Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Mira Stout: One Thousand Chestnut Trees

I found this book at my library and it sounded intriguing, about an young American woman whose mother immigrated from South Korea and her search for her identity through her mother's memories of Korea during the war as well as during her own actual visit to family in South Korea in 1987. It is a fascinating story, although I only really got into it when she finally got to her grandmother and mother's stories in Korea, and then at the end, her own visit there.

This book will teach you a lot of facts about Korea's history but at the same time it is an incredibly moving story of a family being torn apart by war and repression, first by the Japanese and then through the events of the Korean War. Living abroad myself, I could relate to many of the author's thoughts and impressions on being multicultural, removed from your home country, feeling like an alien. Of course, for her, being half caucasian and half asian brought its own challenge:

Naïvely I had expected to discover an instant identity; to be clasped to the country's bosom and greeted like a returning prodigal daughter. Instead I drew stares of indifference, incredulity or sufferance. After all, I was an outsider. Being half-caste had the same effect in the East as in the West. Your face was subliminally unsettling to both races. Eyes brushed over you as if you did not quite count, you were an aberration, a blip that would be smoothed over by the next manifestly white or coloured face that came into view

Stout writes about the division of Korea, and the families that were split by it, in a way that makes it seem so tangible to those of us who cannot imagine having no news, no visits, no information whatsoever about our loved ones. I got as choked up as the main character did while she visited the demilitarized zone:

A strange pressure built up behind the lump in my throat, burning and pushing at my chest; a surge of grief so powerful that I knew it could not be mine alone, but an accumumated, collective grief. My mother's unclaimed loss lay within me, along with aunts', uncles', and grandparents' suffering, and the interwoven despair of myriad families similarly caught in this division.

While visiting Korea she briefly toys with the idea of staying there, learning the language and making a life there. She can appreciate the way the Koreans' lifestyle differs from what she has known in the United States:

I felt exhausted by being American; weathering a constant storm of revisionism and the accompanying babble of inflamed opinion; the abrasive worship of celebrity and riches; even the massive choice of junk foods in the supermarket was tiring...

The descriptions of life in Korea are detailed and fascinating, the cultural mishaps often amusing. An engaging story that allows the reader to learn a great deal about the country - the perfect kind of book for the Book Around the World Challenge!


Jenny said...

Sounds like a very interesting book. I always like reading about different cultures.

Geraldo Maia said...

Hello Amy,
It is a great pleasure to be visiting a wonderful blog like yours.
Best wishes from Brazil: