When Jid Lee's memoir appeared in my mailbox, what I knew of South Korea was a bit about the Korean War and that the people loved spicy pickled kimchee. Yet that country's politics and culture became compelling and real to me as I read this book. Lee places her harsh and impoverished childhood in a national context, writing to rescue herself from a damaging cycle of social and personal tyranny. In the process, her portrait of family and country grows more compassionate and complete. She begins by calling up early memories.
As a six-year-old, she was confined to bed for months by serious illness. Her grandmother, to teach and entertain her, regaled her many times with the story of Lee's six-times-great grandmother. A Buddhist monk told that devoted young mother how she could ensure great good fortune for her children and all their descendants. All she had to do, he said, was allow herself to be eaten alive by a tiger. Grandmother, with a mix of "glee and melancholy" reflected in Lee's own voice, told how her ancestor chose self-sacrifice, and a few months later was dragged away in the jaws of the great beast. Only bloody bits were found for burial in the clan cemetery. What her grandmother saw as an heroic act that led to two centuries of family success, little Jid Lee found a terrifying mandate. Would she, too, be called upon to sacrifice herself to a tiger's hunger in order to further her family? Family, after all, was paramount in Korea.
Lee was already struggling with being a girl in the ancient society. Tradition insisted a family's destiny was dependent on the men's strength and intelligence. Women were of little value. In her home, they were even given less to eat. Conversely, Grandmother also assured young Jid Lee that she could achieve greatness. In fact, all her family expected each child to improve the family's lot, and seemed to think a stick more effective than a carrot. The little girl had nightmares about tigers, was enraged by the unfairness she experienced daily, and confused by the mixed message of self-effacement and high achievement.
That same year, 1962, a coup d'etat brought Park Chung Hee to power in South Korea. Lee saw the U.S. actively support the right-wing dictator and turn a blind eye to his assaults on human rights. Her father had studied in the U.S. and found Americans to be caring and bright, yet to halt the spread of communism they assisted those who oppressed and killed many Koreans. As she matured, Lee was enchanted by the tolerance and wealth that made the U.S. seem magical, yet disturbed by its destructive military power.
Encouraged to study English as a means to success, at 25 Lee moved here to complete her education and gain her personal freedom. She became a citizen, and now has lived in the U.S. longer than she lived in Korea. From that dual perspective, she offers a well-written exploration of her life and family that provides insight into the contradictions in Korean culture as well as the role of the U.S. in its history, at least as many South Koreans see it.
From a childhood of injustice, poverty and emotional torment, Jid Lee built the life she longed for and became who she wanted to be. The details are intriguing, the history is important, but it is the tremendous achievement of breaking free that resonates most powerfully. Hers is a story to inspire and support all of us as we work to become more fully ourselves.
Jid Lee has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kansas, and is a tenured professor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. Born in Taegu, South Korea in 1955, she became a U.S. citizen in 1989, and has now lived in the U.S. for 30 years. She is also the author of From the Promised Land to Home, an analysis of Asian women's autobiographies. For more information, visit Jid Lee's website and the Overlook Press website.
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