What An Opportunity

Archive for February, 2013|Monthly archive page

Lee’s adoration-inducing balance: an examination of humiliation and religion in Quiet Odyssey

In Culture, Life on February 25, 2013 at 2:23 pm


I recently studied Mary Paik Lee’s Quiet Odyssey for an undergraduate English class. Essentially my entire class loved the book, and I found it shocking that the novel has created minuscule online discussion. While other tales are discussed on all sorts of different sites, this one remains relatively in the shadows, which is an injustice. In my opinion, there is not readily available information on the novel on the internet for scholars to work with, so I decided to post my thoughts here. I’m no expert, but I figured anything helps. Hope some student, somewhere in the world, finds this helpful!

In boxing, the best fighters are quick, strong, and durable. They don’t get knocked down easily, and in the rare situation in which they do go down, they’re back on their feet and ready to duke it out again shortly thereafter. Above all attributes, though, the exemplary boxers have mastered one technique: the one-two punch.

Right hook, left cross. Left jab, right uppercut. The variety and order of the punches are negligible, but they invariably come rapidly (at just the right time) and powerfully (with just the right amount of oomph), knocking the boxer’s unsuspecting, vulnerable opponent to the mat.

As a boxer must game plan, so too an author must have a strategy for presenting his/her story. In Mary Paik Lee’s biography, Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America, Lee displays a propensity for landing haymakers and leaving readers befuddled, thinking “how did her family persevere through that?” Lee’s one-two punches are less noticeable than those of a boxing event, but they are just as devastating. Presumably, many readers respond to the text the same way I did: How could Lee carry on in the midst of such persecution? What remarkable strength, what resiliency, what ambition. English scholars are cynical by nature. It’s inherent in the education, and few characters in literature are universally accepted as amazing figures. The students in my class (myself included), however, were unequivocally blown away by Lee.

Thus, a question begs to be asked: what is it about her delivery that makes this short novel – which most likely is not the best-written piece most students have read in a year or month or maybe even a week – so powerful? It cannot be simply her poverty, for the impact of her tale extends far beyond a “Hard Knock Life” narrative.

It is Lee’s balanced story made up of a one-two punch – humiliation and religion – that makes her such an easily admired and beloved character. It is her family’s constant disgrace countered by its unswerving faith in God. These two facets of Quiet Odyssey lodge Lee’s tale in a reader’s memory, and it does not wiggle free easily.

Lee’s poverty is clear. Her upbringing is pitiable as her family lives in essentially unlivable conditions. They survive by existing like animals. Their lifestyle is downright appalling, and, through the eyes of a young girl, it is demeaning. Before their poor life in America, early in the novel, Lee divulges the reason her family left Korea and, in the process, establishes the theme of humiliation.

After Japan took possession of Korea, Korean people were treated like second-class citizens … They were deprived of all their property and had no rights under the Japanese laws. Names of towns, streets, and persons were changed to Japanese … All Korean books and Korean flags were destroyed. It was the complete humiliation of an entire nation. (Lee 42)

Her family is helpless, experiencing “one crisis after another.” Her home has been abolished. They cannot stay in Korea, as they are being discriminated against and more or less brainwashed. The kids would grow up thinking they were Japanese. Right away in the novel, as Lee is laying the foundation of her story, we notice her amazing tale originated because of humiliation – “the complete humiliation of an entire nation.”

Later in the text, an adolescent Lee tells her father about a job opportunity she is interested in pursuing to help their family and assist in feeding the hungry younger children. Lee goes on to say: “Many years later, he told me he had felt humiliated to hear his eleven-year-old daughter tell him that her one-dollar-a-week wages were needed to feed the family” (24). Despite the family’s horrendous living conditions and the extreme prejudice they experience, Lee’s father still holds onto his pride. When Lee offers to help, he is humiliated.

The complete elimination of pride appears often throughout the text. As the story opens and the family moves to Hawaii, Lee’s mother wants to work to support the family but her husband will not let her. He tells her, “Even if we have to starve, I don’t want you working out in the fields” (9). He protects his wife from work as long as he can. Shortly thereafter, when Lee’s mother absolutely must start working and becomes a cook for hungry working men, she is forced to cut off her long black hair, which reached the floor. Lee says: “It must have caused her much grief to lose her beautiful hair, but she never complained. We had already lost everything else that meant anything to us” (15).

The family’s plight of humiliation only gets worse. As the parents sleep on the floor, Lee sleeps with a block of wood for a pillow. And later, when Lee begins working, she reaches arguably her lowest point: “There were times when I cried from exhaustion while I was working, with the sweat running down my back and stomach” (97).

Lee’s early life evokes unabashed, understandable empathy from readers. Consider the situations established above, though they are just a few of many: Her home has been captured, changed forever, and ruined; many of her loved ones are stuck back in Korea in even worse conditions than she is experiencing in America and her family has no idea how they are doing; her family cannot afford to feed everyone and the youngest children are starving; Lee’s mother must go to work and abandon any sense of physical beauty; and Lee, still a young girl, works herself to the point of tears. In all, that sounds like an extremely rough life – and it is a tremendously small sampling of what she experiences throughout the book.

With the reader off balance and already quite partial toward Lee, she needs just one more positive attribute – the second shot in the one-two punch – to seal the deal and cement her place as adored in the reader’s mind. If Lee had complained through all the hard times (though she does give in, as any young girl would, occasionally) and been an annoying child, she would not be cherished. However, Lee stays composed through reminders to maintain unwavering faith in God and dedication to her Christianity, following the precedent set by her hyper-religious parents. Readers cannot help but applaud the family’s undying faith and belief that God is in control in the midst of extreme toils.

As soon as they leave Korea, Lee says: “Mother said that God must surely have been guiding us in the right direction” (7). Though her father was slated to make just 50 cents a day for working from dawn to dusk and their situation does not look all that bright, they believe leaving their home country is a positive thing because God is guiding their family.

Immediately upon arriving in Hawaii, though they had enough other worries, the Lee family becomes involved in a church, where Lee’s father preaches when he is not busy working on plantations. This dedication to making it to church no matter what and relying on God above all appears on seemingly every page. Perhaps the greatest portrayal of their extreme belief in God, however, comes on page 101: “All during our farming years, we donated what we could to help build and maintain our Korean Presbyterian Church.” The family could barely get by. They struggled to eat at all and never ate well. Nevertheless, they kept tithing because the Bible stated: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (II Corinthians 9:7, English Standard Version).

Several parts of the story incorporate both major themes – humiliation and religion – at the same time. When Lee travels to the slaughterhouse with Meung to gather the disposed animal organs for her family to eat (food “considered unfit for human consumption”) and the butchers taunt the children mercilessly, it is clear the family is at a humiliating level. But Lee’s father turns to his religion for an answer: “When I told Father I didn’t want to go there because they were making fun of us, he said we should thank God that they did not know the value of what they threw out; otherwise, we would go hungry” (16). In Hollister, when Lee finds a church she likes, the minister asks her to join the congregation, but she is embarrassed. She feels the regular attendees will not approve of her heritage. In Willows, when the family holds church with seven other families, the young children sneak out to eat any food they can find while Lee’s father prays. They are in a place that exists to praise God, but the children are too hungry to focus.

Lee’s one-two punch of a humiliating upbringing but firm religious belief in the face of utter disarray molds her into a character the reader cannot help but admire. I find it appropriate that Lee begins Chapter 16, “Reflections,” with Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Her family embodies faith. If they were to base their outlook on the things they see on a daily basis, they would be depressed people. But they stay optimistic and thankful and keep on pressing on because of their “assurance of things hoped for,” videlicet, eternity in heaven. One other Bible verse rang through my head as I counted the endless occurrences of demoralizing poverty and heartening religion, II Corinthians 4:16-18: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” Mary Paik Lee and her family do not lose heart. In her recollection of their story of coming to America and struggling to survive, it is Lee’s early-life combination of humiliation and religion that causes readers to venerate her.



In Life on February 19, 2013 at 12:20 am

maybe it’s that fear of being still

maybe it’s that fear of heights again,

I can’t  look down.

but for the life of me,

guess we’re all trying to find home.

I’ll tell you when I get there.

“what do you want to be when you grow up?”

start asking questions we don’t want the answer to

not sure if this is the person we always thought we would be

are not so far off

we’re getting to that age where the dreams we had as kids


Baseball’s Sad, Unfortunate Steroid Era

In Sports on February 12, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Growing up as an American kid, I idolized baseball from the moment I encountered it. Playing Little League Baseball was the greatest joy of my young life. Watching This Week in Baseball then the MLB Game of the Week on Fox was always one of the highlights of my week. And watching the Little League World Series? Well… Williamsport, PA was just heaven on earth. There was nothing I would not have done, and no amount I would not have paid for just one opportunity to step on that diamond at Howard J. Lamade Stadium to play for the LLWS title. Baseball was my passion. I devoured book after book on the sport and its famous figures, from biographies on Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, and Hank Aaron to a book that recounted – in narrative form – every World Series from 1903-1985 in great detail, game by game, run by run. I love the game and the romanticized descriptions I found within the books I so readily consumed. Even though I cannot stand the modern iteration of the New York Yankees, I love and respect their previous generations for their consistent, unrelenting excellence. Baseball is just too grand and too beautiful to be marred by anything so petty as my own dislikes. It is the perfect game, classic and unchanging, standing apart from the ever-changing, cheapening world around it. Or at least that’s what I thought as a kid.

As time has passed, my illusions have been shattered. One summer, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa pounded homer after homer, and I ecstatically went along for the ride. But these seemingly superhuman sluggers of the late 1990’s – my most impressionable age – have since tested positive for and admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. Barry Bonds came next and completely shattered the records that had been so recently set, and I was even further excited by his exploits. He, too, has since admitted to using steroids. When their magical seasons were taking place, I don’t think any of us wanted to believe they were tainted in any way. We wanted the romance of the magical run to continue sweeping us away. But then reality hit, and it hit hard.

What greater honor exists than the Hall of Fame? Middle-of-nowhere Cooperstown, NY is a legendary place because of it. The greatest figures in history are immortalized there. Stellar careers logically lead to the Hall. As such, several candidates should be voted in handily. Well, as it turns out, the 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame Class consists of… no one. Well, at least no one who is still alive. Three were elected by the Veterans Committee, all of whom passed away before 1940… meaning none of them had been involved in baseball for about 100 years. On the other hand, iconic baseball figures like Roger Clemens and the aforementioned Barry Bonds were denied admission to the Hall. How could this happen? The BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America) pushed back, and indicated that tainted careers would be met with cold denial. At least this year. Writers are a fickle bunch, so who knows how long this resistance will continue. It could end next year, or extend indefinitely. As more athletes continue to be implicated in reports on PED use, such as the Miami New Times report which named stars like Nelson Cruz, Gio Gonzalez, and Alex Rodriguez, the likelihood of the BBWAA permanently souring on steroid users becomes greater and greater.

So Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, the most dominant pitcher and slugger in my era of fanhood, may never be immortalized in the Hall of Fame. But is this right? Isn’t the Hall of Fame a place to recognize excellence? It’s hard to argue with Roger Clemens’s career numbers: 354 wins (9th all-time), 4,672 strikeouts (3rd all-time), 7 Cy Young awards, 11 All-Star appearances. It’s even harder to argue with Barry Bonds’s career numbers: 762 HR (1st all-time), 1,996 RBI (4th all-time), 7-time League MVP, 14 All-Star appearances.

At the end of the day, though, it isn’t just about the numbers; sports still aspires to a certain level of integrity and decorum. Pete Rose is banned from the Hall for breaking the rules, and if the all-time hits leader is banned, then Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and others may indeed face a similar block. I am a firm believer in the innate integrity of sports. True excellence is achieved fairly and cleanly. I think that it is a sad day for baseball when zero living members are inducted, but I think that it is a sadder day when the Hall of Fame is devalued by inducting proven, admitted cheaters.

Dance with the girl who brung ya.

In Sports on February 9, 2013 at 10:41 pm


What does our favorite football team say about the person we’re into?

Absolutely nothing. Why would you ask such a stupid question? But in the world between my ears, there’s some kind of half-baked correlation. And darn it all, we’re going to find it. So without further ado, what each team says about what we like in potential partners:

“They were not the first person you noticed. But once you got to know them, you saw how cool they were.”

Arizona Cardinals

Buffalo Bills

Carolina Panthers

Cleveland Browns

Jacksonville Jaguars

Kansas City Chiefs

Miami Dolphins

Oakland Raiders

Saint Louis Rams

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tennessee Titans

Upside: They are so cool. You guys interact in the best ways. You can’t wait to hang out. They’re cool with your friends and you’re cool with their friends. For the most part. But you how hard they try. It’s great being with them.

Downside: Not everyone sees what you see. Worse, sometimes people wonder what you see in them. You know how cool they are. Yet, not a lot of other people do. Is there something wrong with you? Or are other people blind? Are you a terrible person for questioning? But you do sometimes. Would it hurt to one day have something to brag about? It’s shallow. But sometimes shallow is nice. Now you just feel guilty…

Verdict: It’s all good. As much as we appreciate them,  we are human. We get self-centered. We want them to do something that we can rub other people’s faces in. Really show off. But, there’s something to be said for someone who is continuously working to be better. Plus, sometimes those public displays go awry. But you like them. It’s all good.

“They had a history of being really cool. The whole package. Now everyone kinda resents you behind your back because you won’t shut up about it.”

Baltimore Ravens

Green Bay Packers

New England Patriots

New Orleans Saints

New York Giants

Pittsburgh Steelers

Upside: They’re so awesome. You couldn’t imagine someone more awesome. Yea they have issues but come on, their awesomeness is blinding. Sigh…

Downside: Sometimes they’re too awesome. And they don’t seem to care about what’s going on with you. Would be nice to be heard once in a while.

Verdict: Sometimes they don’t listen or seem to care. But they are pretty awesome. And they make an effort to show they’re listening. But seriously, from all of us who care about you deeply, SHUT UP ABOUT IT! Sheesh.

“They can be so cool…when they want to be…”

Atlanta Falcons

Chicago Bears

Cincinnati Bengals

Dallas Cowboys

Denver Broncos

Detroit Lions

Houston Texans

Indianapolis Colts 

Minnesota Vikings

New York Jets

Philadelphia Eagles 

San Diego Chargers

San Francisco 49ers

Seattle Seahawks

Washington Redskins

Upside: When it’s on, it’s on like Donkey Kong. You guys go together like peanut butter and jelly. Winter and a sweater. Lemonade and sweet tea. Everything is great.

Downside: When it’s off, it’s bad. All talking ceases. Except for “uh-huh’ and other barely visible acknowledgements.  Everybody can tell somethings wrong but don’t want to say anything out loud.

Verdict: You’re gonna have to suck it up. As bad as it can be, you chose em.

And unfortunately, and maybe sometimes fortunately, when it comes to football allegiances and life in general, you just gotta dance with the girl who brung ya.

Because you just never know, do you?