The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim: A Tale of Two Sisters, Two Countries, Two Cultures and One Family
“It was the blackest day of my life.”
These words astonished author Eugenia Kim, words spoken by her younger sister when asked how she had felt the day she arrived in America from Korea. Kim herself came to America at too young an age to remember it but her sister was aged eleven when she travelled across the ocean to join her parents and siblings in Washington.
“I thought that all immigrants were pleased to come to America,” Kim said. “Though I knew my sister well, I really knew so little about her life.”
This started the train of family and historical research that led her to write The Kinship of Secrets. The book is a novel but is closely based on the experience of Kim’s own family.
This is not the story of a “typical” Korean family. It is the story of two families, one in Korea and the other in America who considered themselves one family although they were almost half a world apart. It is about different concepts of kinship and, in particular, the contrast between the traditional sense of kinship that exists in many parts of Asia, where individuals see themselves primarily as members of the extended family, subordinating themselves to the family and sharing good fortune and bad, and the strident individualism of the Western world.
One could explain this concept of kinship as a survival technique, though I think there is more to it than this. It certainly was a survival technique for the Cho family during the Korean War, which forms the first part of Kim’s book. After World War II, Korea had been liberated from the Japanese by the Americans in the south and the Russians in the north. The declared intent of both powers was to create a single independent Korea, but, just as in Germany, they created two separate and antagonistic states. Peace lasted only five years in Korea. In April 1950, North Korea invaded the South and quickly captured the southern capital, Seoul, close to the border, sending a torrent of refugees southward to the American-held bridgehead at Busan.
For the Cho family, this meant piling a few possessions and some food into an ox-less oxcart, with Uncle roped into the shafts to pull it along, Grandmother sitting on the cart cradling her four-year-old granddaughter, Inja, and with Grandfather and Auntie pushing at the back. In this way they covered 100 miles of rutted mountain roads, sleeping in the open and scavenging food and firewood from the fields, while unsuccessfully fending off other refugees who stole their belongings. They received a lift from a truck for the next 100 miles and spent the next three years in Busan in a self-built shanty town beside the crematorium. With Seoul liberated (although largely destroyed), they could return home and build themselves a new house, again with their own hands.
Thousands of Korean families shared the same ordeal, but as we have noted, the Chos were not a typical Korean family. Inja’s father was a Methodist pastor who had left for America in 1948 to amass enough money to come back to Seoul and build a church. He took his wife, his baby son and his elder daughter, Miran, and left the younger daughter, Inja, in the care of his wife’s brother and sister. The reasons for this are never quite clear but it was explained to Inja as a pledge that the parents would return. It also meant that Miran could grow up without learning the secrets of her birth.
The parents never accumulated enough money for their project and never returned. So we have two sisters, less than a year apart in age, growing up on different continents. One is Korean, growing up in Korea with parents in America whom she cannot remember but who send her a stream of parcels containing American clothes, American pop music records, American candy and photos of an American family life. She can’t read her sister’s letters, because she doesn’t read English. The other girl is an American girl growing up in America “in a Korean body” as she describes it, resisting her mother’s efforts to make her learn Korean. One girl is Korean-with-a-difference, the other American-with-a-difference, and neither quite fits in.
When Inja is fifteen, her parents managed to get her a visa to join them in America (in real life she was eleven but for the book Kim said she decided to make her fifteen to give her more mature emotions). Inja is devastated, and it takes two years of misery and ill-health to make the “transition”. Miran too has difficulties accepting her new sister. This, however, is an upbeat story of how the two girls learn to accept their dual identities and their common kinship. The twist in the tale is that Inja discovers secrets about Miran’s birth, which Miran does not know. Should she tell her? Is kinship in the blood, or in the mind, through the DNA or through love?
I asked Kim if she felt the sense of kinship was weakening with the growth of female employment and educational and professional opportunities in South Korea.
“Though more women are working outside the home and have taken on professional roles, I think the attitudes toward kinship remain strong and unbending, even when complicated by strife,” she said. “This is true for my extended relatives. But I have never been native to Korea so it’s hard for me to say. It is a core Confucian belief that the family is the foundation of a nation, and my sense is that that foundation is still part of a strong belief in family, no matter its shape or circumstance, in South Korea today.”
About the contributor: Edward James is one of the UK review editors for Historical Novels Review. He has published two historical novels, The Frozen Dream (Silverwood Books) and Freedom’s Pilgrim, A Tudor Odyssey (Endeavour Press) and is working on a third, Beyond the Big River.