In the 1960’s, ‘70’s, and even 80’s, in the United States,we didn’t hear much news about South Korea or for that matter, many other foreign countries outside of Western Europe. We heard about other countries when something cataclysmic happened – the Gdansk workers in Poland striking or the fall of Soviet style Communism. News reached us when it directly affected Americans – Russia and the Cold War, Vietnam and Americans being sent to fight and die there. Therefore, I am still somewhat surprised and very intrigued whenever I have the opportunity to learn about and meet people from other countries around the world.
I recently finished reading a third book by Kyung-Sook Shin, one of the most popular writers in South Korea today. Even translated into English, her books, exquisitely written, resonate with an audience far beyond South Korea. One thing I’ve enjoyed about her books has been the glimpse they provide into modern South Korean history and culture.
Ms. Kyung describes the third book that I read The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness, as part fiction and part non-fiction. In it, she shares her struggles in the late 1970’s in South Korea working at a factory with sweatshop conditions and attending high school at night. She accomplished this while living in one cramped room with a cousin and two brothers. The backdrop is a South Korea governed by autocratic regimes where labor unions are suppressed and workers have no rights.
I’ll Be Right There is the story of university students in South Korea attending college during several autocratic regimes and students protesting and getting disappeared. She focuses on three college students who become friends and support each other through very difficult times.
The book I found the most compelling was Please Look After Mom. In this partial fantasy, a mother of several adult children goes missing as she and her family ride the subway in Seoul. As all of them desperately search for her, they share their memories of the role that Mom played in their lives.
As a volunteer, I’m tutoring a Korean woman in English and we’re re-reading Please Look After Mom together. She has a copy of it in English and another copy in Korean to refer to when the English overwhelms her. She tells me the book is about traditional Korean values that Americans don’t share. I ask her to explain. Not knowing the word in English, she gets out her smart phone with its app that translates Korean to English instantly. (Most immigrants seem to have smartphones with this app on it translating their native languages to English and vice versa.) “Sacrifice” she writes. The mother sacrificed for her children much more than American parents –even helicopter parents- would do. Sacrifice – sacrificed. Add a ‘d’ or ‘ed’ as the case may be and verbs become past tense. She’s learned a lesson in English and I’ve learned something about South Korea. The world shrinks again and I hope that someday soon we’ll all learn to live in it together.