got a last-minute ticket to something that wouldn't be as exciting as my birthday-Madonna and her fake British accent in concert-and the other didn't return my calls. A half-hour before party time, other friends decided that meeting deadlines outweighed meeting Jose Cuervo. What would have been a highly intemperate party with twelve of my closest friends ended up being a quiet group of four (myself included) dining at a restaurant where tables were set with too many forks. We split a bottle of wine and ate outside. It was humid. Our waiter scraped breadcrumbs off the tablecloth with a little metal scoop, and the butter, which was sculpted into a tiny rose, sweated in the August evening heat. I turned twenty-seven with no monkeys or transvestites or celebrity impersonators. And no phone calls from my parents.

The next morning I woke up and checked my messages. Perhaps my parents called in the middle of the night; they live in Los Angeles and the three-hour time difference worked in their favor. Nothing. I was surprised; my parents use the phone as a 3,000-mile-long umbilical cord, and most of the time I want to strangle myself with it. My mother calls just to inform me that rice is on sale at Ralph's, but it's still cheaper to buy it at a Korean grocery store and how much is rice in New York and why do Americans eat Uncle Ben's, when he's not even Asian (one of the many things about Americans that still confuse my mother even though she and my father immigrated in 1971). On the one day that my parents were supposed to call, they didn't. Even my brother, the guy who used to wrestle me to the ground and fart in my face, remembered. Mike sent me a characteristically terse e-mail: "Happy birthday or whatever." My brother, in addition to being a master wordsmith, keeps untraditional hours. He spends his days sleeping and his nights processing loans for a major bank. But even he managed to send his little sister a birthday greeting.

I checked the missed-calls list on my cell phone. Nothing. What kind of parents forget their child's birthday? Bad ones. Unloving ones. Ones that don't deserve the World's Greatest Kid. (I have the mug to prove it; I stole it from my brother.) My birthday should be easy to remember-August 25th, the day before their wedding anniversary.

I toyed with the idea of not calling my parents on their anniversary and playing out a childish drama, but I realized that my parents never made a big deal about their anniversary. They've always appreciated my phone call and greetings, but I don't think they expected it. When I was growing up, August 26th was just another day. But on August 25th, I was the center of everyone's universe, and the Anniverse included a stuffed animal, my favorite meal (spaghetti or tofu stew), and an ice cream cake from Baskin-Robbins (Jamoca Almond Fudge). I flipped open my phone. At the very least, I could make my parents feel guilty. That could be fun. I dialed my mother first.


"Hi, it's me. How are you?"

"Who this?"

I thought that evolution and genetics allowed parents to easily identify the voices of their offspring. This is why wolves can identify their pups by their whines and barks from miles away. My mother apparently opted out of that gene. Instead she got the one that suddenly made her forget the date she squeezed out a squirming eight-pound ball of flesh after spending nine months with an indomitable case of hemorrhoids, which she has always made a point of mentioning to me.

"This is your daughter."


"Is there another?"

"Hi, Anne! You sound funny."

"Maybe a little older? More mature?"

"No. How you are?"

"I'm good. I'm calling to say happy anniversary."

Silence. I heard scratchy Korean AM radio playing in her car-a commercial for the new, faster Hyundai Sonata. The last time my mother was this quiet it was 1982, and she was heavily sedated after three root canals. She shuffled around the house slowly and groaned, just like a zombie, only with more drool.


Excerpted from Happy Birthday or Whatever by Annie Choi Copyright © 2007 by Annie Choi. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Jancee Dunn
“Hilarious and heartfelt — an exasperated valentine to Annie Choi’s unforgettable family.”

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Happy Birthday or Whatever: Track Suits, Kim Chee, and Other Family Disasters 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love this book! It was so funny. I got hooked into this book so fast that I read the whole book in one sitting! I loved how her mother would talk in third person like on page 76 when she's talking to Anne about how Korean isn't easy she says 'Oh so easy, mommy can do this one-' This book was hilarious and then at parts it was so sad. I recomend this book to any age group. I am 13 and this book was the best book I have ever read. I could relate so much like about her stuffed animals and her mother being so hard on her about the spelling bee. The best book. I recommend it to the highest level.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Choi has a sharp contemporary wit. It's a good and entertaining read about the awkward moments growing up as a cultural hybrid 'which there are few good books of'. Choi has a definitive and unique voice peppered wtih sarcasm, but also shows moments of vulnerability and self criticism.
Lovz-Books More than 1 year ago
Two words can only describe this book: Funny and Sarcastic. Annie Choi compiles a wonderful collection of short stories about growing up and family dysfunction. In “Spelling Bee,” we learn how little Annie must prove to her Korean mother that she won’t end up in the street holding a sign that reads “Will Werk for Food.” In “Stroke Order,” Annie tries to “[reclaim] the language she once knew and then forgot and then rejected.” (pg. 75) The family was absolutely hilarious when they tell Annie to only bring home the man she’s going to marry, which then indirectly sabotages any relationship she ever has. If you like Las Niñas: A Collection of Childhood Memories by Sarah Rafael Garcia, then you’ll love this Korean version of it, which is filled with powerful and gripping stories that make you feel right at home—after all, “in the end…we are family and we should spend time together, even if it kills us.” (pg. 213)
KANYEONRIN More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Such a funny, yet wonderful peek at Chou's family. You can hear her mother and father's voice so clearly...including their Korean influenced inflections. I loved it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a great book Annie!!! my husband is Korean and his life resembles Annie's life so much. I think all the Korean kids had to deal with the same growing pains. And Korean parents are all the same! My husband's mother's dream was for him to become a "doctor, engineer" (whatever that means). this book is much better than all the Korean soap opera's I've seen.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down in spite of my reservations about reading in on the bus or in other public places -- I was laughing out loud so often that fellow bus riders would inch away from me. The narrator is observant without gazing at her navel. It's rare to find a book about immigrant families that aren't 'woe is me' or 'no one understands me.' This one is neither. If you like Sedaris, you'll love this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book made me laugh out loud. Choi's view of her family and her relationship with her mother, especially, is scathing, honest, loving, and amused. Her story is specific, but any mother or daughter will be able to relate to the dynamics with which the book concerns itself. An impressive debut.