please look after mom by kyung-sook shin

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

I left this book on a bench at the University of Arizona main campus in Tucson, Arizona. Let us know if you picked it up… we’d love to hear from you!

Lost in translation…

It really surprises me that this is an international bestseller. Not because I think it is undeserving but more so because I think many of its non-Korean readers miss a lot without cultural context. Even the title doesn’t translate with quite the same feeling (엄마를 부탁해). As someone who grew up with both the perspective of middle-class Korea and middle-class, white America, I’m able to see where this can create misunderstandings among those who aren’t familiar with Korean culture. There were often moments in which my reaction to a passage was either more compassionate or contemptuous depending on the culture through which I was reading it.

On reflection…

One thing that is universal about this book is how we often pigeon-hole our parents, but mostly our mothers, by the role they played for us. That is to say, we fail to see our mothers as a whole person. Their experiences that don’t include us, their childhood, their dreams, their sacrifices, their masks–we forget the lives they lived or live outside of our purview by defining our mothers by the life that we do see. Out of the entire book, this line from the father’s portion struck me the hardest, “After your children’s mother went missing, you realized that it was your wife who was missing. Your wife, whom you’d forgotten about for fifty years, was present in your heart. Only after she disappeared did she come to you tangibly.”

It actually reminded me of a solitary moment in my life. 5 years after my mom left her job in astronomy and optical sciences, I was hired in the same office she had worked and my boss was her former boss. One day, my boss was recounting a story of my mother standing up to the top executive of the company. She said I took after her in many ways. She told me, both of us had even earned similar nicknames–firecracker, rebel, bottle rocket. (To be clear, we weren’t named for our tempers, but for our spirit and fight, for the willingness to stand up to powerful men in the name of what was right or just.)

I remember my reaction very clearly. “Wait, we’re talking about my mom, right?” At the age of 19, I realized my mother was not at all who I thought she was. I had the same epiphany that Father from the book did–‘Mom’ was but one title, one role, one angle of this vastly complex woman.

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