Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Misplaced Props in Pachinko

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a good novel, fully deserving the rave reviews it has received thus far. But Pachinko is not merely good; it is important. Deep, literary exposition about Korea in English has only just begun in the last few years, but with books like Han Kang's The Vegetarian and Kim Young-ha's Your Republic is Calling You, there are now a solid stable of Korean novels in English that give a look into contemporary Korea. Yet Pachinko's subject—Zainichi Koreans—is a one that even novels originally written in Korean rarely broach, which makes Min Jin Lee's work not only good, but important. The hardship that these diaspora Koreans experienced because of Imperial Japan’s occupation of Korea, World War II, Korea’s division and the Japanese society’s discrimination is an important story that deserves to be told.

All this is to say: what follows in this post is not at all about the novel’s merits, but about my own peculiarities, and if any part of it seems like a criticism, it only comes from a place of love.

One peculiarity of mine is I greatly care about the mundane aspect of human lives. Indeed, I think the connotations that the word “mundane” carries—small, insignificant, unimportant—are exactly backwards. Most of our lives are spent in the mundane: eating, sleeping, fighting boredom at work, sitting in our room. Even if we experience the most dramatic day of our lives, the mundane returns the very next day as we must continue to wake up, eat, work, and sleep. Many find these things boring, but I do not—because like gravity, the mundane is what makes our lives possible by keeping us on the ground.

I deeply believe that the mundane, in fact, must be the most important aspect of our lives. Our everyday is not merely white noise that fills the gap between the exciting events worth remembering. What we eat, how we sleep, what we put in our homes, how we entertain ourselves—these are the most important things of our lives, for the simple reason that they are most of our lives. The expanded version of this proposition is how I understand history as well: the most important things in history is how people spent their mundane hours, eating, working and living. The events that are usually considered historically important—like a war, for example—are so only insofar as they have the power to radically and massively alter the shape of those mundane hours.

This is one of the reasons I rarely read fiction. Why read made-up stories, when there is so much fascinating mundane to learn about? The few fictions that I do find interesting are the huge tomes that relentlessly focus on the mundane. For me, the best part of Les Miserable was Victor Hugo’s 15,000 word description of the Paris sewers, so vivid that as you are reaching the story of Valjean carrying Marius through the sewer, you would marvel at the majesty of its architecture even while wincing from its smell. Pak Kyongni’s Land, a massive 16-volume epic about Korea in the late 19th and early 20th century, was an unstoppable read for me because of Pak’s placement of all the mundane things in the small town of Hadong—not only minor characters, but also every animal and plant that makes an appearance—serves to push the story forward with a greater weight than a simple succession of dramatic events could possibly do.
(More after the jump.)

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Which brings us to Pachinko. Reading this powerful story about the four generation of Koreans whose life went from Busan to Osaka to New York and back to Japan, I kept getting stuck at the mundane. Again, please don’t get me wrong—this is not a criticism of the novel, but an explanation of why I’m weird. But every time I was about to be engrossed into Pachinko's story, a misplaced “prop” threw in a needle-scratch moment. Amid the highly plausible story of a family migrating from Korea to Japan throughout the 20th century, there were so many implausible or anachronistic appearances of food items, names for things and people, or exclamatory phrases, that were more appropriate for usually 1960s and thereafter. It was like reading a compelling story about the Civil War, except the men in their stories kept called their love interests “bae” and constantly talked about eating Doritos and drinking Mountain Dew.

These misused props are not just a distraction; they are a missed opportunity, because the props contain the stories that travel on the same wavelength as the stories of the novel’s characters. For example, the third generation child of the Baek family, Noa, struggles with assimilation into the Japanese society that discriminates against Koreans. Noa copes and adjusts by changing names and disguising his Korean origin. The same theme could have been told through one of the most significant props in the novel—yakiniku, a Japanese-Korean dish. Yakiniku is marinated and grilled beef, a derivation of Korea’s bulgogi. In Pachinko, Kim Changho, an ethnic Korean living in Japan offers Sunja to sell her kimchi at his restaurant in Osaka. Supposedly in 1939, Kim tells Sunja: “My name is Kim Changho, and I manage the yakiniku restaurant right by the Tsuruhashi Station.” 

This is anachronistic, because in 1939, the people in Japan did not call bulgogi “yakiniku,” nor did they call the restaurant that sold bulgogi a “yakiniku restaurant.” In 1939, Kim Changho would have told Sunja “I manage the Korean restaurant” or “Joseon restaurant,” as “Joseon” is the Korean dynasty that was felled by the Imperial Japan before the occupation. The word yakiniku was commonly used in Japan only after the 1960s, when the division of the Korean Peninsula began to look permanent. With their former country divided, the 600,000 Zainichi Koreans in Japan divided themselves along their political sympathies as well. With North Korea calling itself “Joseon” and South Korea “Hanguk,” the word “Joseon restaurant” itself became politically charged, with South Korea-leaning Zainichis preferring the term “Hanguk restaurant.” Eventually, the two sides landed on a neutral term: a yakiniku (“grilled meat”) restaurant. It was an alternative name chosen to mask the political troubles of the dish’s origin, just as the Baek brothers did. 

Just like that, the mundane could have illuminated the main story, adding more weight of reality to the characters’ struggles of identity. Getting these details correct in the rare novel about the turbulent changes that the Koreans who lived in Japan would have taken Pachinko to another level.

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In this spirit,  here are all the ill-fitting props that I found in Pachinko, and a quick explanation why these parts are anachronistic or awkward. Again, none of this should be seen as a criticism of the novel, but merely a collection of curios for weirdos like me. Be forewarned: there are tons of spoilers below.

· “Jesus”.   A major theme of Pachinko is the Baek family’s Christian faith, which is another factor that separates them from the Japanese society in which they live. Sunja is a convert into the faith as she married a Christian pastor Baek Isak. Yet the Christians in the novel almost never talk about “Jesus,” referring to “God” instead. (By my count, there was only one appearance of the word “Jesus” or "Yesu" spoken by a character in the entire novel.) This is very unusual, considering that early Christians in Korea regarded their faith to be worshipping Jesus—to a point that Korea’s early Christians called their faith “Jesus Religion” [예수교]. (For example, Korea’s first Presbyterian Church, established in 1912, was called 조선예수교장로회, or “Joseon Jesus Religion Presbytery.”)

· Shamanistic Spirituality.   In the early 20th century Korea, the flip side of the Christian faith was the shamanistic spirituality, the folksy belief that the entire world is imbued with animistic spirits, including the spirit of one’s ancestors. This belief system forms the basis of many of Korea’s traditional rituals such as jesa (memorial service for one’s ancestors.) But there is zero reference to this type of spirituality in Pachinko, although a number of Korean characters are not Christians or do not start out as Christians. Yangjin is not Christian, for example; Sunja converts into faith as she married the Christian pastor Baek Isak. It is extremely unlikely that people like Yangjin or Sunja would not understand the world in terms of shamanistic spirituality, as early 20th century Koreans were very much living in what Jurgen Habermas has called the “enchanted world.” Yangjin and Sunja might not think about the ancestors' spirits all the time, but they would think about them at least as often as Isak and Yoseb thought of their faith.

· “Oppa”.   Sunja’s initial love interest Koh Hansu tells her to call him “oppa” as they begin dating. This is entirely inappropriate. “Oppa” means “older brother,” and until around 1990s, the word meant literally that and nothing else. Women did not use that term to refer to an older man who is not actual, blood-related brother, much less a boyfriend. I’m not even old, but I vividly recall exactly when that trend of using “oppa” as a term of endearment started, and also recall how gross it felt to hear women use that word to describe their love interest because it evoked an image of an incest. The same image would have certainly entered the minds of Sunja and Hansu.

· “Yobo”.   This Korean word plays a significant role in the story; there is a whole vignette on exactly when Baek Isak would call his wife Sunja yobo [여보]. The word is a term of endearment for one’s spouse like “honey” or “sweetheart”—today. Unfortunately, yobo did not mean “honey” in the early 20th century. The word originated as a contraction of 여기를 봐 [“look here”]: not a romantic noun, but a command. The word “yobo” appears in Korean in the late 19th century, and used only as “look here” through the early 20th century. See, for example, Chunhyangjeon [춘향전] from the late 19th century: the main character Chunhyang, who is a young woman, uses the word “yobo” for her friend (“여보, 행수 형님!”) or even to the evil lord of the town (“여보 사또님 듣조시오!”). Even when Chunhyang uses the word “yobo” to her love interest, it still means “look here.” (“여보 도련님”). The use of “yobo” as an equivalent of “honey” does not happen until the 1960s. (Knowing this, I let out a primal scream when Baek Isak called Sunja “yobo” as they were making love. It was one of the two biggest needle-scratch moments.)

· “Uh-muh”.   This is a light exclamation, similar to saying “gosh!” It is a feminine term with several variations, such as “uh-muh-nah” [어머나] or “egu-muh-nina” [에그머니나]. Yet the novel only uses one of the variations, which is stiff and unnatural. The exclamation is also frequently deployed in inappropriate situations. For example, upon hearing that Kyunghee’s parents were murdered in the Korean War, Sunja sits down and says “uh-muh”—as if she just heard something slightly odd rather than something unimaginably terrible. At one point, Mozasu says “uh-muh,” something that a grown man would never say. (And especially not a tough guy like Mozasu. This was the other biggest needle-scratch moment.)

· Public Bath.   Sunja moves with her husband Baek Isak from Busan to Osaka, to live with Isak’s brother Yoseb and his wife Kyunghee. There, Sunja visits a public bath with Kyunghee—as if she has always done so. This cannot be true: this had to be Sunja’s first visit to a public bath, as public baths were rare in Korea in the early 20th century. Although public baths are everywhere in Korea today, the public bath culture is an import from Japan and did not became part of Korea’s mainstream until after the 1960s. Upon entering a public bath, Sunja should have been bewildered just as much as a non-Korean person first visiting a jjimjilbang.

· Doctor.   Baek Yoseb recalls that, as a child, his father wanted him to be a doctor. While that sounds very much like a typical Korean parent today, such desire would have made no sense in the early 20th century Korea—as the colonized people of Japan, Koreans were not allowed to attend medical schools. The highest healthcare position that Koreans could reach was being a doctor’s assistant, and fewer than 20 people per year were even allowed to be a doctor’s assistant. Along the same lines, the "doctor" that Yangjin and Sunja visit in Busan should either be Japanese, or not a real doctor if the person is Korean.

· “Hanguk”.   Isak attends a Korean church in Osaka called “Hanguk Presbyterian Church”—an unlikely name, because the word Hanguk [한국], meaning “Korea” in today’s parlance, was not commonly in use in the early 20th century. A more likely name would have been “Joseon Presbyterian Church,” using the name of the last Korean dynasty before the Imperial Japan colonized Korea. The word Hanguk comes from Daehanminguk, the name that Korea’s government-in-exile used for itself since 1919, and did not enter common usage until South Korea took the name Daehanminguk after the division.

· “Noodles in Black Bean Sauce”.   At the church in Osaka, the church's sexton serves Isak what sounds awfully like jjajangmyeon [짜장면]—which makes no sense, because jjajangmyeon is a Korean-Chinese dish that was invented in Incheon in 1905. The Japanese also had their own version of Japanese-Chinese dishes, but jjajangmyeon is not one of them.

· Conversation at the Butcher Shop.   Kyunghee and a butcher named Tanaka have an extended conversation about how to make seolleongtang, a Korean soup. Kyunghee talks about how seolleongtang would be made with long-simmered leg bones, then served with rice and noodles. Several things are off with this: first of all, the Japanese butcher in the early 20th century would have likely just thrown away cow’s leg bones, as the Japanese did not know how to eat them. In fact, the first yakiniku in Japan was mostly made with intestines and organ meats, because Koreans picked up with the Japanese threw away. Kyunghee’s recipe is also anachronistic: prior to the 1970s, seolleongtang was served with rice only. Noodles do not appear in seolleongtang until the 1970s, when the South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee ordered the country to consume less rice and more wheat products, as the U.S. provided wheat flour as an aid. 

· Gimbap.  This is a Korean dish, rice rolled in seaweed. Supposedly in 1955, Mozasu “made excuses about getting some gimbap on the other side of the market . . .”. This is anachronistic: gimbap is a Japanese sushi roll that was Koreanized and became popular only after the Korean War. The Japanese tourists who visited Korea in the 1980s had no idea what gimbap was, and was often surprised to find a bastardized version of futomaki existed in Korea.

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I found that as Panchinko entered the 1960s, the anachronistic props began to fade away, probably because Min Jin Lee was born in 1968 so she had some personal experience of Korea. It is also likely because today’s Korea is a continuation of the framework that settled in the 1960s—which means that, often, the most interesting stories about Korea are the stories from the time period just preceding the 60s, the stories about how things became the way they are today. I was so excited to read Pachinko for that reason, as it was a rare novel in English that dealt with the lives of ordinary Koreans during the Japanese occupation and World War II. Unfortunately, the novel left it a bit short of the mark for me.

At this point, I should add: authors, if you have a book length manuscript about Korea, I am available to be hired to review all these props. I have already helped several authors in this capacity. Don't be shy: you will be surprised at how much a good detail could improve your story.

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  1. I look forward to your post regarding Mr. Sunshine.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. A historical fiction is difficult to nail as its attention to “mundane” details has to be precised. The genre requires the author to be a historian as well as having some modest understanding of language used at that time. Huckleberry Finn will never be as endearing to me if he did not speak like he was supposed to in the 1830s. I find the criticisms of Twain’s racial slurring and the usage of coarse language, to the extent that the book is banned in some libraries, incredibly mind boggling. Would Huck not used the ‘ N’ word in his time? Anyway I digressed but thank you again for yet another insightful article!

  4. I have a correction regarding one of your points. I do know that there was a university in Seoul named Keijō Imperial University (京城帝国大学 Keijō Teikoku Daigaku, Korean: 경성제국대학), which was founded in 1924 which had a medical school and had graduates who became doctors. There was also a medical professional school, a 2-year school which was even older and also produced doctors.

  5. Your lauding of the mundane made me think of a quote from 'Doctor Who': "For some people, small beautiful events are what life is all about". I shall keep my eye open for the works you mentioned.


  7. Man what's debbie downer you are!

  8. Chang-rae Lee's novel The Surrendered has an episode set during the Korean War where the main character sings The Fields Of Athenry, which was composed in about 1975. Anachronisms like this make it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief for the rest of the story.

    1. Songs are always strange ones to get wrong because they're so easy to Google. Things like the exact date that Korean restaurants started being referred to as yakiniku are understandable, but you shouldn't be getting songs wrong.

  9. Mostly good points, but there were a few things that I vaguely recall from the story (I read it quite a while ago now).

    -I think Yangjin and Sunja do actually go to perform jesa at one point in the story, just before Sunja leaves to go to Japan.

    -The church sexton who serves the 'noodles in black bean sauce' is actually Chinese and the dish may have been closer to the Chinese zhajiangmian than jjajangmyeon. Maybe that's giving Lee too much credit.

    -Again, not totally sure, but I think Tanaka (the butcher) does only keep the leg bones around for Kyugnhee. He would normally throw them away.


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