Korean American Books

Summaries and reviews of fiction and nonfiction books by Korean American authors,
books about Korean Americans and Korea, and Korean literature in English translation,
including some academic works and a sampling on the Korean War

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Turn to the East, by Caroline Singer and
C. Le Roy Baldridge

As a piece of "living history," this fascinating large-format volume brings together the narrative of Caroline Singer and artwork of her husband, Roy Baldridge, of their year (likely 1924-25) in the Far East, including Japan, Korea and China. What makes this work fascinating is the sensitivity of these Westerners about what they experience and how it compares to other Western and political prejudices. From the Foreword: "So here…rendered in two different media, brought together because they are complementary, the imprint of the East on two different personalities. 

"It is no easy task, this rendering. Only the dull rush heedlessly into print with 'impressions of the Orient." To those with more sensitive perceptions, the East is too overwhelming for easy articulateness. It intimidates. The first few hours in Peking not only confuse, they frighten. Color is too vivid, motion in too unfamiliar a rhythm, mass too imposing, the content of the life about one too alien for translation into term intelligible to the Western mind. Another barrier also intervenes: the prejudices of foreign residents. To escape the influence of either their over-enthusiasm or maladjustment is difficult for one thrown suddenly into an alien culture."

But the two manage, despite all that. She overcomes her culture to strip and change in front of a crowd of welcoming swimmers (men and women) to Japanese men's underwear (the only garments that would fit her), enjoying the swim, only to realize the white garments are transparent in the water. But by then, she recognizes that no one cares, and so she lets it go and enjoys the company and the swim, to the horror of her husband. His illustrations are without prejudice, sensitive to the reality he portrays and skilled in his artistry to show it as real.

For Korea, they take note of the modernization that Japan brought with colonization, but also note that it was unwelcome, and she tells one particular story that exemplifies the effect of such change—hard white highways built by the Japanese, excellent railways, and in particular one steel bridge:

"Last night from the steel bridge a Korean girl threw herself into the river. Her body was found by fishermen at dawn.

"Not much over sixteen, she had been wed to a youth of her own age, wed in the traditional manner by arrangement between families. Such a marriage being almost inviolable, a divorce would be the affair not of individuals, but of clans. From the first, the girl was gentle, knowing a wife's duty. But the young man was of a newer mold, a rebel against tradition, against old-fashioned authority. He wished to choose a wife for himself. [He went] to the local authorities, the new rulers whose power is naturally greater than that of a subject's father…[and appealed] in the name of the law as new as the bridge, and as alien. What he demanded was granted—a modern divorce.

"She who had been a bride was now neither a wife nor yet a maid free to reenter her father's house, eligible again for marriage. No respected Korean family would accept her as daughter-in-law. Scorned publicly by her husband, she was disgraced, and her shame became the shame of her bewildered relatives. In her father's house she was, as in her husband's, unwelcome.

"Wearing fresh white linens from her bridal chest, she ran, last night, to meet death. Through stinking streets, past barred gates of unfriendly houses, past barred gates of the mission's gardens, she ran, a whimpering thing in white, while we lay between decent sheets, dreaming. This is the story I got this morning from the missionary's wife, whose cook had it from the gatekeeper, he having listened to the group of peddlers.

"Today I will not go down to the river."

No comments: