Asian American racial issues in the “Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America”
The book “Quiet Odyssey a Pioneer Korean Woman in America”, based on real life events of a Korean immigrant Mary Paik Lee, tells a story of one family immigrating to the USA in search of a political asylum from the Russo-Japanese war. Notably, the book has a much greater value in the global context as describing the life of one particular family the author offers a deep insight into the harsh socio-economic realities of Asian immigrants. In particular, the story depicts how Asians, specifically Korean immigrants, tried to resist racial and cultural oppression they were facing in the USA and how they responded to such issues as colonialism, racism, patriarchy and poverty.
Firstly, the biography illustrates how Asian immigrants accommodated to drastic social and economic changes. In fact, most Korean immigrants, including author’s father, came from the urban areas and well-educated families, but in the USA they were perceived as the second-hand labor force. Thus, unlike well-established lives they had in Korea, the life in the USA appeared to be both physically and mentally challenging. Families had to live in very poor conditions and share substandard accommodation with other immigrants. However, Mary’s family along with other Asian newcomers faced the situation with decency demonstrating patience and dedication to hard work. The story reflects desperate, yet determined attempts of the immigrants to escape their situation. Mary’s father tried different jobs to save money and move his family out of Colusa, while her mother did cooking to earn extra money and even children tried to maintain the family budget by doing random jobs like laundry for teachers and cleaning houses. Mary’s father was sure that the best way to handle the situation was to “study hard and learn how to show Americans that we are just as good as they are” (Lee 12-14). Even though the immigrants had to accommodate to the new harsh conditions of life, it is hard to say that they accommodated to the oppression they faced in the USA. They tried hard to resist by the means of hard work, patience and wisdom.
Along with the hard work and constant financial hardships, Asian immigrants had to deal with racism and hostile attitude towards them. In the autobiography, Mary Lee provides numerous incidents revealing that she has been experiencing racial discrimination throughout the whole life. For example, she remembers being asked rudely to leave the cinema with her potential husband or being bullied in the school by other kids at the time. Moreover, her own children became the victims of the racial tension. Thus, immigrants had to deal with discrimination for decades, which affected not only the first newcomers, but also the generation of their children. The situation with racial tension deteriorated during the World War II when Japanese were blamed for attacking Pearl Harbor. The problem was that many Americans did not distinguish Koreans and Japanese assuming them being the same. Mary and her fellows constantly heard that “Japs aren’t wanted here”. Consequently, the hatred made already harsh life conditions of Asian immigrants even harder. However, despite all the difficulties and misfortunes, Mary was still optimistic and hoped for the better future. She still regarded the USA as the “only place in the world where people of all races can live in peace and harmony” (Lee 113).
Patriarchy is one of the themes that come into focus in the autobiography, which is due to the Korean origin of the central character and the fact that patriarchic order was one of the significant features of the overall Asian culture. According to the Confucian tradition, which was established in the 17th century, a woman held the lowest position in the family hierarchy as well as in the society. Thus, Mary was told to be “soft and obedient” and submissive to men. Naturally, such situation brought additional difficulties for Asian female immigrants. In addition to taking care of all the housework and looking after children, they had to work as well, because the funds provided by husbands were insufficient to survive. Usually, women were doing some jobs like laundry and cooking or working on the sugar plantation together with men. This situation reflected the cultural traditions of Asians who came from the man-dominated society. However, arrival to the modernized and forward-thinking America naturally affected the immigrants. As a result, they had to redefine their traditional concepts regarding gender definitions, which provoked the shift of the roles in the family. Thus, next generations and their children became more westernized comparing to the ones who stayed in Korea. For example, Mary’s father was encouraging her to think independently and learn to think like a man. It reflected the transformation of the whole generation of Asian immigrants who faced and naturally accepted many patterns from the American culture.
Finally, colonialism was another issue in the story as the events in the book took place during significant historical events. At that time, Japanese established their regime in Korea and made it a Japanese colony. Consequently, Korean population experienced economic, social and political oppression. Korean immigrants in the USA realized that their culture and national identity was under the threat of being lost. Having little or no opportunity to come back to the homeland they attempted to revive their culture in the USA. Driven by the idea of Korean sovereignty, the immigrants were trying to maintain their culture by creating language schools and local social groups for Koreans, the aim of which was to create the generation of well-educated Koreans. Thus, in spite of the hard life and working conditions, Korean immigrants were still faithful to their origins and traditions.
To conclude, the life of Korean immigrants in the USA was physically and mentally challenging as they had to deal with such issues as poverty, harsh living and working conditions, racial discrimination and cultural oppression. Despite financial hardships and hostile attitude towards them, the immigrants managed to resist the oppression by the means of hard work, dedication to national traditions and cooperation for the common good. However, the life in the USA did affect the Korean Americans, in particular, the shift of the patriarchy notions.
Lee, Mary Paik, and Sucheng Chan. Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America. Seattle: U of Washington, 1990. Print.