Even In This Ajumma’s Life: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
“The big secret that he kept from his mother, aunt, and even his beloved uncle was that Noa did not believe in God anymore. God had allowed his gentle, kindhearted father to go to jail even though he had done nothing wrong. For two years, God had not answered Noa’s prayers, though his father had promised him that God listens very carefully to the prayers of children. Above all the other secrets that Noa could not speak of, the boy wanted to be Japanese; it was his dream to leave Ikaino and never to return.”
– Min Jin Lee
Korea and Japan have a complicated history. Growing up, I have heard many Korean people express their strong feelings against the Japanese, and I have also heard many Korean people say that history is history, and that there is no point in carrying the resentment for so long. For me, I do agree that what is past is past, but what angered me was hearing that the Japanese had changed history books so that the Japanese were learning false history rather than facing the truth of what actually happened. How interesting that, even though I have never known one single Japanese person in my life, I still am able to hold this sense of resentment.
My own complicated sentiments on this issue – which I haven’t thought of for such a long time – came up as I read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. It was interesting to see the Korea-Japan relationship from multiple generations’ points of view. Just as an example, in the beginning, the narrator starts the story by saying, “History has failed us, but no matter” (63). What a powerful way to start a story. If your country is under the control of other, more powerful countries, and your identity becomes your own curse, then I think you have the right to believe that history has failed your people. To provide an example of the effect the Japanese control had on Koreans, Yoseb says:
…to every Korean he knew, Japan’s expanding war in Asia seemed senseless. China was not Korea; China was not Taiwan; China could lose a million people and still keep on. Pockets of it may fall, but it was an unfathomably vast nation; it would endure by sheer number and resolve. Did Koreans want Japan to win? Hell no, but what would happen to them if Japan’s enemies won? Could the Koreans save themselves? Apparently not. So save your own ass — this was what Koreans believed privately. Save your family. Feed your belly. Pay attention, and be skeptical of the people in charge. If the Korean nationalists couldn’t get their country back, then let your kids learn Japanese and try to get ahead. Adapt. Wasn’t it as simple as that? For every patriot fighting for a free Korea, or for any unlucky Korean bastard fighting on behalf of Japan, there were ten thousand compatriots on the ground and elsewhere who were just trying to eat. In the end, your belly was your emperor. (2609-2617)
For Noa, being Korean didn’t give him any advantages. None of these facts – that he was the top of his class, that he was a great athlete, and that he always kept himself clean – mattered much to others because he was a Korean living in Japan. When he finds out that his father, Isak Baek – whom he loved and admired, and who was a pastor – is not his real father, the truth makes him hate himself and his mother. He finds out that Isak Baek is not his real father when he realizes that Hansu Koh, the Korean yakuza, is his real father. That’s why Hansu had been paying for Noa’s tuition as well as room and board for Waseda University. When Noa confronts his mother, Sunja, about this, their relationship is destroyed. The fact is, Sunja had had to make tough choices, and she had done the best she could in an unfavorable situation. But in Noa’s point of view, his mother had made the worst choice possible. This is how their conversation goes:
“Noa,” Sunja said, “forgive me. Umma is sorry. I just wanted you to go to school. I know how much you wanted that. I know how hard you —” “You. You took my life away. I am no longer myself,” [Noa] said, pointing his finger at her. He turned around and walked back to the train. (4693-4695).
Sunja loses her son as a result of this discovery. Actually, she loses him twice. After he finds out the truth about his birth father, Noa quits university and manages to hide from his family, even though he sends them money regularly. He even becomes Japanese and raises a family, until the day his mother finds out where he works with the help of Hansu Koh. When he sees his mother, with Hansu Koh’s car nearby, he sends his mother away by making empty promises that he will call and visit. Then, he kills himself.
Amidst the Korean-Japanese tension that permeates the book, Lee brings into light the topic of what it means to be a woman dealing with these struggles. Through Sunja, a woman who is neither beautiful, nor particularly skilled, the narrator says:
All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer — suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother — die suffering. Go-saeng (Korean word for “suffering”) — the word made her sick. What else was there besides this? (6167 – 6169).
When she had first started meeting Hansu, and they made love, Sunja had been too naive to suspect that Hansu was already married with a wife and three daughters in Japan. Instead, she waited for the next time Hansu would come. When she became pregnant and told Hansu, that was when he revealed to her that he already had a family. Sunja was lucky to have found Isak Baek, who, knowing her situation, was willing to marry her and to take care of the baby. In a complicated situation, Sunja did what she could, and she and Isak had Mozasu, Noa’s half-brother.
In the end, Lee closes this story of the generations of a family who miraculously survived through one of the toughest times in the history of their country by coming back to Sunja, the one who started this story as quietly as she ended it. After she buries the picture of her two sons next to the grave of Isak Baek, who had been more of a father-figure to them than Hansu Koh, she returns home, to where her sister-in-law, Kyunghee is waiting for her. The narrator states:
“Beyond the dailiness, there had been moments of shimmering beauty and some glory, too, even in this ajumma’s life. Even if no one knew, it was true” (7092-7093).
Work Cited: Lee, Min Jin. Pachinko (National Book Award Finalist). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.