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Clay Walls by Kim Ronyoung (Gloria Hahn) (Permanent Press: $18.95; 301 pp.)

April 26, 1987|Eun Sik Yang | Yang teaches a course on the Korean-American Experience at UCLA and is involved in research with the Korean-American Oral History Project at the UCLA Asian-American Studies Center.

A whole generation of Korean immigrants and their American-born children could have lived and died in the United States without anyone knowing they had been here. I could not let that happen. RONYOUNG

The Korean-American community today--especially in Los Angeles--is often described as dynamic. Now numbering 750,000, Koreans in America constitute the fastest-growing Asian ethnic group in America.

"Clay Walls" is the first novel to deal with the Korean immigrant experience in this country. Written by the late Gloria Hahn (pen name: Kim Ronyoung), a second-generation Korean-American, the book is about the first immigrants, those who fled Japanese colonial rule in their homeland and settled in Los Angeles in the 1920s, and their difficulties in adjusting to American society. In this sense, the novel is also a social history.

Told from the viewpoint of the Chun family, "Clay Walls" weaves together three enduring themes in the Korean immigrant experience: the role of Korean culture, the confrontation with American racism, and the impact of Korean nationalism. It is these themes that distinguish the Korean immigrant experience from that of other groups.

The important role of Korean culture in the lives of the immigrant family is depicted by Kim in the conflict between husband and wife, a conflict rooted in cultural values.

Haesu, a yangban of the nobility class, is married against her wishes to Chun, a farmer's son. She dutifully follows her husband when he decides to go to America.

Once in Los Angeles, Chun adjusts quickly due to his practical orientation and economic aggressiveness. His produce business grows rapidly.

In contrast, Haesu remains status conscious. She refuses to work as a housekeeper cleaning out toilets. At the same time, thanks to her respect for learning, Haesu attends English classes and tries to get the best education possible for her children. She also becomes actively involved in the immigrant nationalist movement to win independence for Korea.

Behind the "clay walls" of their home, Chun and Haesu battle incessantly over money, sex, and Haesu's political involvement. The conflict is rooted in their different value orientations they brought from the homeland.

Meanwhile, Chun, practical though he may be, is vulnerable. His business suddenly crumbles. He loses more money through gambling, and eventually, he dies alone, a bellhop in a Reno hotel. The author hints that Chun's personality--his rashness and lack of prudence--is one aspect of Korean immigrant character.

Haesu perseveres, moving her family to a black ghetto and becoming the breadwinner for her three teen-age children. Kim believes that Haesu represents the strengths of the Korean immigrant personality: perseverance, tenacity and adherence to traditional values and institutions.

The conflict within the immigrant family is played out in the larger context of their adjustment to American society. Like other immigrants from Asia, the Chuns confront racism: Laws bar them from owning property and from becoming American citizens. Here, Kim poignantly presents the dilemma of the second generation and its striving to find a place in American society.

The third major theme of the Korean immigrant experience is Korean nationalism, depicted in "Clay Walls" by Haesu's involvement in the Korean independence movement. In Korea's struggle for independence from Japan's colonial domination, Korean immigrants in America played a significant role. Women, such as Haesu, actively participated in nationalist organizations, raising funds and organizing educational projects. Today, this political tradition continues. Many new immigrants intensely follow political developments in Korea and actively support movements for democracy and reunification.

By interweaving the three themes of the Korean immigrant experience--Korean culture, American racism, and Korean nationalism--Kim has created an important novel.

"Clay Walls" was Kim's first novel--and her last novel. She died this past February. With her passing, the Korean community lost an eloquent spokesperson.

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