The Real Korea

It proves elusive in these new books

Ever since I saw the movie Shiri –a stylish, twisty, somewhat melancholy South Korean spy thriller–I’ve wanted to visit the land once known as the hermit state. When I mention my interest, though, people act astonished–even Korean-Americans. Why? they ask. Why Korea and not Japan, for example? Of course I’d love to travel to Japan also. But I can’t see why Korea shouldn’t be equally interesting; much of Japanese culture and early art forms were imported from Korea, after all. Korean culture is ancient, and centuries of defending the peninsular state from Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and later Western pressures led Korea to turn inward and develop uniquely Korean styles, customs, foods, and architecture.

And yet most Americans know little about the two Koreas beyond our country’s involvement in the Korean War of the early ’50s. Last year, on the anniversary of the beginning of the war, any number of new books about Korea were published, but none promised to deliver the Korea I was looking for: memoirs of American soldiers, tomes on the Chosin Reservoir Campaign, political histories, interpretations of the closed world of North Korea, analyses of the potentiality of reunification, guides to doing business with Koreans. Even Elizabeth Kim’s Ten Thousand Sorrows: The Extraordinary Journey of a Korean War Orphan, which at least tells a personal story, hardly provided as much of a glimpse of Korean culture as I craved. I wanted a book that would do for Korea what Amy Tan’s books do for China, what Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha and Liza Dalby’s The Tale of Murasaki do for Japan. That is to say, I wanted a book that paints a rich, deep portrait of a culture, making every detail of life seem vividly unique and yet startlingly familiar. I wanted to curl up with something that would leave me dreaming of transcendent scenes set in the mists of Korea’s sacred mountains, of loves and lives made and lost in a quiet pavilion tucked incongruously among Seoul’s modern high rises.Three new books on Korea will reach the bookstore shelves over the next few months. On the face of it, these three promise more than last year’s deluge of the military-political; two are novels written by Korean-American women and set in Korea and the third is a travel guide to both the North and the South.An inveterate armchair traveler, I expected the travel guide to fill my imagination with a treasure trove of sites–soaring shrines, traditional inns, markets imbued with the pulse of daily life. And I hoped the novels would introduce me to characters who would imbue this landscape with meaning. But all three books fell short of my expectations–and, in fact, they did so in similar ways. They all share a similar feeling of restraint, of being afraid of saying the wrong thing–a sense of self-consciously putting forward a socially acceptable front, and rather forcedly finding the silver lining in the cloud of Korea’s modern history. As a result, all these books come across as unsophisticated and unsubtle.

In the case of the novels, this flatness manifests itself in insistently pro-American, pro-Christian, anticommunist, in-your-face thematics. To Swim Across the World is a fiction invented by sisters Frances and Ginger Park out of the stories of their parents, who survived Japanese occupation, WWII, and the Korean War before immigrating to the United States. In this version, the character who must be based on the authors’ father, Sei-Young Shin, eventually works for South Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, the man who begged the American military for aid in 1950. Early in the narrative, we see Sei-Young developing the staunchly pro-Yank sentiment that marks the book: “The Americans and other allies were creating an atmosphere of security for Koreans in a time of reform…. They were establishing a free world for the Korean people to thrive in.”

The Park sisters previously coauthored a children’s book called My Freedom Trip, and To Swim reads as if they haven’t quite figured out that they’re aiming for a much more mature audience. The dialogue is stilted and simplistic; phrases remembered from childhood are repeated ad nauseam in what must be an attempt to build depth through symbolism, but it simply comes off sounding like forced melodrama. The plot plods along as if the authors had a checklist of episodes they hoped would exemplify the many wrongs done to the Korean people over the course of the last century. Descriptive passages are marred by clichés and overwrought sentiment, for everything in this book–from the goats Sei-Young milked as a boy to the flute his wife played as a child –seems to have been brought into being for no purpose but to pedantically preach the lessons of Christian faith, American democracy, and a brighter future.Veronica Lee’s Princess June is little better. This is a first novel from Lee, who immigrated to the United States from South Korea at the age of twenty and has spent much of her time here writing technical documents for the computer industry. It’s no surprise, then, that Princess June reads something like a technical doc itself. The book tells the story of Junee, born into a South Korean gangster family and subjected to physical and emotional abuse as a child. Lee clearly meant to write an uplifting book about the power of the human spirit–but she achieves little more than the rhetoric of healing. As a young girl, Junee is beaten black and blue by her older brother; she has no mother, no sisters, no friends, and few outside contacts. And yet, “One day, she had a startling vision. She vividly saw her character in her head, but the little girl was in multiple layers…. No matter what she did to her body, the center layer stayed the same…. How could she keep herself intact? By hanging on to her own beliefs. She could continue to act honest and kind.”Basically, Junee is a saint, and we never feel empathy for her because we know from the start that she is a static character, goodness personified. Although she lives surrounded by victims–girls who are exploited, raped, killed–we always know that Junee is safe. She’s a good girl, and in the simplified logic of this book, good girls end up okay. Especially if they have the friendship of some big-hearted, well-meaning American soldiers. True, not all military men are perfect in this world–Junee’s American lover allows himself to be absorbed back into the world of his wealthy family, abandoning the heroine and her baby in Seoul. Luckily, Junee has yet another American GI to help her through the tough times that follow her baby’s adoption, by encouraging her to let it all out–a textbook picture of recovery through self-expression.Then there’s the Lonely Planet guide to Korea, updated the first time since 1997. Since guidebooks to Korea are few and far between –the only other contenders are the text-thin Insight guide and an outdated Moon Handbook–I was looking forward to the kind of thorough treatment one normally expects from Lonely Planet: the irreverent, through-the-back-door, on-a-shoestring publisher that generally owns the Asia-guidebook market. But I found the descriptions in this guide disappointingly bland, the pointers uninspiring. Nearly every South Korean national park listed here–and there are many national parks in this mountainous country–is described as “beautiful.” That may be true, I suppose, but it’s hardly useful; the Moon Handbook, although three years old, does a much better job of outlining what you can expect to see and enjoy most at each of these various parks, and provides a hefty dose of cultural history to put each site in context.Lonely Planet’s latest seems bound and determined to adhere to the principle of saying nothing at all if there’s nothing positive to say. “Amid Seoul’s sprawling megalopolis, it’s reassuring to find a place where one can ride a horse,” reads one entry. Authors Robert Storey and Eunkyong admit that tourist attractions such as Jeju-do Island and the demilitarized zone at the border between North and South Korea are overcrowded and probably overrated, but both are given an upbeat pitch on lists of don’t-miss highlights. Are Storey and Eunkyong–as well as Lee and the Parks–afraid that if they don’t whitewash everything Korean, even fewer Westerners will have any interest in the country? I think it’s just the opposite.

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