When we are born, we cannot choose our home and our country. Since these two things determine our destiny, they could be either the best gifts or the worst nightmares to us, depending on the situation.
If your parents were destitute, you will know what it is to suffer poverty and will learn not to expect any financial support from them. Likewise, if you were born in a country plagued by war, you may end up being a refugee or a migrant worker wandering foreign lands.
Unfortunately, we have no control over these two facts of our origins. Our fate just casts us into any home and any country randomly, regardless of our wish.
Recently, I came across Oh Yoon-hee’s mesmeric novel, “What My Mom Left Behind.” It delineates the tragic life of a Korean woman who has to leave her homeland for America. For this reason, Oh’s novel resonates with other great literary works of recent times that deal with transnational issues, such as the celebrated Korean American writer Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko,” that depicts the turbulent lives of Korean immigrants in Japan.
Oh’s “What My Mom Left Behind” portrays an unfortunate Korean woman who was born in a poor family and in a poverty-ridden country devastated by war and tyranny. Not blessed with the two given things, the protagonist, Young-sook, is set up to lead a miserable life. Initially, Young-sook works as a maidservant at a rich home in the early 1970s. Before long, however, she loses her job. Taking advantage of her desperate situation, a wicked older woman then sells her to a brothel for American soldiers, where she is forced to become a prostitute, against her will.
Like other women in the brothel, Young-sook earns a shameful nickname, yang gongju, or “Western princess.” She adopts an American name, Suzi. Soon she realizes that the Korean government is only using her and other “Western princesses” as a major source of earning US dollars, without any interest in their welfare. Even her family denounces her when they discover Suzie’s shameful job. Realizing that no one assumes responsibility for her predicament or feels sorry for her, Suzi despairs.
One day, Suzi meets an American soldier named John Davis who is gentle and caring. He pays a lot of money to get Suzi out of the brothel, spending his entire savings for college. Then, John marries Suzi and brings her to America. Her co-workers in the brothel envy Suzi and congratulate her on her new life in the US. Now she has become Suzi Davis. Her dream has come true at last.
However, Suzi’s life in America turns out to be not so rosy. First, her American father-in-law does not welcome her, as he surmises her dark past. Then, language barriers isolate her from the community. Due to her lack of English proficiency, she cannot interact with people and thus has no friends at all. Suzi finds she is isolated from the Korean community, too, as Korean immigrants have prejudices against the Korean wives of American soldiers, suspecting that they are from a brothel. Later, even her husband John abandons Suzi for an American woman.
To further add to Suzi’s misfortunes, even her younger brother, Young-ho, only uses her to obtain an immigration visa to the US. Once settled down in America, however, he never corresponds with Suzi, thinking that she is a disgrace to his family. Suzi’s only comfort is her precious daughter Jade. Unfortunately, they can barely communicate because Jade speaks English only. It is only after Suzi’s death of senile dementia at a nursing home that Jade tries to understand her mother’s isolated, lonely life. Gradually, Jade learns about her mother’s tragic past.
When she dies, Suzi leaves a jade ring to her daughter. The ring is a memento given to Suzi by her best friend at the brothel, Kyung-a, whose dream of going to America is shattered when she tragically dies at the US Army Monkey House. Learning about her mother’s turbulent life, Jade finally comes to understand the meaning of the jade ring and her name.
“What My Mom Left Behind” is a riveting novel that depicts the miserable life of a woman cast in the wrong time and the wrong place. The novel is a powerful indictment of the government’s incompetence and irresponsibility that have driven women into unspeakable miseries. In that sense, it is an important social document and a superb cultural text that makes us reflect upon the tragic history of Korea and our responsibility for it. Our society has created women like Suzi, and yet we impudently condemn them with prejudice, instead of assuming responsibility or asking for forgiveness.
Korea is not alone in this. In many countries, we still find women like Young-sook. Their tragic lives stem from their home and country that have failed them completely. Many of them have died of dementia or old age and gone into oblivion. Nevertheless, we should search for what they left behind and learn valuable lessons from it.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.