Revered and Reviled: Literary Fathers across the Pacific

Yoon Sun Yang compares father figures in Pachinko and “Run, Dad”

The late Kevin O’Rourke’s otherwise readable English translation of contemporary South Korean writer, Kim Aeran’s short story, “Run, Dad” (2005), leaves the profanity of the original title invisible. The story is a jovial yet poignant first-person account by a childlike, twenty-year-old woman of her family, including her cheerful, single mother who had raised her while making a living as a taxi driver and her deadbeat father who had left her mother for good right before her birth. The Korean word that O’Rourke translates as “dad,” abi, sounds nearly sacrilegious when it is used by a child speaking to her father, because it lowers his social status to below his child’s status and consequently flies in the face of one of the most significant moral imperatives in Korea—filial piety. Kim Aeran’s sociolinguistic transgression is among many other literary attempts to reimagine family after the Asian financial crisis in 1997 destabilized traditional patriarchal family on an unprecedented scale and made the future of Korean family unpredictable—after the crisis, the divorce rate climbed sharply, the marriage rate plummeted, and since 2018, the fertility rate has remained below 1 out of 1,000 women.  

Min Jin Lee, therefore, does question traditional paternal authority like Kim Aeran, but instead of staging its demise, invites us to reimagine fatherhood through a man short of typical manliness.

To those familiar with contemporary South Korean fictional narratives like “Run, Dad,” the first chapter of Panchinko (2017) may feel like a nostalgic effort to redeem the traditional family. Serving as the prelude to the novel, this chapter revolves around protagonist Sunja’s father, Hoonie. Though born with a “cleft palate and a twisted foot” (3), he is raised well by diligent and sensible fisherman parents who are wise enough not to pamper their only surviving son, instead teaching him practical skills and strong work habits: “The peasants knew that a spoiled son did more harm to a family than a dead one” (4). Thanks to his good character and the decent financial stability that he builds through his hard work along with his parents, when he turns twenty-eight, he is able marry a fifteen-year-old girl: though an impoverished farmer’s youngest daughter, Yangjin is healthy, well-mannered, and with no physical deformities. He treats her with unfailing kindness even while they endure three consecutive losses of their babies. More important, he devotes himself to raising his beloved only surviving child, Sunja.

The narrator’s matter-of-fact tone leaves no room for doubt about Hoonie’s virtue. Despite his premature death at the end of Chapter 1, he quietly haunts the rest of the novel. Yangjin often recalls that he muttered “no matter” when he heard dismal news about their colonized country before returning to his daily chores (13). His no-nonsense attitude toward work and life guides her when she runs a boardinghouse as a widow and single mother. Notably, this is part of what Min Jin Lee has called her “thesis statement of the novel” in interviews—”History has failed us, but no matter” (3). Hoonie gives Sunja a permanent moral compass so that she conjures him up when having doubts about her choices. He also imparts practical lifesaving skills to her. She remembers what he taught her while bargaining with a sneaky pawnbroker in Osaka: “In the market, say very little, her father had taught her” (135). Even posthumously Hoonie brings another good man, a sickly “pastor from Pyongyang” (52), Baek Isak, into the world of his wife and daughter. Isak’s older brother, Yoseb, had been deeply impressed by Hoonie’s remarkable character while staying in his boardinghouse a decade earlier, so that when he invited Isak to Osaka, he insisted, without being aware of Hoonie’s death, that his younger brother stay there on the way. As the story goes, Isak falls sick soon after his arrival and subsequently finds himself under the dedicated care of Yangjin and Sunja. When he recovers from his illness and finds out that Sunja has become pregnant without the prospect of marrying her unborn baby’s father, Isak decides to marry her. This is not only to rescue her from the typical fate of an unwedded and abandoned Korean mother—ostracization or suicide—but also to turn around his own fate from being a lifelong invalid to a family man whose “life can be important—not on a grand scale . . . but to a few people” (67).

There are other ‘good men’ in the novel, such as Isak and his older brother Yoseb, but unlike Hoonie, they fail at the role of a family man. Though financially inept, Isak is a selfless and considerate husband to Sunja and a loving father to their two sons. And yet, his unexpected and unjust arrest puts an abrupt end to his dream of making his life important to a few people. It is likely that his firm religious belief prolongs his incarceration and hastens his death. When Isak is released from prison in order to come home and die, Yoseb laments: “My boy, couldn’t you just say that you worshipped the Emperor even if it isn’t true?” (190). Isak is imprisoned when both his sons are too young to understand what their father is going through, Noa being only six and Mozasu a baby, and disappears from their lives two years later. This leaves him too little time to impart his wisdom to them. His brother, Yoseb, is heirless but acts as his two nephews’ father in the absence of Isak. Neither political nor religious, he does not have any other ambition than taking care of his family. Nevertheless, wartime brutality does not allow him to achieve even his modest aspiration. When his wife Kyunghee decides to work at a restaurant to help the family make ends meet, he loses his usual composure and turns into a petty and insecure husband, and his partial exposure to radiation during the atomic bombing of Nagasaki breaks him permanently. He spends the rest of his life in excruciating pain, blaming himself for imposing an enormous financial and emotional burden on his family.

At the opposite end of these good fathers is Koh Hansu, who puts nothing above his own self-interest and is unafraid of getting his hands dirty if that helps him get what he wants. He pursues Sunja, a country girl half of his age, out of his secret, selfish hope to have his biological male heir, without telling her he has been married to a Japanese woman from a powerful yakuza family and has three girls with her. For him, there is no point of trying to be a good man: everyone is bad one way or another anyway: “You want to see a very bad man? Make an ordinary man successful beyond his imagination. Let’s see how good he is when he can do whatever he wants” (42). Koh Hansu disappears from Sunja’s life when she refuses to be his mistress after getting pregnant with his child, probably because he has learned that the child could be born with a disability. His detestable behavior notwithstanding, he is a man of desire rather than a villain. Once he finds out that his son was born healthy and lives with Sunja in Osaka, he uses his wealth, power, and guile to provide for his son and his mother, especially when the good men of Sunja’s family—Isak and Yoseb—are dead or unable to support them. However, like Isak and Yoseb he fails to achieve what he wants. His son, Noa, who has been raised to be a good man, leaves his family for good when he realizes that he is the biological son of a yakuza and then kills himself.

Clearly, Min Jin Lee did not write a fairytale but a realist novel, where the virtuous do not always defeat the depraved and vice versa. It appears, though, that she did create one figure on the verge of being a fairytale character: Hoonie. His virtue helps him overcome his inborn disadvantages and the social prejudice against him. He moves slowly but is still physically strong and smart. His hard and honest labor brings to him modest wealth. He treats everyone, including his wife and daughter, with respect and kindness. His neighbors as well as those staying in his boardinghouse look up to him. Min Jin Lee has depicted no other male character more favorably than Hoonie, even if we include the main characters from her first novel Free Food for Millionaires (2007), in the very first chapter of which the protagonist Casey Han is slapped across her face by her father, Joseph. However, I hesitate to say that Hoonie validates the good old patriarchal family because, though head of a Korean family at the turn of the twentieth century, Hoonie does not really resemble either a typical yangban patriarch or a lower-class father. He lacks both the former’s toxic attachment to authority and patrilineage and the latter’s indelicacy and sense of inferiority. If anything, he combines the gentility of sŏnbi—a traditional Korean Confucian scholar striving to reach moral perfection, often at the expense of worldly success—with the down-to-earth attitude and vigor of a working-class man. I am rather tempted to propose that Hoonie is a made-up character offering an alternative Asian masculinity to contemporary readers rather than a figure from Korean history—but no matter how unlikely he may seem as such a figure, he plays a significant part in this narrative. Placed in the position of the progenitor of the diasporic family that Sunja and Isak start in Osaka and notably is carried on through Sunja’s bloodline, Hoonie gives a moral footing especially to his descendants in postwar Japan, whose lives are, one way or another, bound to the pachinko industry, a shady business left to those not accepted by mainstream Japanese society.  

Min Jin Lee, therefore, does question traditional paternal authority like Kim Aeran, but instead of staging its demise, invites us to reimagine fatherhood through a man short of typical manliness. In a different context, Kim Aeran also reminds us of the power of reimagination. The nameless protagonist of “Run, Dad” has never met her father: he exists only in her mind, but always as a ludicrous man “resolutely running . . . in luminous pink shorts” (228) in “the blazing sun” (239). Only later she realizes why she does that: “It occurred to me that I kept imagining him because I could not forgive him. Maybe the reason I kept him running in my mind was because I was afraid that I would charge at him and kill him the moment he stopped” (238). Even after his death, she finds herself unable to remove the image of her dad from her head. Rather than denying her inability to forgive him, she decides to make a small change to his image by putting sunglasses on him, and for the first time her imaginary father smiles at her. “I don’t have a father,” she says earlier, but “That is not to say that he does not exist” (231). Reading Min Jin Lee’s second novel along with Kim Aeran’s short story makes at least one thing clear to me. To rethink family and a community, refiguring fatherhood and masculinity is inevitable—whether by rewriting tradition or by relying on fantasy, either a radical or a moderate one.

Yoon Sun Yang is Associate Professor of Korean & Comparative Literature and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program.

She is the author of From Domestic Women to Sensitive Young Men: Translating the Individual in Early Colonial Korea (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Asia Center, 2017), which won the James B. Palais Book Prize of the Association for Asian Studies in 2020 (Click on this link to see her recent interview with AAS about her award-winning book). Her edited volume Routledge Handbook of Modern Korean Literature came out in 2020 (please visit this site to preview the book). Her latest articles are “Interracial Romance, Unlawful Marriage: Transpacific Encounters in Early Korean American Literature” (included in her edited volume) and “Madness, Medicine, and Masculinity: Kim Tongin’s “Oh, Frail-hearted!” (1919–1920)” in The Journal of Korean Studies 23:2 (October 2018).  She is currently translating early colonial Korean short stories and essays published between 1907 and 1918 (for the MLA Texts and Translations series) while working on two book-length studies: “Transpacific Palimpsests: Early Twentieth-Century Korean Migrant Literature between Two Empires” and “Beyond the Medical Gaze: Sexuality and Illness in Korean Literature.” At BU she teaches Introduction to Korean Literature, Introduction to Comparative Literature: East Asian Literature, Korean Cinema, Gender in East Asian Film, Growing Up in Korea, Majors Authors in Korean Literature, and Readings in Korean Literature.