Friday, October 3, 2008
Winds of Change: Korean Women in America by Diana Yu
An odd hybrid that is neither entirely history or a gender studies/culture studies book. It lives somewhere between a review of what was then written about the history of Korean women, a self-help handbook for Korean women, and a memoir. Yu attempts to study the undocumented presence of Korean women from the Ancient Period, 2332 BCE, the social and political history of Korean women during the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945) and the role and culture of Korean and Korean American women today, both in the U.S. and Korea. In the first part of WINDS OF CHANGE, Yu touches on Korean women's roles in religion, customs and traditions, legal rights, education, politics and work. Despite their brevity, the sections that cover Korean Confucianism and its influence are fascinating. It is an intriguing social study of how one man's wisdom AND misogeny were interpreted and followed as Law during nearly ten centuries in an isolated peninsula. This section alone is inspiration enough to further explore the work of Confucius.
Yu does not miss this point; rather, she cannot resist its inherent psychology and does not refrain from bringing in her own experiences to exemplify the point. Examples: "Positive mental attitudes about education often are inspired in daughters by relatives other than the parents. In my own case..." or "My personal experience illustrates the roles of women and men at the time of death..." In this way, centuries of history and culture become rationalizations for the author's life. These memoir portions are vivid and are succinctly written, resulting in a weird narrative effect. There is less dry repetition and the syntax is less strident. Since she presents her own reality in these vignettes, she appears to feel less of a need to defend and authenticate her take on the history of Korean women. This is contrasted with her application of Korean folk tales to illustrate historical cultural facts, an approach that maintains a sense of accuracy and authority with the material. When the memoir approach is used, the broader sweep of history seems belittled within the context of her life.
Part II covers the American diaspora of Korean women, touching first on world historical events and international laws which helped define the pattern of immigration from Korea. She examines the culture of immigration according to the markers of assimilation, carryover of class, culture, prejudices and generational divisions, and Korean community organizations in America. This synthesized information is important and useful and is accompanied by interviews, but the tone of the first half of the book persists, and the raw historical data crumbles in the personal voices of her interviewees and how she prefaces those narratives. It becomes a collection of personal recitals designed to provide companionship and insight, as is common in a genre of psychology based books. She writes: "Mrs. Snow proudly points out..." or "Mrs. Flowers further confessed to me..." and "The Korean store owner grumbles..." This insistence of adjectives, leaves the reader wondering if Yu has lost faith in the intelligence of the reader. The final two chapters, covering women's roles in community organizations, contribute to the evidence that Yu's desire was to have written a memoir.
Yu's footnotes are extensive, her index detailed and accurate, though one of her oft-cited references is Encyclopedia Britannica. Source material is varied and exemplify a bilingual advantage. It adds up to a purportedly academic work that explores the challenges women face in the Korean diaspora, that is combating to also be a memoir.