‘Pachinko’: When life pushes you around, you have to keep playing

My family doesn’t often tell me stories, but I’ve seen their wishes and dreams in their actions. How they moved over continents for their children. How they scrimped and saved to send us through school. How they worked 18-hour days with no vacations, seven days a week. How they always made sure that even if we didn’t have much, we always had full stomachs.

For this, they traded the ease of communication, learning a foreign language in a foreign country when they were well into their early thirties. It wasn’t easy, but as my mother tries to explain to me, a parent lives for their children.

Sometimes I wonder if my parents gave up more than they gained by immigrating to America. For years, they’ve lost touch with their family and friends, isolated in an area where they didn’t know the language or culture.

My mom vividly remembers the helplessness she felt when I was feverish and sick as a baby. She tried to take me to a pharmacist, but she didn’t know enough English to explain what was wrong with her child.

pachinko

“Pachinko”
By Min Jin Lee
490 pp. Grand Central Publishing. $27
2017.

Years later, we still have trouble communicating. Google Translate can be a bridge to understanding, but it’s never enough — which is why a book like Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko” is such a treasure.

Lee, who is a first generation Korean American, writes about the immigrant’s journey with such incredible empathy that it almost feels like she held a magnifying glass on my family’s soul and started transcribing. Lee’s words express sentiments of love and loss — using the Japanese game of pachinko as a metaphor for life. (“Man, life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing.”)

This game almost spans an entire century — from 1910 when Japan occupied Korea to 1989 after Korea was split into North and South Korea following World War Two. The book follows four generations of a humble Korean family that immigrated from Korea to Japan.

The protagonist for much of the book is Sunja, the daughter of Yangjin and Hoonie, humble boarding house keepers on a small and coastal Korean village.

When she was 16, Sunja became pregnant with a married man’s child. Knowing that her son would become a bastard without a surname, Sunja takes a kind and sickly Korean pastor’s offer to marry.

The 26-year-old Korean pastor, Baek Isak, was a Christian missionary on his way to Osaka, where he had accepted a teaching position at a local church. He and his newly married wife, Sunja, were to meet his brother, Yoseb, and sister-in-law, Kyunghee, in Osaka.

While Yoseb and Kyunghee were thrilled to have more family close by, Japan didn’t welcome them. Koreans were seen as dirty, lazy and violent troublemakers who were quick to anger.

“Pachinko” beautifully and tragically chronicles how a woman raised her kids by peddling kimchi; how a man attracted to men was still expected to marry a woman; how Japanese kids cruelly sent death threats to their Korean peers; how a father couldn’t protect his son from racial prejudice and discrimination; how a Korean born in Japan could still be deported even if he spent his entire life there; how it feels like to pinball between two cultures and not belonging to either; and how try as you might, you can never escape your blood.

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