As I write this, Trump’s visit to Southeast Asia is underway. The 12-day tour in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines reflects the increasing importance of the region tied to American interests, in aspects of geopolitics and economics.
South Korea is his second stop, and I think about the increasing provocation from his administration and North Korea’s regarding nuclear weapons. This has been the most dominant issue in the news cycle. Many cower in fear, but many more are calling for anti-militarization, specifically from a country with the largest military budget in the world.
This was the context as I read Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (Amazon | Indiebound), a multi-generational saga of a Korean family in the early 1900s. From the shores of Yeongdo beside the port city of Busan comes Sunja, the daughter of a poor couple who has thrived in spite of living under imperial Japan’s tutelage.
Lee’s book tells Sunja’s story from her birth throughout her life, as she moved from Korea to Japan. After becoming pregnant with a man who turned out to be married, Sunja’s life turned upside down. Her pregnancy was sure to bring shame to her family, until a sickly minister, Isak, volunteers to take her as his wife and bring her to Osaka.
It is in Osaka where most of the book takes place, as Sunja and her newfound family (Isak’s brother Yoseb and his wife, Kyung-hee) face the rest of their lives head on. Two more generations follow, with Sunja’s sons and their respective children, as they try to survive in a country that either ignores or loathes Koreans.
Throughout the entire story, the women suffer the most — from carrying the burden of shame with Sunja’s unwanted pregnancy, to being the kind of wives their husbands expected them to (such as Kyung-hee’s predicament), to the indelible and incredible task of mothering.
Even at a young age, this was what her mother taught Sunja.