The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

 

It’s not easy to find novels about North Korea.

A Creative Writing professor from Stanford took a stab at it.  His name – Adam Johnson – is almost as American as apple pie a la mode but he did a pretty good job with The Orphan Master’s Son.

Johnson certainly was going for “epic” and his story sweeps a span of time and space beginning in the humble countryside that no one in North Korea ever sees and ending in the fantastical capital of Pyongyang.  There is love, there is hope, there’s blood and guts and glory, tragedy and horror.  There is also comedy – extremely dark comedy, of course.

Pak Jun Do is not an orphan, but he might as well be.  He works at an orphanage called Long Tomorrows under the management of a cruel and neglectful father.  Even his name Jun Do (“John Doe,” get it?) is a generic name taken from a roster of famous orphans.  The original Pak Jun Do was famed for loyalty.   His namesake, the hero of our story, lives up to it by being one of the most loyal and humble citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Jun Do rises through the ranks pretty quickly.  From professional kidnapper to a spy intercepting radio transmissions aboard a fishing boat he seems to make the most out of life and is uncorrupted by wealth or rewards.  “You’re a guy who doesn’t need much,” one friend remarks, “but when it comes to other people, the sky’s the limit.”

Jun Do’s bold and brave exploits land him a diplomatic mission to Texas to visit a senator and reclaim from the Americans something valued they took from the Dear Leader himself.  The mission takes some unexpected turns, and by the end of it, Jun Do disappears.  When he re-emerges, he is no longer Jun Do.  He is Commander Ga.

This is when the novel gets crazy.  In a mostly good way.   The first part of the novel (“The Biography of Jun Do”) is a straightforward narrative, but the second part (“The Confessions of Commander Ga”) is a series of events and crescendos building on one another with more and more significant recurring themes about identity, truth, and purpose – you know, ultimate issues kind of stuff.  Jun Do, now Commander Ga, has allegedly killed and assumed the identity of one of North Korea’s most formidable men.  He takes his place in the city of Pyongyang and has a chance to be close to the woman he loves: Commander Ga’s widow, the famous actress Sun Moon.  He also has to save Sun Moon before she’s snatched away by the greedy and lustful Dear Leader himself.

(Yes, Kim Jong Il is an actual character in this book.  And he even has a few appropriately outrageous lines, such as the following:  “This is the gui-tar.  It’s used to perform American rural music…It’s also the instrument of choice for playing ‘the blues,’ which is a form of American music that chronicles the pain caused by poor decision making.”)

The story of Commander Ga in Part 2 is interwoven with two other points of view.  The first, rather brilliantly, is a loudspeaker blasting its own propagandized version of Commander Ga’s story, beginning each day like an old time radio show: “Citizens, gather round…!”  It’s an almost theatrical motif you could imagine in a musical production.   The second point of view follows a nameless interrogator who is holding important characters in prison.  His kind and truth-seeking character is a foil to the unspeakably cruel people he works with – particularly a woman named Q-Kee who is the embodiment of the ruthless North Korean version of the Gestapo.

It can get confusing if you don’t read carefully.  The interrogator’s story happens in a different sequence of time from the story of Commander Ga and the propagandized version, of course, may or may not have happened at all.  There are a lot of shadowy characters who pop up and may or may not come back later.   Commander Ga himself does not seem to be sure who he really is or what his destiny is, for that matter.  But the loose ends are more or less tied up at the end, and whatever isn’t is left tantalizingly to the imagination.  If some of the major philosophical themes weren’t so subtle this could be a stunning opera.  Or a Hollywood thriller.   But the subtle and shadowy stuff makes it good.

Perhaps one of the most brilliantly strange things that Johnson manages to do is have a running reference in the story to Casablanca – Commander Ga and the actress Sun Moon are compared to Rick and Elsa falling in love in a dangerous and unstable situation.  Jun Do alias Commander Ga certainly is the melancholic lone wolf type who is bound in the end to do the right thing.  His love for Sun Moon is a bit larger than life and never really explained – but perhaps it’s because she reminds him of his beautiful mother who was a singer kidnapped to Pyongyang.  The haunting loss of his mother is perhaps the only real reason why he is mad enough to stay in North Korea when all his comrades are trying to escape:

How to tell [him] that the only way to shake your ghosts was to find them, and that the only place Jun Do could do that was right here.  How to explain the recurring dream that he’s listening to his radio, that he’s getting the remnants of important messages, from his mother, from other boys in the orphanage…His mother wants to get urgent messages to him where she is, she wants to tell him why, she keeps repeating her name over and over, though he can’t quite make it out.  How to explain that in Seoul, he knows, the messages would stop.

Of course when Jun Do – Commander Ga – meets Sun Moon he has a new reason to stay in North Korea.  But there are still ghosts everywhere in this story.  Ghosts of characters who die and vanish.  Ghosts of characters you never meet, like Jun Do’s mother.  Even living characters can seem ghostly at times.   As the narrator says at one point, “It was easy to make somebody disappear in North Korea.  But making them reappear – who has that kind of magic?”

As bizarre and surreal as the story gets at times, I think Johnson’s “ghostly” vibe running through the Orphan Master’s Son is a fitting one.  As hard as one tries to get the facts on North Korea, to the outside world it remains one of the ghostliest of places.  We can only imagine it’s ghostly on the inside too.

Advertisements

Book #11. The Vegetarian. By Han Kang.

Apparently it’s easier being green than it is being human.

Some facts before the opinions begin. This novel has lately been the talk of the town as it’s finally made its debut in the English-speaking world. Han Kang teamed up with translator Deborah Smith (who, incredibly, began learning Korean only eight years ago at the age of 21) to get this book to an Anglo audience. As a result, it won the prestigious Man Booker International prize in 2016 – the first Korean novel to do so.   It’s no secret that with my background I’ve been on the hunt for good Korean novels. And with the background of this one’s success I was duly impressed.

But I must confess that my modest hopes were pulverized.

This nihilistic, phantasmagorical hallucination of a novel blew over me like a rude gust of wind and left me absolutely cold. It’s not that I couldn’t grasp any point or message – to be sure, it’s rich in meaning and symbolism and all that obligatory, literary stuff. I acknowledge the author’s gift for vivid, spare writing and the translator’s gift to render it seamlessly. I get why people like this book. But just as everyone has certain gastronomic preferences, my reaction to this book was that of downing a cup of traditional Chinese medicine. It was unrepentantly bitter and just the littlest bit nasty.

The plot

 Our protagonist, Yeong Hye, is an ordinary Korean housewife, “completely unremarkable in every way,” according to her husband, “Mr. Cheong” who is the narrator for Part I. Mr. Cheong is the ultimate underachiever, embracing mediocrity to the fullest as he coasts through life working at a low-profile company during the week and veg’ing out in front of the TV on his days off. Yeong Hye is a docile and “dutiful” wife who cooks and cleans and makes no demands whatsoever – the capstone to his perfectly mundane and chauvinistic existence.

All of that rudely changes after five years, when he walks in on his wife in the middle of the night, hair disheveled, throwing expensive meat and seafood out of the refrigerator. Righteously indignant he demands an explanation. Her response is an enigmatic four syllables: “I had a dream.” From that moment on she stubbornly refuses to eat meat.

Things quickly go from order to chaos as Yeong Hye’s family gets wind of the news and tries to talk sense into her. Her mother screws up her wrinkled face and makes manipulative pleas. Her abusive tyrant of a father, fed up (no pun intended) with his daughter’s carnophobia slugs her full in the face and tries to force a piece of seasoned meat into her mouth. She reacts by letting out a primal scream and trying to slash her wrist with a knife. The family has no choice but to put her in a psych hospital as the curtain falls on act one.

Part II of the story, “The Mongolian Mark,” is from the point of view of Yeong Hye’s brother-in-law, a failed installation and video artist with a taste for the erotic. He gets wind of the fact that Yeong Hye has a bluish birthmark on the hidden parts of her body and develops an obsessed desire to not only see it, but to act out a sex fantasy with her as part of an art project he’s envisioned. While not a downright clod like her husband, her brother-in-law (we never get his name) is disturbingly unconcerned by the fact that Yeong Hye is mentally and emotionally on the fringe. In fact, the only male character in the entire story who seems to have any sort of moral compass is the brother-in-law’s studio friend, J, who stops short of helping him film a graphic video without Yeong Hye’s active consent. Put out by this, the brother-in-law manages to rendezvous with Yeong Hye anyway and finally consummate his fantasy. At the same time, his horrified wife gets wise to the fact and calls in a team from the psych ward, complete with strait jackets. “Act two” ends more or less as melodramatically as the first.

Part III, “Flaming Trees,” follows Yeong Hye’s rapid deterioration at the mental hospital as her sister In Hye struggles to care for her. No longer content to refuse only meat, Yeong Hye now refuses all food and other basic human desires in order to no longer be an “animal.” She sheds her clothes to bathe in the sunlight and drinks only water, in the hope that she will photosynthesize into becoming a plant. A tree, to be exact. In Hye’s final plea to her dying, anorexic sister is, “We have to wake up at some point, don’t we?”   Yeong Hye never answers her, but I can assure you that as the reader I was enthusiastically replying, “Yes, I am quite sure I’m ready for this nightmare to come to an end.”

 The exposition:

Some people have interpreted this novel as being a commentary on South Korea’s rigid patriarchal culture and its devastating effects on women, represented by Yeong Hye and In Hye. Simply put, Yeong Hye’s rejection of meat is an outright rejection of a culture whose cuisine revolves around meat and seafood, and therefore is a rejection of that culture’s values and traditions. The main ideas in the book flow around issues within South Korea, per se.

I would argue that this is falling way short of the mark, and most readers would agree. The story is not really about being a vegetarian simply to reject patriarchal culture– it’s far too surreal and fable-like. Rather, I would argue it’s a story about a weak and vulnerable individual who finds violence in all its forms inseparable from human existence and decides therefore that she no longer wants to be human. After an abusive childhood and traumatic memories she is haunted by bloody nightmares that won’t go away, even after she stops eating meat. Her only solution is to renounce food, sex, all wants and preferences completely. Like a bizarre, Kafkaesque kind of nirvana she fancies herself literally becoming a tree and transcending humanness when, in fact, she’s actually dying of anorexia. Sounds miserable to any sane person, but ironically she’s the only happy one by the novel’s ending.

On the other hand, all the people in Yeong Hye’s life struggle with the various fleshly cares and social anxieties that Yeong Hye has managed to throw off. Her prickly prick of a husband is concerned about what others think of him. Her depressed brother-in-law is hungry for sexual fulfillment that can’t be reached. Her overworked sister, perhaps her only true friend, is bound up by family duty and sense of purpose. She even envies Yeong Hye and confesses:

She’s been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner.

 So being a human basically means being a prisoner of social constraints. Especially if you’re a woman, as both In Hye and Yeong Hye suffer the most. Yeong Hye’s rejection of humanity by being a vegetarian (and later anorexic) is ultimately a desperate attempt at control in a world that seeks to take control away from you:

It’s your body, you can treat it however you please. The only area where you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted.

 No it doesn’t, because those heartless hospital workers insist on stabbing you with IV needles to keep you alive when you’re dying. How cruel of them.

So yes, if this isn’t an eloquently wrought little story about nihilism, I can’t say what it’s about.  Perhaps it’s what a lot of readers like.  To be sure there are many who have loved this book, but as far as I understand, they are the sort of people who are already sympathetic to these issues. There is nothing subtle or subversive here. Rather, it’s a nightmarish, strangled sort of scream that may validate victims who relate, but cause the rest of us to sit there blinking and wondering what on earth to think.

Perhaps most damning of all, though, is that it’s nothing terribly original. The premise of a woman rejecting cultural norms, initially intriguing and grounded in reality, descends like the second law of Thermodynamics into an extended panoramic scene of chaos and discord. The characters are one-dimensional, only there to make a point.   The narrative style shifts from a clear first person, to a more vague third person past tense, to a surreal third person present tense to create a weird dream-like quality. Perhaps that was exactly the author’s intention, but I find this style of writing overdone and wearying. The gruesome and erotic imagery did nothing to move me – it was invasive and unrelenting, something akin to a bad dream. And by extension, the entire novel is not unlike a nightmare from which you wake up, shudder, and then realize, “Oh, right, the world is thankfully not that horrible.”

While I was reading this novel it did compel my attention, but once I closed the last page the blurred-together events and scenes already began to fade from my memory. Those that didn’t I would be content to forget. Not because I think the subject matter unimportant, but because I found the pessimistic undertone defeating and senseless. So yes, it left me colder than a slab of ribeye steak at the butcher shop and no more interested in giving up eating steak – or any meat – than I was before reading this novel.

Book #9. The Calligrapher’s Daughter. By Eugenia Kim.

It takes a certain kind of talent to take a depressing subject and write about it without being depressing. For that I take my hat off to Eugenia Kim for her debut novel, The Calligrapher’s Daughter. I also have to admit it helps to read when you go in with low expectations.

After Kyung Sook Shin’s would-be tearjerker Please Take Care of Mom, I was a bit gun-shy about Korean authors. I searched for different novels in the field but came up dry. There were options, of course – but the topics ranged from dark to downright visceral, and the titles themselves weren’t the most encouraging (I Have the Right to Kill Myself – sounds lovely, doesn’t it?).

When the search engines finally led me to this novel, I took heart. The setting is Japan-occupied Korea at the turn of the century, but the protagonist is a girl from an elite family with dreams and goals of her own notwithstanding. The challenging (and sometimes tragic) events throughout are counterbalanced with hope and triumph. Many elements of the novel are actually based on the Korean-American author’s own parents, which adds a dimension of historical genuineness.

Han Na Jin is our protagonist. Technically, she doesn’t have a real name. “Najin” is her mother’s hometown, and this has become the name she goes by. Her father, the proud aristocratic scholar Han, has refused to name her out of defiance to the Japanese colonial regime, which has attempted to erase all Korean culture including male primogeniture. Because she was born at almost exactly the time Japan annexed Korea Han has a hard time even looking at his daughter without being reminded of failure and broken dreams – and of course, the fact she’s a girl and not a boy.

Initially the character of Najin seems almost embarrassingly cliché in her role as well-meaning but wayward daughter, as does her father in all his patriarchal demands. Najin tells us of her childhood:

I wasn’t a perfect daughter. Our estate overflowed with places to crawl, creatures to catch and mysteries to explore, and the clean outside air, whether icy, steamy or sublime, made me restive and itching with curiosity.

Not unlike a modern Disney princess she fumbles good-naturedly to fit into the mold her understanding mother and stern father have placed her in. From Najin,’s view, there is indeed more to life than stifling traditions in the midst of an enemy-occupied homeland.   She takes heart to pursue a daringly feminist path (for her time), partly encouraged by her accomplished young role model teacher Yee:

You must never stop learning and asking questions. A woman’s life is hard. Without a husband it’s almost impossible. But nowadays, with education, a single woman such as myself can at least be of some help to her family.

With convictions like this, Najin naturally begins to dream of loftier goals – perhaps even entrance into Ehwa University.

Once we see things from her father Han’s point of view, however, the picture is very different. In fact, reading from Han’s perspective I could not help but think of Okonkwo from Things Fall Apart simply trying to hold together the social fabric and everything in life as he’s known it. While stubborn and prideful like Okonkwo, Han also proves over time to be more adaptable, as well as introspective:

Was it not a mark of personal failure that so much had been lost during his generation? He wasn’t prone to sin, though pride was a struggle, and he acted rightly and responsibly all his life. Still the stain was there, and he prayed it was contained in him alone.

Then there is Haejung, wife to Han and mother to Najin, who must exercise the ultimate balance between following tradition to appease her husband, and realizing her own dreams by helping her daughter receive the education and opportunities she herself never had. All three – Najin, Han and Haejung – will watch some dreams fall apart while other dreams are fulfilled – although not always in they way they imagined.

The story becomes progressively more interesting when a brother, Ilsun, (and thus “heir”) joins the family, only to turn out far more stubborn and willful than Najin. In the meantime, Haejung, at the expense of Han’s wrath, disrupts his plans to marry off their daughter by sending Najin away to train under her eminent aunt for a position in the royal court. The tide turns again when the royal family and staff are sent into exile, and Najin returns home to start over.

Still in Disney princess mode, Najin is somewhat determined to remain single and focus on helping her family out. Her equally stubbornly parents have different designs and set her up with a pastor-in-training, Calvin Cho. The intellectual Najin surprises herself by falling for Calvin and agreeing to marry him. She packs up her bags to accompany him to America, only to find herself separated from him at the visa checkpoint border when the Japanese officials refuse to accept her documents. From here follows the ultimate test of faith and sanity as Najin remains in Korea in the face of oncoming war, waiting for a trans-oceanic husband who may or may not forget her in the process of time.

Although Kim is no literary pioneer – and it’s worth adding she does not write with the airs of one – she deserves praise for the panoramic view she takes of Najin’s family, rather than focusing solely on the character of Najin. Han, Haejung, Ilsun, Calvin, and a host of other more distant relatives, sympathetic friends as well as more ambiguous characters at turns intrigue, surprise and even delight us as we realize they’re not just there to make a point about some kind of lofty idea. Each character is three dimensional (even the insufferable philanderer Ilsun).  You don’t blindly hate or love anyone, and better yet, you like people you don’t want to like.

On a drier but important note, the historical insight is absolutely fascinating, especially when it comes to understanding the conditions of Japan-occupied Korea. Like a well-seasoned dish, Kim provides enough details and plot events of tragic nature to create sharp and bitter sensations, but there’s more than enough hope, redemption and reprieve to make up for it.  There is an inevitable sense of loss and nostalgia, especially through Han’s eyes, but never in a sentimental way.

Perhaps just as interesting as the vivid depiction of Japan’s influence and the approaching war is the novel’s scrutiny of Korea’s rapidly changing social structure and culture, including Christianity’s absorption of Confucianism. The scholar Han represents tradition and orthodoxy: he adopts Christianity only as he sees it compatible with Confucian values. Haejung, like many other Koreans, looks to the Christian faith as a beacon of hope in a world of chaos – and she has raised her children to believe the same. Najin herself is no rebel, but she struggles to keep faith in the face of “unfair” events, even as she respects her open-minded but devout pastor husband.

While believers and atheists alike may argue till the cows come home on whether prayers are really answered, Najin imparts her final impression on why she was able to triumph in the face of her adversity:

As for me, I realized it wasn’t the answers I was seeking all those years that mattered as much as the act of seeking itself. It was incredible, this human capacity for learning, for hope, for love, that persisted like the box of light in my cell…It was beyond my understanding.

 The Calligrapher’s Daughter appears predictable and begins in a predictable enough way, but soon transforms into a rich and complex story full of surprises and ultimately, resolution. If novels had their own flavors, then compared to the putrid acidity of a postmodern Nihilist story The Calligrapher’s Daughter is one of those 80% cocoa chocolate bars you see on the impulse shelf at the Trader Joe’s checkout counter. In other words, bittersweet but very much satisfying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Grandmas

What I have learned so far from a sappy novel and my formidable Korean grandmother-in-law about filial piety.

 

Ever since reading a story about a woman named Park So Nyo who goes missing at a train station I can’t stop thinking about another woman named Nam Pib Han.

You could say she is one of the many “real life” versions of So Nyo, living her life quietly the way she always has out in the countryside while her children and grandchildren head to the city. Luckily her existence is not cold or thankless like So Nyo’s. But she does face the same cultural, generation gap that many other elderly Korean people today face.

Nam Pib Han, by the way, is my husband’s grandma.

When I tell Korean people that I married a Korean man, one of the things they are most anxious to know is how I get along with my mother-in-law. Not unlike neighboring “tiger moms” in China, Korean matriarchs are a force to be reckoned with. So when I cheerily report that not only is my mother-in-law a very kind and laid back sort of person, but that she and my father-in-law are entrepreneurs living in Salt Lake City you can imagine the wide-eyed reactions I sometimes get.

But on the other hand, I silently add, my grandmother-in-law is not someone you want to mess with anytime soon!

The first time I met Grandma Yun Ho and I were still dating. It was during Chuseok – the full moon harvest holiday. Breakfast was at 6 AM in the morning, and the ceremony right afterwards.   I woke up a few minutes too late, and right after slumping onto the toilet I heard a banging at the door.   Not wanting to seem rude by shouting at an old woman (especially while sitting on the toilet), I awkwardly sat frozen while she continued to hammer away for a good minute or so. The banging finally stopped, and Grandma had no choice but to give up and clamber onto her scooter and drive off to Aunt and Uncle’s up the road.

 The rest of the time went a bit more smoothly – I appeased both Aunt and Grandma by stuffing myself at the table and did my best to help clear dishes. Grandma was a tad ruffled that I couldn’t be of more use in the kitchen, but she acknowledged that my limited Korean language skills made it difficult. My last memory of that trip was standing outside her front porch and eating steamed corn on the cob that she had insisted on giving me. She grinned as I ate it – that small reassurance was enough to keep me chomping away in spite of my bursting stomach seams.

A year and a half later, two months after our wedding Yun and I returned to Grandma’s to celebrate the Lunar New Year. This time around I was actual family, so I did my best to make myself useful. I already knew Grandma (and to some extent, Aunt) expected it. Yun and I gave them gift money and did the “full bow”, once to Grandma and Grandpa, and once also to Aunt and Uncle. I tried to use Korean phrases whenever the opportunity arose. But in spite of efforts on both sides to be gracious, there was a definite strain this time around. Tensions were taut. Grandma was irritable unless all the women were in the kitchen helping, in spite of the limited amount of work to be done. Both Aunt and Grandma almost never smiled. Long silent meals were followed by longer periods of time idling in front of a TV playing at low volume, until each family member wandered off one by one to take a nap. Whenever we took our leave, Grandma would bark, “Be sure you come back for dinner!”

In my stressed and hypersensitive state I tried to “figure out what had gone wrong.” I was well aware that filial piety was a crucial aspect of Korean culture – was I not “pious” enough? Or was the “filial” part the issue, since I was a foreigner?

That night I had what one might describe as “an inevitable mini meltdown.” I experienced the strange, distinct sensation of suddenly being in someone else’s life – of feeling like I was in some sort of cross-cultural drama. I recall sitting in Grandma’s humble, dusty little guestroom, staring at Yun and thinking, “How did I get here?” The man who I was in love with and whom I had married was also the very reason I was there, and thus the reason I was having this spectacularly suffocating experience. That very thought made me feel a pang of guilt, and redoubled my annoyance with myself. Why couldn’t I just shake it off? It was at that point that Yun confessed to me that he, too, was not “having fun.”

“It’s no one’s fault,” he began.

“You and I aren’t happy right now because we don’t know what else to do.   Aunt isn’t happy because she isn’t sure what to do. And Grandma herself isn’t happy because she probably doesn’t know what to do, either.   We’re all family, but we’re not close. We live apart. We have totally different lives. And then there’s the language barrier. Grandma and Aunt probably never expected their kids and grandkids to end up so differently from them.”

I have to admit, I can understand why the characters in Kyung Sook Shin’s “Please Take Care of Mom” were so frustrated all the time. So Nyo, like Grandma, wanted what was best for her children – even if that meant their lives went in opposite directions from her own. But could even So Nyo and Grandma have anticipated just how different that would be?   Did So Nyo realize that her literate daughter would turn into a famous writer and travel the world? Did Grandma consider that five of her seven children would move to other countries, and three of her grandsons would marry foreign women? Did either woman ever manage to make peace with these events while they themselves stayed at home, tending to their farm, feeding the chickens, making banchan, and taking care of the ancestral rites?

What are Park So Nyo and Nam Pib Han’s ultimate feelings on the matter, anyway? In “Please Take Care of Mom” we never get So Nyo’s exact sentiment. Even in her death she is more concerned about her family members and their welfare than she is about her own, and seems almost resigned to her less than ideal life.  The most revealing passage in the novel, perhaps, is one in which So Nyo’s daughter Chi Hon asks her, “Mom, do you like being in the kitchen?”

So Nyo is utterly nonplussed by her daughter’s question.  “I don’t like or dislike the kitchen. I cooked because I had to.”

So perhaps Grandma is simply doing what she has to do, in her own gruff way, neither liking nor disliking it, and I am misinterpreting it as personal resentment. I can see that being the case. Yet at the same time, there still obviously is some sort of expectation on her end. And that expectation goes back to the matter of filial piety.

This begs the question: what exactly is filial piety and how does it apply in an ever-changing and modernizing world?

How is it that we can we honor our elders and make everyone happy in spite of long distance, technological distractions, intermarriage, shifting values and a bigger generation gap than ever? Is it even possible – or is filial piety a concept of yesteryear that the old merely reminisce over and the young only know about through watching Korean dramas?

In seeking to answer this question I now begin to see the obvious differences between the lives of Park So Nyo and Nam Pib Han.

While Park So Nyo’s family had evolved and urbanized so dramatically that they literally lost their own mother at a train station and had no clue where to find her, Nam Pib Han aka Grandma is blessed to live next door to her oldest son and daughter-in law who never let her out of sight. The other kids, although they live further away, come and pay their respects whenever they can, and the grandkids haven’t turned out too badly, either. Yun Ho, in his seven years of living in Korea as an adult has managed to make it out to the family farm every year for important holidays, as well as special occasions like weddings and funerals (I accompany him whenever I can).   So much for Kyung Sook Shin’s scathing description of Korean people who board a jet plane during the traditional holidays and exclaim, “Ancestors, I’ll be back!”

Also unlike So Nyo, Grandma can read and write (actually, most in her generation can) and her husband was always loyal and even cooked her seaweed soup once in a while. Perhaps the fact she outlived him meant he didn’t have a painful lesson to learn, the way So Nyo’s husband did.

So Nyo was never able to leave Korea, and rarely even went to Seoul. Grandma, on the other hand, has traveled to Canada and the US to visit her children, and even saw the Vegas Strip. You might not imagine it from your first assessment of her – she is as crumpled and careworn as the other women of her generation – but she has seen more of the world than many of her peers. During her youth she fled with her family to China to escape North Korean soldiers. I’m sure she would be full of fascinating stories, if only she were prompted to share them. (In fact, perhaps I should make that a project for the next time we visit her!).

So while there is awkwardness and compromise, while there are disappointed expectations and undeniable distance, I feel that Yun Ho and his family (and hopefully me, by extension) have found our own 21st century way to observe filial piety, the best way we can. Doubtless a few more phone calls wouldn’t hurt. But I would like to think if we were walking with Grandma in a train station, she wouldn’t slip away from our notice and get lost in the crowd. I would like to think that when she passes away we aren’t consumed with regret at what we should have done but did not.

Real life is never perfect, but there’s often a lot that’s good to it, and that is why I prefer Nam Pib Han’s story to Park So Nyo’s. And I’m glad that it’s the story that also happens to be true.

The Korean Lunar New Year is less than a week away. This year my parents will be visiting Korea – there will be no chance during the holiday to visit Grandma.

“That’s a phone call I don’t want to make,” Yun confessed to me the other night.   I admit that I felt a twinge of guilt: would Grandma understand? Or were we disappointing her expectations, yet again? In her culture you don’t simply invite over your grandson’s wife’s American relatives for the New Year, otherwise that might strike some people as an obvious solution.

It then occurred to me that we could always create a plan B. There’s no rule written in stone that says we can’t visit Grandma and Aunt and Uncle at another “normal” time of the year to bear gifts and pay respects. Perhaps setting up a “rain check” with Grandma would appease her for the time being. I’ve already begun considering which sorts of goodies or household items she might most enjoy.   It’s not an ideal scenario, but it is the next best thing possible – and that is precisely what I mean by “filial piety in the 21st century.”

I’ll send a text message to my mom tonight to see if she has any extra space to pack a carton of Sees’ mini pops.   And perhaps I should write a reminder note to go on my closet door as well: “Please look after Grandma.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book #1. “Please Look After Mom.” By Kyung-sook Shin

The road to redemption is a never-ending guilt trip.

I have lived in Korea nearly four years, and I will confess outright that this is my first Korean novel.  Ever.  In my defense, though, finding recommended and well-publicized Korean novels is surprisingly difficult – especially compared to its nearby neighbor Japan, where authors like Murakami have practically become household names.  So when “Please Look After Mom” continued to surface in my search engine results, I figured this would be a good place to start.

This book apparently was “the” Korean novel to go international.  It has been translated into English (how else could I have read the bloody thing?) and sold over a million copies.  Not too shabby.  To add to that, the premise is simple yet intriguing enough:  a family of six finds their lives turned upside down when their 69-year-old mother, So Nyo, wanders off from their father at a train station and goes missing.   I figured it could end up being comedy noir, or whimsical at the very least. 

If only that were the case.

The story is told from four different points of view, which grow increasingly jumbled and vague as the novel progresses.  The first section is narrated by So Nyo’s oldest daughter, Chi Hon,  a high-strung but successful writer.  As Chi Hon writes flyers for her MIA mom and posts them around town, she agonizes over her past selfish behavior and starts to blame herself as she revisits what she was doing the day her mom disappeared:

“As your mom’s hand got pulled away from father’s, you were in China.  You were with your fellow writers at the Beijing Book Fair.  You were flipping through a Chinese translation of your book at a booth when your Mom got lost in Seoul Station…..A few hours after your mom disappeared, you and your group took a taxi to the nighttime city…and, huddled under red lights, tasted 56-proof Chinese liquor and ate piping-hot crab sauteed in chili oil.”  (Pg. 11)

Chi Hon’s narrative is in second person, probably to reflect her self-chastisement, yet it can’t help but seem at times like a long-winded reprimand from some Higher Being who represents the Gods of Filial Piety sent to lay bare the decaying family values in South Korea’s topsy-turvy newly Capitalistic society.    (“You heathen girl, how dare you be in another country drinking booze while your mother got lost at a train station?”)

As we begin to learn, through Chi Hon’s flashbacks, about the quiet and unobserved life of her mom, So Nyo we find out the first of many dramatic revelations: So Nyo is illiterate.  This only adds to the pathos of her situation, and to the contrast with her educated, uppity modern daughter.  Growing up, Chi Hon  reads and write letters for her poor mother who wants to stay in touch with family.  Finally, So Nyo sells a puppy to earn enough money to reward Chi Hon with her very own book.  The uppity little daughter’s final choice? “Human, All Too Human,” by Nietzsche.  (Ironic title?)

At the start of Section 2 and still no Mom in sight, the point-of-view shifts to the family’s eldest son, Hong Chol.  Strangely, this section of the book is entitled, “I’m sorry, Hong Chol,” in the words of his mother (in a flashback memory).  Shouldn’t it be Hong Chol saying, “I’m sorry, Mother?”  After all, we learn in this section that, in spite of So Nyo’s doting favoritism for Hong Chol (such as making ramen for him while the other kids got zippo), he has disappointed his mom by giving up his goal to be a lawyer to become a real-estate marketing director instead. Keep in mind, y’all, this happened after his mom took a bus for the first time in her life from her country bumpkin home all the way to Seoul, in the freezing night, wearing nothing but sandals on her feet so she could drop off his high school diploma to meet a deadline for a college application.   

I admit that up until this point, the novel is still fairly believable and unsentimental – Nietzsche and midnight bus runs aside.  We see that Chi Hon and Hong Chol are genuinely decent people who are experiencing a painful realization and regret of past negligence.  There is still hope on the horizon, as well as an element of suspense as they frantically search and try to make up for lost time.

Enter Mr. Park, So Nyo’s elderly husband.

From the start the family patriarch, up till now a quiet figure, comes forward in the spotlight to undergo the most intense bout of mental and emotional self-flagellating I’ve witnessed since reading Dostoevsky.  He hasn’t exactly been the most “grateful” of husbands, and has left every single chore and task to his wife, along with ignoring her increasingly painful migraines and yet expecting her to attend to him the moment he has a minor tummy ache.  As he wanders through their now-empty house, he is tortured by his thoughts:

“How could you have taken what your wife did for you for granted, without ever once making her seaweed soup?  …

Where are you…?  If your wife would just come back, you would make not only seaweed soup but also pancakes for her.  Are you punishing me…?  Water pools in your eyes.” (pg 82).

Apparently, the douchebag has also had an affair with another woman, and was gone for several months at one point.  He comes back alone, but doesn’t bother to apologize.   He has never voluntarily held his wife’s hand in his entire life, except when he dragged her away from her mother’s home after a domestic incident (like that counts).  Oh, and add to that the fact he has never so much as fetched her a glass of water.

It doesn’t help that his older sister has voluntarily taken upon herself the role of “in-law from hell,” at one point accusing So Nyo of “selfishly” chopping down an old family tree to make a fire while she languishes in childbirth in the dead of winter.  It is also in this section that we learn that So Nyo, alone and undervalued forms a friendship with her husband’s younger brother Kyun.  Kyun adores So Nyo, and at first we think he’s going to be the silver lining in her mundane existence, but in proper melodramatic style he takes off in search of a job with more money and comes back four years later so depressed that he kills himself.  Even more dramatically appropriate is the fact that for some reason every one in town seems to think Kyun’s death is her fault, and she descends into paranoia and psychological trauma.  Even at this point in their life together her husband does little to offer any moral support.

With this poignant backdrop in mind as he staggers down memory lane, So Nyo’s husband crumples into a sobbing mess.  The final climactic moment is when, alone in his room at night, he sees a box on top of the dresser and opens it up to reveal the shrouds his wife had prepared for her and him upon their death.  He recalls that she had “encouraged” him to die earlier than her, since she was dutifully resigned to taking care of him for the rest of his life and figured (correctly) that he’d be a hot mess on his own.  The twisted irony calls for an encore of fresh sobs.

The last section of the book is told from the point-of-view of So Nyo herself…although it’s not clear that she is still alive.  In fact, she conveniently is able to float from place to place invisible and observe her friends and family members grieving, all the while in her simplistic voice questioning why they are being so sad and frowny-faced when, good heavens, all she wanted for them her whole life was to be happy!

At one point she transforms into a bird (don’t ask), sitting on a tree branch outside her youngest daughter’s home, watching her daughter and granddaughter stare back at her through the window.   It’s in this last section that we learn that So Nyo’s youngest daughter is made up of more sensible stuff than her uppity writer sister Chi Hon, but Younger Sister “threw away” her educational opportunities to have three children instead of a career.  Nevertheless, the narrator seems to favor the youngest daughter over the rest of the kids as an example of industry and caring and the family member most closely resembling her saintly mother – even though she confesses later to Chi Hon, “I can’t give [my kids] my entire life like Mom did.” (Pg. 138).

And that’s what it boils down to: a gigantic, irreparable generation gap that forever renders the deserving yet unappreciated, martyred mother who sacrificed everything and yet is alienated from her brow-beating, guilt-consumed children who have realized too late that:

“She didn’t have the opportunity to pursue her dreams and, all by herself, faced everything the era dealt her, poverty and sadness, and she couldn’t do anything about her very bad lot in life other than suffer through it and get beyond it and live her life to the very best of her ability, giving her body and her heart to it completely.”  (Pg. 139).

It’s almost striking how lucid and textbook-like the narrative has become at this point.  Rather than a warning to others who might gratefully learn through this story and not the hard way, it is almost a resigned, matter-of-fact sort of statement about the generation gap in South Korea and the unavoidable point it has come to.  It would seem that So Nyo is in fact every grandmother in Korea, and just as she disappeared in the crowds too late for her family to thank her, so it is already too late for us to properly thank our mothers and grandmothers who have selflessly sacrificed their entire lives for our betterment.

As the family continues to fall apart and slowly lose their sanity toward the book’s conclusion, Chi Hon makes an impromptu pilgrimage to Vatican City where she comes face-to-face with Michelangelo’s Pieta.  Clutching a rosary in her hand – a souvenir for her mother who will never be able to receive it – she crumples in front of the statue, in a final scene of filial pious melodrama, and utters a prayer to the Mother of all mothers:   “Please Look after Mom.”    And so the novel has neatly come full circle to its title.

While I do not agree with the fatalistic and woebegone message of Shin’s now-international bestseller, I do have to begrudgingly admit that she does give her readers a stinging reminder to not let their own mothers and grandmothers become unsung heroines like So Nyo.   Perhaps a more positive emendation to the title would be, “Please Don’t Forget to Give Mom a Call.”    I’m sure the world would be a little bit better of a place if we all picked up our phones and sent a warm, thankful message of acknowledgment right now, and I’m sure Ms. Park would agree.

But that doesn’t mean I’ll be recommending this sentimental hankie-fest of a novel to anyone anytime soon.