'Please Look After Mom': A Guilt Trip To The Big City

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
 
Please Look After Mom
By Kyung-Sook Shin
Hardcover, 256 pages
Knopf
List Price: $24.95
Read An Excerpt

Mama Mia, who knew that Koreans outstrip Italians and Jews when it comes to mother guilt!

How else to explain why Please Look After Mom, a new novel by Korean novelist Kyung-sook Shin, has already sold over one-million copies in her native South Korea? This literary phenom is scheduled to be published in 22 other countries and has just come out in the U.S. The back cover of the American edition, brought out by Knopf, is filled with blurbs by heavyweights like Gary Shteyngart and Edwidge Danticat. They, too, must share a weakness for melodramas about maternal self-sacrifice, although Please Look After Mom outsniffles even those immortal weepies of the western canon, Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce.

To give it its due, Shin's novel, which was translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim, is marked by a wistful tone and by some precisely-rendered scenes of emotional disconnect between a mother and the adult children who've grown apart from her. But the weird fascination of Please Look After Mom is its message — completely alien to our own therapeutic culture — that if one's mother is miserable, it is indeed, the fault of her husband and her ungrateful children. As an American reader — indoctrinated in resolute messages about "boundaries" and "taking responsibility" — I kept waiting for irony; a comic twist in the plot; a reprieve for the breast-beating children. It wasn't until the end of the novel, when Shin rolled out the Mother of all maternal suffering images — Michaelangelo's Pieta — that I understood I was stranded in a Korean soap opera decked out as serious literary fiction

The pretext of Please Look After Mom is that an elderly, illiterate woman is separated from her distracted husband in the central train station in Seoul and goes missing. Her four adult children distribute fliers and roam the city searching for her, but are tormented by regret that none of them went to the train station in the first place to meet their country bumpkin parents. That goes double for the eldest son, a wealthy businessman who was indulging in a sauna during his parents' arrival time and, extra especially, for the eldest daughter, a successful novelist, who was off having her ego inflated at the Beijing Book Fair. Shin presents her reproachful tale through different narrative perspectives, the most labored of which is a God-like second-person voice. Here, that voice hectors the novelist daughter for her crimes of inattention:

"After you'd left home for the city, you'd always talked to [Mom] as if you were angry at her. You talked back to her saying, "What do you know, Mom?" . . . Even when you had to take a plane because your book was being published in another country, or you had to go abroad for a seminar, when she asked, "Why are you going there?" you stiffly replied, "Because I have business to take care of."

Kyung-Sook Shin grew up in rural South Korea, until she moved to Seoul at 16 to work in an electronics plant and attend night school. Please Look After Mom was first published in South Korea, where it sold more than a million copies.

Kyung-Sook Shin grew up in rural South Korea, until she moved to Seoul at 16 to work in an electronics plant and attend night school. Please Look After Mom was first published in South Korea, where it sold more than a million copies. Lee Byungryul hide caption

itoggle caption Lee Byungryul

Did you catch the anti-city, anti-modernist, anti-feminist messages in that passage? The lost mother clearly stands for values that are fading from Korean culture as industrialization and urbanization triumph. Her life, which we glimpse in flashbacks, has been one long ordeal since her marriage at age 17, yet mom has retained her simple humanity. We readers know this because we're told that mom secretly donated money for years to an orphanage and only asked in return that a worker there read aloud to her the books written by her cold-hearted novelist daughter.

If there's a literary genre in Korean that translates into "manipulative sob sister melodrama," Please Look After Mom is surely its reigning queen. I'm mystified as to why this guilt-laden morality tale has become such a sensation in Korea and why a literary house like Knopf would embrace it. (Although, as women are the biggest audience for literary fiction, Please Look After Mom must be anticipated to be a book club hit in this country.) But, why wallow in cross-cultural self-pity, ladies?

Having just read Patti Smith's award-winning memoir, Just Kids, for the second time, I'd urge you to pick her empowering female adventure tale about getting lost in the city instead. Smith will get your book club on its feet and pumping its collective fists in the air, rather than knocking back the wine and reaching for the cheap consolations of kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction.

Excerpt: 'Please Look After Mom'

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
 
Please Look After Mom
By Kyung-Sook Shin
Hardcover, 256 pages
Knopf
List Price: $24.95

It's been one week since Mom went missing.

The family is gathered at your eldest brother Hyong-chol's house, bouncing ideas off each other. You decide to make flyers and hand them out where Mom was last seen. The first thing to do, everyone agrees, is to draft a flyer. Of course, a flyer is an old-fashioned response to a crisis like this. But there are few things a missing person's family can do, and the missing person is none other than your mom. All you can do is file a missing-person report, search the area, ask passersby if they have seen anyone who looks like her. Your younger brother, who owns an online clothing store, says he posted something about your mother's disappearance, describing where she went missing; he uploaded her picture and asked people to contact the family if they'd seen her. You want to go look for her in places where you think she might be, but you know how she is: she can't go anywhere by herself in this city. Hyong-chol designates you to write up the flyer, since you write for a living. You blush, as if you were caught doing something you shouldn't. You aren't sure how helpful your words will be in finding Mom.

When you write July 24, 1938, as Mom's birth date, your father corrects you, saying that she was born in 1936. Official records show that she was born in 1938, but apparently she was born in 1936. This is the first time you've heard this. Your father says everyone did that, back in the day. Because many children didn't survive their first three months, people raised them for a few years before making it official. When you're about to rewrite "38" as "36," Hyong-chol says you have to write 1938, because that's the official date. You don't think you need to be so precise when you're only making homemade flyers and it isn't like you're at a government office. But you obediently cross out "36" and write "38," wondering if July 24 is even Mom's real birthday.

A few years ago, your mom said, "We don't have to celebrate my birthday separately." Father's birthday is one month before Mom's. You and your siblings always went to your parents' house in Chongup for birthdays and other celebrations. All together, there were twenty-two people in the immediate family. Mom liked it when all of her children and grandchildren gathered and bustled about the house. A few days before everyone came down, she would make fresh kimchi, go to the market to buy beef, and stock up on extra toothpaste and toothbrushes. She pressed sesame oil and roasted and ground sesame and perilla seeds, so she could present her children with a jar of each as they left. As she waited for the family to arrive, your mom would be visibly animated, her words and her gestures revealing her pride when she talked to neighbors or acquaintances. In the shed, Mom kept glass bottles of every size filled with plum or wild-strawberry juice, which she made seasonally. Mom's jars were filled to the brim with tiny fermented croakerlike fish or anchovy paste or fermented clams that she was planning to send to the family in the city. When she heard that onions were good for one's health, she made onion juice, and before winter came, she made pumpkin juice infused with licorice. Your mom's house was like a factory; she prepared sauces and fermented bean paste and hulled rice, producing things for the family year-round. At some point, the children's trips to Chongup became less frequent, and Mom and Father started to come to Seoul more often. And then you began to celebrate each of their birthdays by going out for dinner. That was easier. Then Mom even suggested, "Let's celebrate my birthday on your father's." She said it would be a burden to celebrate their birthdays separately, since both happen during the hot summer, when there are also two ancestral rites only two days apart. At first the family refused to do that, even when Mom insisted on it, and if she balked at coming to the city, a few of you went home to celebrate with her. Then you all started to give Mom her birthday gift on Father's birthday. Eventually, quietly, Mom's actual birthday was bypassed. Mom, who liked to buy socks for everyone in the family, had in her dresser a growing collection of socks that her children didn't take.

Name: Park So-nyo

Date of birth: July 24, 1938 (69 years old)

Appearance: Short, salt-and-pepper permed hair, prominent cheekbones, last seen wearing a sky-blue shirt, a white jacket, and a beige pleated skirt.

Last seen: Seoul Station subway

Nobody can decide which picture of Mom you should use. Everyone agrees it should be the most recent picture, but nobody has a recent picture of her. You remember that at some point Mom started to hate getting her picture taken. She would sneak away even for family portraits. The most recent photograph of Mom is a family picture taken at Father's seventieth-birthday party. Mom looked nice in a pale-blue hanbok, with her hair done at a salon, and she was even wearing red lipstick. Your younger brother thinks your mom looks so different in this picture from the way she did right before she went missing. He doesn't think people would identify her as the same person, even if her image is isolated and enlarged. He reports that when he posted this picture of her, people responded by saying, "Your mother is pretty, and she doesn't seem like the kind of person who would get lost." You all decide to see if anyone has another picture of Mom. Hyong-chol tells you to write something more on the flyer. When you stare at him, he tells you to think of better sentences, to tug on the reader's heartstrings. Words that would tug on the reader's heartstrings? When you write, Please help us find our mother, he says it's too plain. When you write, Our mother is missing, he says that "mother" is too formal, and tells you to write "mom." When you write, Our mom is missing, he decides it's too childish. When you write, Please contact us if you see this person, he barks, "What kind of writer are you?" You can't think of a single sentence that would satisfy Hyong-chol.

Your second-eldest brother says, "You'd tug on people's heartstrings if you write that there will be a reward."

When you write, We will reward you generously, your sister-in-law says you can't write like that: people take notice only if you write a specific amount.

"So how much should I say?"

"One million won?"

"That's not enough."

"Three million won?"

"I think that's too little, too."

"Then five million won."

Nobody complains about five million won. You write, We will reward you with five million won, and put in a period. Your second-eldest brother says you should write it as, Reward: 5 million won. Your younger brother tells you to put 5 million won in a bigger font. Everyone agrees to e-mail you a better picture of Mom if they find something. You're in charge of adding more to the flyer and making copies, and your younger brother volunteers to pick them up and distribute them to everyone in the family. When you suggest, "We can hire someone to give out flyers," Hyong-chol says, "We're the ones who need to do that. We'll give them out on our own if we have some free time during the week, and all together over the weekend."

You grumble, "How will we ever find Mom at that rate?"

"We can't just sit tight; we're already doing everything we can," Hyong-chol retorts.

"What do you mean, we're doing everything we can?"

"We put ads in the newspaper."

"So doing everything we can is buying ad space?"

"Then what do you want to do? Should we all quit work tomorrow and just roam around the city? If we could find Mom like that, I'd do it."

You stop arguing with Hyong-chol, because you realize that you're pushing him to take care of everything, as you always do. Leaving Father at Hyong-chol's house, you all head home. If you don't leave then, you will continue to argue. You've been doing that for the past week. You'd meet to discuss how to find Mom, and one of you would unexpectedly dig up the different ways someone else had wronged her in the past. The things that had been suppressed, that had been carefully avoided moment by moment, became bloated, and finally you all yelled and smoked and banged out the door in rage.

When you first heard Mom had gone missing, you angrily asked why nobody from your large family went to pick her and Father up at Seoul Station.

"And where were you?"

Me? You clammed up. You didn't find out about Mom's disappearance until she'd been gone four days. You all blamed each other for Mom's going missing, and you all felt wounded.

Excerpted from Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin. Copyright © 2011 by Kyung-Sook Shin. Excerpted with permission by Knopf. All rights reserved.

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