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Quiet Odyssey

Mary Paik Lee's Quiet Odyssey is the story of the silent struggles of many immigrant Americans, who have had to endure pain, poverty, and prejudice in order to form a sense of community and identity. Lee's book in particular comprises the memoirs of one first-generation Korean-American woman, whose country's struggle with independence and national identity mirrored her own. Reflecting on her eighty-five years of life, Lee notes, "I am free of cares and worry and am just trying to relax and enjoy what little time is left. I attend a church regularly where most of the members are black, because it is there I feel most comfortable," (130). Lee's encounter with cultures other than her own: from the dominant European cultures in America to other immigrant and minority groups underscore her triumphs retaining selfhood and cultural identity. Moreover, having moved from state to state and town to town during the course of her long life, the author of Quiet Odyssey encountered the rich highs and devastating lows that characterized American culture throughout the twentieth century and which changed with each successive generation. Quiet Odyssey illustrates three main qualities of the twentieth-century Korean-American experience: first, Lee describes the struggle to retain cultural pride and national identity in the midst of an overpowering paradigm that promotes the "melting pot" mentality; second, Lee recounts the particularities of the Korean-American female experience, an experience which can be wrought with a particularly hard set of circumstances; and third, Lee's personal experiences demonstrate how women of all ethnicities can embark on their own quiet odysseys, to communicate their tales with pride and hope.

Embracing the roots and traditions of her homeland, Lee, like many Koreans, tried to adapt to American life without making the sacrifices that entail total assimilation. The editor of Quiet Odyssey, who came across Mary Paik Lee's autobiography quite by accident, notes that "Korean-American youngsters like Mary Paik Lee seem not to have shared the desperate desire of Chinese and Japanese-American children ... To 'prove' how American they were," (lix-lx). Sucheng Chan's introductory statement serves a dual purpose: it both illustrates the unique fabric of Korean-American culture while it also serves to bring out the central and core aspects of that culture's "quiet odyssey." Namely, the quiet odyssey entails a journey toward self-discovery that refuses to be overwhelmed by the dominant culture. However, assimilation was not an option for early Korean immigrants. As Mary Paik Lee notes, segregation and overt racism was a more common condition of early twentieth-century immigrant life in America. Lee's father wisely explained to young Mary that "anything new and strange causes some fear at first, so ridicule and violence often result," (12). His advice to his family would remain with Mary Paik Lee throughout the remainder of her life: to "study hard and learn to show Americans that we were just as good as they are," (14). Proving social equality was nearly impossible throughout much of the twentieth century. Not only were all immigrants summarily dismissed as being inferior and unworthy by whites, but they were lumped together into one broad unnamable category. Among Mary Paik Lee's earliest memories include that of her and her family being thrust into uncomfortable living and labor conditions. "In those days," the author states, "Orientals and others were not allowed to live in town with the white people. The Japanese, Chinese and Mexicans each had their own little settlement outside of town," (14). Thus, early Korean-American immigrant experiences did not demand of them instant assimilation because they were treated as inferiors. Only after the notion of the American Dream began to infuse the immigrant consciousness did immigrants come to believe that they too could share a piece of American pie. Koreans originally come to America to escape political and economic hardships in their home country. Thus, in spite of their inferior social, political, and legal status in the early part of the twentieth century, Koreans readily embraced their new lives in the United States. The fact that most Korean immigrants had already accepted Christianity as their core religion helped them to form distinct communities within their new homeland. Christianity was, after all, the religion of most white Americans and perhaps in solidarity, many Korean-Americans felt uniquely able to adapt to their new cultural surroundings; adapt, but not completely assimilate. Mary Paik Lee explains the desire to adapt but not assimilate in her reflections on the Korean immigrant community in Mexico: "the Koreans who settled in Mexico did something wonderful ... they got together and started a Korean language school that also taught Korean history, so that their children would not forget who they were," (65). Mary Paik Lee describes similar attempts to create and preserve Korean-American communities in the United States especially via churches. Quiet Odyssey is in large part testimony to similar attempts to preserve Korean heritage and foster pride within subsequent generations of Korean-Americans.

Creating a sense of pride in one's national heritage is difficult, especially in the midst of prejudice and diminished civil rights. The types of prejudice that Mary Paik Lee describes were shared by almost all non-whites in America. However, cultivating pride proves far more difficult for women, whose gender renders them an inferior social status even within their own community. Moreover, because of the need for female labor especially during times of abject poverty, the nature of female life within the Korean-American communities that Lee describes became amazingly traumatic at times. Quiet Odyssey poignantly describes the peculiarities of the Korean-American female experience, in light of women's status within Korean culture as well as within American culture. For example, women in traditional Korean societies were all but stripped of their social, legal, and political status. Being unable to own land or participate in politics in Korean simply carried over to their new life in America, in which all Koreans, men and women, were deprived of similar rights. Mary Paik Lee demonstrated a remarkable resiliency during her encounters with both sexism and racism, both of which forced Korean-American women into deplorable working conditions. Life for Korean women changed considerably from the lives they would have had in their native country. For example, family businesses that sprouted up in Korean-American communities were run by both male and female family members, not just the males. The struggle to create community and to improve living conditions within the Korean-American community forced first-generation women like Mary Paik Lee to alter the roles of women within their cultures. Women had to still shoulder the brunt of the burden of child-rearing while at the same time toiling at factory jobs, farm work, on-the-side laundry services, or in family-run stores.

Therefore, stories like hers are essential in reconstructing an accurate historiography of the Korean-American community in North America, a community that shifted and changed much over the course of the past hundred years. The role of women in particular changed much as a result of confrontations between Korean and American cultures. Quiet Odyssey offers proof that the struggle to maintain individual and ethnic identity can be won through patience, endurance, strength, pride, and hope. Furthermore, first generation Korean-American women like Mary Paik Lee set the standards for their daughters. Lee's memoirs show how that "those pioneers took the first step toward raising the standard of living for the second and third generations of Orientals here," (107). Lee's experiences are notable not only because of the uniqueness of her cultural heritage but also because she lived through intense shifts in social consciousness in the Untied States, from the "whites only" signs in community stores and over public bathrooms to racial profiling and race-related crimes perpetrated recently. Lee lived through the Civil Rights movement as well as the more recent attempts to make amends to disenfranchised groups. These varying shifts affected blacks, Jews, and Hispanics,…[continue]


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