It’s interesting how THIS dismissively racist and totally superficial review from Maureen Corrigan, actually led me to reading “Please Look After Mom” by Shin Kyung-Sook. I got the only copy (it wasn’t available yet in most major bookstores), a hardbound volume worth P999.00 from Bibliarch in Glorietta 3 today and finished it in one sitting. Published by Knopf, this 237-page family epic is an emotionally rich foray into the bonds of the Asian family. I use “Asian”, instead of “Korean” precisely because this novel reflects not just Korean culture but is actually a journey that analyzes the intricacies of the relationships that serve as the structure for the Asian family.
The novel centers on the disappearance of Park So-nyeon, an illiterate matriarch from the countryside, who gets lost at the Seoul central train station while with her husband. This starts off a frenetic search among her 4 grown children for their mother. The varying degrees of emotional turmoil that clutch each member of the family is captured in a reproachful but intimate tone that brings up memories and painful questions of regret amidst loss. Written in a crisp but vivid style, this is told interestingly in all points of views: the third person view for the beloved eldest son Hyung-chol; the first person view of the missing Mom So-nyeon; plus the accusing second person view for both Father and the guilt-ridden eldest daughter Chi-hon.
“There’s always the right time to say something…I lived my life without talking to your mom. Or I missed the chance, or I assumed she would know. Now, I feel like I could say something and everything but there’s nobody to listen to me. Chi-hon?”
“Please…please look after your mom.”
Those who fail to discern the issues about family tackled deftly in prose like this could easily cast the novel aside as a manipulative melodrama about motherhood. But what this literary masterpiece truly questions is the depth of bonds in a family. It offers us the introspective theory that even in the closest of such relationships – we may never truly know each other or how much each of us means to each other. All these are captured in what could be the closest of bonds: the Asian family as represented by the Korean family in Shin’s book.
The Asian context of family is quite different from the Western mold. From the utmost sacrifice for and grand expectations of the eldest child, the unfailing devotion of the matriarch to keeping the hearth of the home burning, to the unbreakable voice of the patriarch in all aspects of family life – there are nuances as shown in the novel that strengthen the Asian family in a way totally alien to Western readers.
These bonds are held in place by chains of love, guilt, regret, dreams, and rejection. So if the reader is looking for the moment when these characters will break away from these chains, it will never come. What Asian families have as a bond bridges continents, time, and even death itself. In fact, even the most conceited self-achievement is still somehow grounded on duty to family. Call it backward, dated or even barbaric – but this is the same reason why even in their old age, Asian parents remain part of the family and are not sent off to die alone in a retirement home.
Whether the West is ready to understand or appreciate this Asian perspective of family is another matter. But who knows? Families, wherever they come from, are not so different after all.