Country Focus: South Korea (Han’guk in transliterated Korean)
Nora Okja Keller
Penguin: 2002. 209 pg.
Acclaim: A Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2002
Synopsis: After Hyun Jin is disowned by her parents and Sookie’s mother is sent to the “Monkey House” (a facility where prostitutes are held while being treated for STDs), the two Korean best friends become hookers in ‘America Town’ – a nightclub district for American soldiers. They move in with Lobetto, their pimp and former schoolmate, and the three, along with Lobetto’s resentful mother and Sookie’s unwanted baby, Myu Myu, form a disturbing and violent family unit. Hyun Jin bonds with Myu Myu, and when she is offered a job to work at a men’s club in Hawaii, she devises a plan to bring the baby with her.
My opinion: I had anticipated that this would be a downer of novel, but since prostitution is the fate of so many women (40 million in 2001), I didn’t want to neglect their experience. Keller’s frank descriptions of the abusive and debasing ‘jobs’ and performances are hard to take, and the fact that American soldiers are the sole customers for these desperate women adds a even more depressing dimension. I tried my best to root for the two girls, but Hyun Jin’s deep-seated selfishness and Sookie’s hatred for her child makes merely empathizing with them nearly impossible. Although the novel is set in the 1960s, these brash young hookers seem like they fell out of a 2010 Quentin Tarantino movie. With one or two minor exceptions, there’s not a character in this book who doesn’t hurt someone either physically or emotionally, and Keller keeps those blows falling unmercifully until her ridiculous deus ex machina ending. Fox Girls is the second of a planned three-book series, but it is the first and the last book I will read of Keller’s; like the girls after a long night at Club Foxa, I just wanted to scrub myself clean afterward.
The armchair travel experience: Keller, a Korean-American born in Seoul in 1965, wrote Fox Girls from research, not personal experience. In a 2002 interview, Keller was asked if anything had changed regarding camp towns around American military bases. She said:
“Sadly, not a lot. There aren’t as many camp towns because there aren’t as many bases, but the ones that exist are still operating business as usual. There isn’t a lot of change and there are still a lot of abandoned children there. The feelings toward the prostitutes who live in the camp towns and the children — they are still really stigmatized and looked down upon, almost erased.”
Keller relates in a different interview that an African American soldier who had been stationed in Korea told her “I’ve been waiting thirty years for someone to tell this story. I feel like it’s part of my history.”
Aside from describing Korean culture just outside and within America Town, Fox Girls includes Korean folklore (the title itself refers to a folk story), language, food (including a reference to eating puppies!), and the deep-seated prejudice against mixed-race children, particularly those born of African-American fathers and Korean mothers, who were so despised they were called “throwaway children.”
In my book (or what South Korea means to me and maybe you, too)
Two of my best friends in high school were Korean-American. In the description “Korean-American friend”, the friend part was foremost, the American part a no-brainer, and the Korean part mentionable only because it explained the difference in our facial features and skin tones, their fluid bilingualism and their stereotypically strict parents. I never thought to ask them about Korea or Korean culture and I don’t remember them bringing it up. When I think about those friendships now, I’m disappointed that I missed out on a chance to learn a lot, both about them and about their country, and I wonder how they felt about me glossing over such an integral part of them. But if a few teenage girls can get together to talk about boys and school and movies without mentioning cultural differences…maybe that’s worth a little ignorance.
South Koreans call the Korean War the 6-2-5 War, which refers to the war’s start date on the 25th of June. To North Koreans, the conflict is known as the Fatherland Liberation War. The Chinese longwindedly refer to it as The War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea.
Slipping between the glory of World War II and the disaster of Vietnam, Americans have nicknamed the Korean War “the Forgotten War” and even “the Unknown War.” I might add to that list “the Barely Mentioned in American History Class War.” Since the Korean War is another notable event in my country’s past that I never really learned anything about, it’s time for another History Haiku (in four parts):
North Korea invades South.
A win at Inchon
but Chinese and Soviets
help the North take Seoul.
U.S. troops rally,
the 38th parallel
now the battle line.
After two long years
sign an armistice.
When I was in high school, the only thing worse than not having a car was having to drive your mother’s Hyundai Excel. This Korean sedan was one of cheapest and least reliable cars ever, which, unfortunately for a good friend of mine, was the reason her parents turned it over to her. She made as many or more jokes about the junky silver Excel as we did, including this one:
I walked into a parts store and asked, “Can I get a pair of wiper blades for my Hyundai?”
The store clerk said, “Yeah, that sounds like a fair trade.”
Hyundai, which means “modernity,” has vastly improved its reputation and become the world’s fourth largest automaker. Sounds like they’re getting the last laugh.
Feet and fists-a-flyin’
The popularity of Taekwondo in America is second only to South Korea, where is it the national sport. Learning “the way of the foot and the fist” and earning different colored belts in a strip mall dojo is a rite of passage for many American kids. I had a friend in college who could still – despite having quit Taekwondo years earlier – kick the ceiling ten feet above his head from a standing position. As Napoleon Dynamite would say, he had “good skills.” I bring up Napoleon Dynamite and the movie by the same name because its “Rex Kwon Do” parody of Taekwondo is hilarious (especially if you practice a martial art).
A black day in Blacksburg
On April 16, 2007, I spent all evening in front of the TV. A lone gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, had killed 32 people and wounded 25 before committing suicide at my alma mater, Virginia Tech. I was stunned: how could peaceful, small-town Blacksburg, Virginia – the hometown of the Hokies – be the scene of a massacre?
Cho, a South Korean citizen with U.S. permanent resident status, had been diagnosed with selective mutism (an inability to speak in social situations) and major depressive disorder. He shot his first two victims in West Ambler-Johnston Hall, which was the dorm I lived in during my freshman year. He was a senior English major; I graduated with a B.A. in English. Many of his professors were my old professors. 13 years after I graduated, those professors were giving first-hand interviews to CNN about the person responsible for the deadliest peacetime shooting in U.S. history.