Was that, he wondered, the most romance Mom was able to experience in those days?
Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-sook Shin
When I was younger, I remember reading books in Korean. A little haltingly, but still able to read in Korean naturally. Nowadays, the most Korean I read is in the on-screen text of the entertainment shows I watch with my parents (Korean TV shows are filled with on-screen text) and occasional news articles.
I was born in Seoul, but I’ve spent approximately two-thirds of my life in North America. Throughout elementary and junior high, the only Korean I spoke was at home or with family friends. At school, there were Korean kids like me, but we conversed strictly in English. Like me, they felt awkward speaking Korean, and the Korean they spoke with their parents was mixed with English. And, like many immigrant children, I was slightly embarrassed of my parents’ conservative, traditional ways.
I’ve always considered myself as distant from my Korean background, so when I picked up the English translation of Please Look After Mom at the bookstore, I didn’t expect to connect with it so much. I’d heard of the book before, and since it was half-off, I decided to buy it. At the very least, I thought, I’d be able to discuss it with my parents.
Please Look After Mom is the story of a family whose mother goes missing. While on a trip to Seoul to visit her children, Park So-nyo is separated from her husband and disappears. Throughout the course of the novel, the family members deal with their grief, mostly independently. The book is more about their relationships with the mother, rather than the search itself.
I particularly related to Chi-hon, the older daughter of the family, who is an unmarried writer in her thirties. Chi-hon attempts to respect her mother’s traditional, sometimes superstitious beliefs, but she finds herself often frustrated with her mother’s values, which insist her on getting married and having children, and frown upon her casual relationship with her boyfriend. Chi-hon is often short and unnecessarily brusque with her mother, which is something I recognize in myself.
Traditionally in Korean culture, mothers are expected to sacrifice their own ambitions for their families and assume a rather subservient role to their husbands. Most Korean mothers I know married relatively young and have been housewives for their whole lives. The novel made me question how much I take my mother’s sacrifices for granted, especially as a young woman who is expected, traditionally, to do the same someday. I have absolutely no intention of living my life as a housewife, so why did I take it for granted that my mother, a college-educated woman, wanted to do the same?
Interestingly, large portions of the book are written in second person. When I learned about second person in English class, my teacher said that the only true example of second person voice is Nick Carraway’s narration in The Great Gatsby. But here, the narrator will describe Chi-hon’s actions in terms of “you”, as in “You knelt in front of Mom.” At first, the second person narration feels stilted and forced, but as I read it, it made me step into the shoes of the characters and reconsider my own relationship with my mother, which I think is what the author aimed to do.
YES OR NO?: A strong YES. This is an excellent novel through which you can learn more about Korean culture, both past and present, beyond the plastic surgery epidemic and carefully orchestrated idol stars. But more than that, it examines mothers and the sacrifices they make for their children, which is something all cultures can relate to.