Some of the most lasting consequences of war are displacement, refugees, and broken families. Eugenia Kim’s new and brilliant novel examines a family separated by not just one, but two wars.
Influenced by her family’s experiences, Kim’s novel centers around sisters Inja and Miran Cho and their parents Najin and Calvin. When the girls aren’t yet walking, their parents take the younger daughter Miran to Washington, DC, after the end of World War II just for a couple years. Calvin had studied in the US to be a pastor prior to the Second World War and found work at the Voice of America in Washington. He and Najin had planned to earn some money during these two years, return to Korea with Miran, reunite with Inja and the rest of the family, and start their own church back home.
Najin and Calvin entrusted their other daughter Inja to the care of Najin’s younger brother, who also housed Najin’s parents. Najin and Calvin also thought that by leaving Inja behind, they were showing their extended family that this separation was only to be temporary. But while Najin, Calvin, and Miran were living in Washington, the Korean War broke out, separating the family for longer than they all planned.
Eugenia Kim writes about the struggles of separated families from experience.
Much longer. It turned out, for many, the War lasted long after the demarcation line was solidified. Because Calvin was originally from the north before the country was split into two, he worried he would be persecuted—or worse—if he returned to South Korea.
Family separation need not be a horrible thing, as long as calm and stability prevail. Although during the Korean War when Inja’s life was anything but calm, by the mid-1950s, the separation from her parents wasn’t a hardship for her. She was too young to remember when her parents left Korea. In fact, she was too young to remember her parents at all, and only knew them through their letters, photos, and packages of used clothes. Her extended family gave her a normal childhood and she made a core group of friends at school.
It was not until 1963 that a change in immigration law allowed Calvin and Najin to bring Inja to join them in Washington. Najin and Calvin wrote to Inja that they’d obtained permission for her to join them. She had less than a month to say goodbye her family and high school friends in Seoul.
This news should have been a happily-ever-after ending to the story: the family finally reunited and Inja going on to live the American Dream, just like her parents and sister. But Inja didn’t know her parents or sister and didn’t want to leave Uncle or even Aunt back in Seoul. She barely spoke English and was put into an American high school where she was expected to mainstream immediately.
Secrets went back to the Japanese occupation in World War II.
Eugenia Kim writes about the struggles of separated families from experience. Her parents also left Korea for the US in the late 1940s and left a daughter behind. That daughter wasn’t Eugenia, but an older sister. In her author’s note, she describes the struggles both for her sister and her family in the US when they eventually reunified. In her novel, some of the tensions in the Cho family stemmed from secrets that went back to the Japanese occupation in World War II. For instance, Miran’s upbringing wasn’t everything that her parents presented it to be, something Miran didn’t know but her sister Inja learned from the family back in Korea.
One of the interesting side stories in this novel is Calvin’s work as a pastor in the United States and the family’s deep Protestant faith. Korea, unlike other North Asian countries, has a strong Christian community that makes up more than 30% of its population. While other parts of Asia like Vietnam and the Philippines have Catholic populations arising from their colonial backgrounds, Korea’s is more a home-grown Christianity. Calvin’s plans to go to the US to raise money for his church are decidedly Korean.
Kim’s timely book hits bookstores as refugee crises escalate around the world, from the war-torn Middle East to the destabilized governments in Central America (at the hands of the US going back decades). Unlike those in Kim’s story, many of these refugees today don’t have the option of keeping children home with trusted relatives. And even with that option, we can see from Eugenia Kim’s story that it’s never easy for children and parents to be separated—no matter how much faith one possesses.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.