Saturday, September 8, 2012

Please Look After Mother (a book review)

Working for a Korean company made me very familiar with and interested in anything Korean.  Ban Ki-moon, Lee Myung-bak, Kim Yu-Na, Park Ji-Sung…I know all of them. I can even name all members of Girls’ Generation. You see, as a living, I edit English essays written by Korean students. Being proud as they are, these students often mention prominent Korean individuals, products, and what have you as examples to beef up their essays. That’s how I discovered Please Look After Mother (also Please Look After Mom) by Korean writer Shin Kyung-sook.

I forgot what exactly the topic was, but I remember how one student was raving about Please Look After Mother in her essay. She said that the book, first published in 2009 (as 엄마를 부탁해), has been so popular in Korea that it has been translated into English for international readers. I got curious and wrote in one blog entry, last year, that I wanted to have a copy. Seven months later, on my 26th birthday, I received one as a gift. I could have bought it myself, but it's hard to find.

The book cover is Memoirs of a Geisha-ish. (Photo taken by my brother)
The book is about a mother who gets lost in the subway station after being separated from her husband while on their way to one of their children’s home in the city.  Family members struggle to find her and, while doing that, realize that they barely know her. In one chapter, “you” are the daughter of the missing mother. You are a successful writer, but you are not aware that your mother cannot read the books you have written. In another chapter, “you” are her husband, supposedly the one who should know her best, but you do not even know about the charity work that she has been doing for years.

The use of the second person point of view in most chapters makes you feel that you are part of the story, and, thus, it also makes you feel that you are being reproved for taking your mother/wife for granted. Earlier reviews said that this book would leave readers guilt-ridden. That is actually why, on purpose, I delayed finishing this book. If not for the monsoon rains last month, I would not have been forced to read all of it. The reviews were right. The book made me reevaluate whether I have been treating my mother with love and respect as she deserves.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a good relationship with my mother. I know that I am a good son and that she is proud of me. But I think that I can still treat my mother better. I realized that as I was growing up, I was also growing further away from my parents. That is a natural phenomenon I guess. Reading this book, however, made me believe that it should not be the case. The book reminded me of Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 movie, Tokyo Story.  Indeed, as what the book and the movie tell us, we should honor our parents while they are still alive, for we cannot serve them beyond the grave.

So will you have the same feelings that I had after reading the book? Probably. That’s if you were also raised by a hardworking mother who would do anything for you and your family.

The book is no Hunger Games or Fifty Shades of Grey, but I can't really tell because I haven’t read them. Note that I am not a book critic. In fact, I rarely read books. Please Look After Mother is actually the first real book I read in four years. I feel like some things were lost in translation. However, I can definitely recommend it. After all, it is a bestseller, and Shin Kyung-sook won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize for it, making her the first woman to receive the award.

I’ll leave you with some excerpts from the book that answer a question you may have about your mother, especially if your mother cooks: “Does she like being in the kitchen?” These are from pages 63 to 65 of Please Look After Mother (the paperback one, translated by Kim Chi-Young):

“I don’t like or dislike the kitchen. I cooked because I had to. I had to stay in the kitchen so you could all eat and go to school. How could you only do what you like? If you only do what you like, who’s going to do what you don’t like?
There were days when I could see the rice in the jar in the cellar disappearing day by day, and times when the jar would be empty. When I went to the cellar to get some rice for dinner and my scoop scraped the bottom of the rice jar, my heart would sink: What am I going to feed my babies tomorrow morning? So in those days it wasn’t about whether I liked to be in the kitchen or not. If I made a big pot of rice and a smaller pot of soup, I didn’t think of how tired I was. I felt good that these were going to my babies’ mouths.”

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