Remains of the Day | The Nation


Remains of the Day

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Every Wednesday since January 1992, an indefatigable group of halmonis (Korean for "grandmothers") in their 70s and 80s have led a rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. More than half a century after being forcibly conscripted as sexual slaves by the Japanese Army during World War II,

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Margaret Juhae Lee
Margaret Juhae Lee, a former Nation assistant literary editor, is writing Starry Field: A Memoir of Lost History, a...

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On the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, the so-called forgotten war was finally remembered. With the Associated Press's Pulitzer Prize-winning "revelation" a year ago that hundreds of civilians were massacred under a concrete bridge outside the village of Nogun-ri, and the recent "uncovering" of the execution of dozens of leftists by the South Korean Army before the battle of Taejon, the horrors of the Korean War are beginning to come to light.

To the survivors and witnesses of these tragedies, however, the truth of their experiences was never in question. Their remembrances were repressed in a variety of ways--by government authorities, who denied these events ever happened; by society at large, which wanted to forget the past and move on; by family members and friends, who did not want to hear about such painful things; or even by themselves, who held these memories inside for almost fifty years. As a result, many have never spoken of what they witnessed during the three-year conflict, in which more than a million Koreans and tens of thousands of US troops died. The Korean War continues--in the lives of survivors and in reality; no peace treaty was ever signed, only an armistice agreement in 1953. Hence the enormity of headlines this past June when leaders from the two Koreas held a summit meeting for the first time since the Korean War.

In her memoir, Ten Thousand Sorrows: The Extraordinary Journey of a Korean War Orphan, Elizabeth Kim tells of another forgotten legacy of the war. The daughter of a Korean mother and an American GI, Kim's curly hair and hazel eyes branded her as an outcast in Korean society, a honhyol--"a despicable name that meant nonperson, mixed race, animal." In a culture where patriarchal bloodlines form the basis of the most important structure in society--the family--mixed-race children were (and still are, in many cases) not tolerated. Kim writes, "National pride is deeply ingrained, and in Korea the intense love for the country's heritage and traditions has its darker side of hatred for anything that taints the purity of that heritage."

Kim begins her moving yet vague memoir with the horrific "honor killing" of her beloved Omma (mother) by her own grandfather and uncle, an act she claims to have witnessed as a young child while hiding in a basket. Omma had brought great shame to her family, many of whom were village elders, by producing a honhyol. She also had the audacity to refuse the generous offer of another family to allow her child to work in their home as a servant--a higher status than that of a half-breed. In her relatives' eyes, the family's honor could only be saved by Omma's death.

A sympathetic aunt leaves Kim, somewhere between the age of 4 and 6 at the time (or maybe even younger), at a Christian orphanage without any components of her identity: "In a Korean's view, it would be better to be dead than to be the embodiment of shame such as I was: a honhyol, a female, nameless, without a birth date." Behind the bars of a crib, she is sustained by memories of her mother's love. "Omma told me that somewhere in the world it would be possible for me to become a person. She explained her Buddhist belief that life was made up of ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows, and all of them were stepping-stones to ultimate peace."

Kim relays her litany of sorrow in spare, poetic prose and never succumbs to self-pity or sentimentality. Her hellish existence as a nonperson continues in the squalid orphanage and even after her adoption by a white fundamentalist pastor and his dutiful wife from central California. Like many Korean adoptees of the time, Kim found herself in a community without any other Asians or people of color. Instead of being stigmatized by her Caucasian features, as she was in Korea, she was tormented because of her Asian ones in the rural desert community where she grew up. Her ultra-Christian parents reared her according to the edict of assimilation, never allowing Kim to speak of Korea or her birth mother. Instead, they openly disparaged the only person who showed her love: "My parents told me she was something very bad and sinful called a prostitute. She didn't love me, they said; it didn't matter to her whether I lived or died."

Kim carries the stigma of the honhyol well into her adult life, as her sorrows multiply. A loveless arranged marriage to a deacon in her parents' church follows her traumatic childhood, as do years of physical and psychological abuse. Mercifully, joy does make an appearance in this wrenching memoir, in the form of her daughter, Leigh. Kim finds the strength to spirit away the newborn from her schizophrenic husband before her daughter witnesses the abuse her mother has endured for years.

In the book's most affecting sections, the author describes her brief yet loving relationship with Omma, in which the two outcasts create a private world of their own in a shack just outside their village (a portion of this was excerpted in the first issue of Oprah Winfrey's magazine, O). Decades later, the next generation of mother and daughter also live in poverty on the outskirts of a small town and find happiness through stories and fantasy. "Whether in Korea or in America, the make-believe tapestry made life bearable."

But if fantasy was responsible for Kim's happiness, was it for her despair, as well? Just as the sources for the AP's story have come under question--in particular, one US soldier who originally admitted to getting the order to shoot civilians was not even in the vicinity of Nogun-ri at the time--Kim's story has come under scrutiny as well.

In September the Korea Herald, an English-language newspaper based in Seoul, published a letter to the editor titled "'Memoir' defames Korean culture." The author, Brian Myers, a Korean studies scholar in the United States, sharply criticized Ten Thousand Sorrows as "wildly inaccurate" in its descriptions of "Korean life, language and custom." He went on to write that Kim's "account of the Confucian 'honor killing' is so improbable, that the only question for me is whether she herself believes what she has written." Some in Korean studies have pointed out that it would have been more common in Korean culture at the time for a mother to have committed suicide than to have been murdered by members of her own family.

Answering such criticisms, Kim's publisher recently issued a carefully worded press release stating that "there are not sufficient studies for Ms. Kim and Doubleday to have stated as an established fact that there is a tradition of honor killings in Korea." Doubleday subsequently promised to delete the offending term in future paperback editions of Ten Thousand Sorrows. Kim, a longtime journalist, admitted to Associated Press reporter Hillel Italie that she was "careless" both in using the term "honor killing" (which is found primarily in Muslim cultures) and in stating in an admittedly "bad bit of writing" that Korea was divided by the Korean War, when in fact it was split years earlier, in 1945, after the country's liberation from Japan.

Considering Kim's background (she was most recently an editor at the Marin Independent Journal), her "bad bits of writing" are inexcusable and regrettable. In short, she should have known better. But as she has stated, her book "is not intended to be representative of Korean adoption or anything else. It's just my life." Kim's critics are quick to dismiss her account because of errors and inconsistencies; they point to her six-figure advance as motivation for sensationalizing the truth. But as any seasoned reader of memoirs knows, the genre tends toward self-reflection rather than historicity or definitiveness in describing a specific culture or experience.

Kim's critics forget, too, that the basis of any memoir is memory, which is by its very nature slippery, fragmented and often unreliable. What Kim is most guilty of in Ten Thousand Sorrows is not misrepresentation but neglecting to describe adequately the state and processes of her own memory. As a result, the book feels unfinished, like a work in progress, especially in the last sections, where it devolves into shards of self-help homilies. The book would have benefited greatly from a discussion of how the author's early-childhood recollections coalesced in her brain over time and why she chose to believe the version of what happened to her that she devoted to print. The book's unsatisfying ending suggests that perhaps the author hadn't quite achieved the distance necessary to deal with such questions when she wrote the book.

In his letter to the Korea Herald, Myers questioned whether Kim believes what she has written, implying that the author might be guilty of willful misrepresentation. The same charge has been leveled at the civilians and US servicemen who witnessed what happened at Nogun-ri. Is the inherent haziness of memory (especially that of the Korean War, half a century ago) enough reason to deny the actuality of events? If one thinks so--even in the afterglow of Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il's first summit meeting--the wounds of the last battle of the cold war will never heal.

these former "comfort women" demand a formal apology and monetary compensation from Korea's colonizer. Even though the United Nations Human Rights Committee is finally conducting a long-delayed investigation (it has been more than a decade since the first comfort women came forward in the eighties), Japan has yet to give in on either demand. And to this day, most of the historical documentation of this tragedy of war remains undisclosed--in Japan as well as the other countries that took part in the Pacific campaign.

Korean-American author Chang-rae Lee adds to the growing, but limited, body of fiction on the exploitation of thousands of women by the Japanese military, of which Nora Okja Keller's Comfort Woman (1997) and Paul West's The Tent of Orange Mist (1995, set in China) are notable. These authors' fictional retelling of the plight of the comfort women guarantees that their stories will not be forgotten, as much as the Japanese government may want them to be. Stifled memories about one woman in particular haunt the septuagenarian narrator of Lee's wondrous second novel, A Gesture Life. Franklin "Doc" Hata, a "retired supplier of home medical goods, expatriate and war veteran and now suburban lap swimmer nonpareil," has led a seemingly exemplary life in the affluent New York City bedroom community of Bedley Run. But after an accidental fire at Hata's precious, stately Tudor Revival home--his physical manifestation of the American Dream--the past begins to prey upon the former Japanese Imperial Army medic, after almost an entire lifetime spent forgetting.

In Lee's acclaimed Native Speaker (1995), second-generation Korean-American Henry Park discovers the common experience of every immigrant: "When I get here, I work. I work for the day I will finally work for myself. I work so hard that one day I end up forgetting the person I am. I forget my wife, my son. Now, too, I have lost my old mother tongue. And I forget the ancestral graves I have left on a hillside of a faraway land, the loneliest stones that each year go unblessed." Loss and suppression are benchmarks of A Gesture Life as well, as Lee expertly reveals in the intertwining narratives of the faux doctor's two most important relationships--that with his adopted, mixed-race daughter, Sunny, and the aristocratic Kkutaeh, the Korean comfort woman he tried to protect in a remote Second World War outpost in Burma.

Hata has spent his life in a state of self-imposed virtual amnesia--from denying his birth as a member of Japan's outcaste class (the burakumin) in the ghettos of the southwestern harbor town of Kobe to his love for Bedley Run widow Mary Burns ("the sort of person who was always kinder to people than they were to her"), whom he never married and let die of cancer without ever saying goodbye. He even tries to put his own daughter out of his mind after, as a teenager, she leaves town in a cloud of disrepute: "I wanted to hide the real depth of the trouble, put it away not (as Sunny always contended) for the sake of my reputation or standing but so I could try to forget she was my daughter, that she had ever come to live with me and had grown up before my eyes." For Hata is the ultimate outsider, whose ethnic Korean tanner father and ragmaid mother gave him up to the wealthy Japanese Kurohata family in hopes of a better life for their only son. Even with his newly found pedigree, he can never shake the stigmatization of his outcaste birth--from the overt discrimination he experiences during adolescence, in which classmates treat him no better than a "stray dog," and through more subtle means, which Lee hints at, during his service in the army. The opprobrium even follows Hata to the United States after the war, albeit in a self-imposed, internalized form, despite his accumulation of all the totems of success.

Hata's "gesture life" begins in his pre-adolescent years, as he quickly learns the means of fitting into Japan's rigid society--the mastery of the formal customs required of a member of an esteemed family. A life of honor and duty, however, also proves to be an affliction. Hata realizes only in his waning Bedley Run existence that "this happy blend of familiarity and homeyness and what must be belonging is strangely beginning to disturb me." His cold-blooded, berating army superior recognizes Hata's almost-fatal flaw early on: "You...too much depend upon generous fate and gesture. There is no internal possession, no embodiment," as does Sunny, later: "All I've ever seen is how careful you are with everything. With our fancy big house and this store and all the customers. How you sweep the sidewalk and nice-talk to the other shopkeepers. You make a whole life out of gestures and politeness."

At the time of the fire, which opens the novel, Hata finds himself revered but alone in his realtor's dream of dark wood, leaded glass, flagstones and flower beds. It's been ten years since he last spoke to his daughter and three since his retirement from the medical-supply business, as good ol' Doc Hata makes his daily rounds of his increasingly snotty town. Redemption comes in the form of the first real friendships he's had since the war--realtor Liv Crawford pulls him out of his smoldering living room, hospital supply clerk Renny Banerjee visits him daily and bright-faced candy striper Veronica Como instills hope in his dimming heart. But it's Sunny's (and her son's) return to upper Westchester County that makes her father "wonder if something like love is forever victorious, truly conquering all, or if there are those who, like me, remain somehow whole and sovereign, still live unvanquished."

Lee's spare, careful and strangely poetic style suits the guarded speech of his genteel narrator, whether he is imparting rationalizations or revelations about his life. Many have compared Lee's gift of understatement to that of Kazuo Ishiguro--especially in Remains of the Day, in which courtly Stevens, the elderly British butler, recounts his life of service--or even Yukio Mishima, whose quiescent passages describe the most violent of scenes at the climax of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea. Lee achieves a measure of Mishima's skill in conveying the horror of Hata's wartime flashback scenes, which reverberate throughout the rest of this finely crafted novel. "Although it was the most naive and vacant of notions to think that anyone would willingly give herself to such a fate, like everyone else I had assumed the girls had indeed been 'volunteers,' as they were always called. To the men in the queue, they were nothing, or less than nothing." Unlike his comrades, Hata understands what nothingness feels like, for he had emerged "from the twisty, cramped ghetto alleys." He also shares a mother tongue with the comfort woman he is ordered to look after, Kkutaeh, or K, as he comes to call her (the consonant used by Kafka), although his rough slang contrasts sharply with her more educated, mellifluous speech. "K" has learned to make herself "in some measure disappear" in order to deal with her sad fate. The young Korean-Japanese soldier she befriends takes this lesson of self-effacement to heart in leading a life of carefully manicured habits: "I feel I have not really been living anywhere or anytime, not for the future and not in the past and not at all of-the-moment, but rather in the lonely dream of an oblivion, the nothing-of-nothing drift from one pulse-beat to the next, which is really the most bloodless marking-out, automatic and involuntary."

As Hata confronts and learns to live with the ghost of K, he does, in the end, "pass through with something more than a gesture life, a decorous existence of sign and shadow," and finally lets himself feel the "modest, pure joy" of life that he had previously avoided--something just as simple as holding his grandson's hand. Perhaps one day soon the tireless women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul will achieve some measure of redemption as well.

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