In the past four decades, more than a million Americans have spent up to two years each in South Korea. Although American servicemen have been to Japan and Europe in large numbers too, South Korea occupies a unique void in the American consciousness. With the exception of a few scholarly works, nothing has been written by a serious American writer about Koreans and their society.
With this collection of 20 portraits of ordinary--as well as some very extraordinary-- Koreans, Michael Shapiro has gone a long way toward filling this void, and he has done it with a mixture of sympathy, criticism and irony that will fascinate even those readers who never will visit Korea.
Shapiro is there when a family of squatters is forced to move from their hillside hovel to make way for new apartments they are too poor to afford. He interviews a woman who makes her living by having her breasts fondled by customers in a rural coffee shop. And he briefly follows the life of a shy young man who resists family pressure and refuses to marry the woman of his parents' choice. He talks to a released political prisoner, a family of refugees-turned-millionaires, and an elderly male dancer who at the height of his career was the greatest exponent of the female dance of salpuri , through which Korean women traditionally have rid themselves of the all-encompassing sense of bitterness which Koreans call han .
Perhaps the one unifying theme of "The Shadow in the Sun" is the concept of han , and the mercurial shifts of mood which many Koreans are given to as they catapult themselves between han and jong (passionate love), the other extreme of the emotional spectrum.
There is han in the lives of the evicted squatter family, in the moods of the coffee-house hostess unable to collect debts from the men who fondle her and leave her with worthless IOUs, and--by a recent leap of logic--there is also han in the hearts of Korean student radicals who demonstrate against their country's military-backed regimes and the United States government, which they see as the ultimate sponsor of the domestic forces that oppress them.
"There is the han of the police state and the han of progress," writes Shapiro, "There is the han imposed by outsiders--especially the great powers, most especially the United States. And there is the han that is not acknowledged, the han of the hatreds and cruelties Koreans inflict upon one another." Earlier, Shapiro observes that "each day in Korea somebody is fighting and losing to another fellow, who is always wrong and who will not be forgiven."
Shapiro is at his best in his vignettes of the daily lives of ordinary people. In one episode, two greedy women come to a fortune-teller, who disappoints them by failing to give his approval for the marriage of the son of one to the daughter of the other.
"What's wrong with marrying him off this year? Why can't we hurry this marriage along?" asks one of the women. "The girl's mother has approved my son. I like her too."
But the fortuneteller is practical. "Who cares if you and the girl's mother like her? They have to like each other."
Warned against lending money for a while, the woman pleads with the fortuneteller. "Not even a little?" Shapiro concludes with the sentence, "Luckily, she knew other fortunetellers."
"Shadow," however, is not without a number of flaws, some of which are likely to irritate those familiar with Korean history. One recurring problem is the author's acceptance at face value of the myth of Korea's "5,000-year history." The earliest existing Korean dynastic history dates only from the present millennium, and the earliest Chinese reference to a kingdom in Korea (ruled in fact by a Chinese refugee) is in the second century BC. A reader who accepts that Korea is 5,000 years old might be only mildly surprised by the members of the fringe religion the author interviews who claim that the Korean nation actually was founded 10,000 years ago.
Another problematic figure is the number of Americans who died in the Korean War (54,000 according to Shapiro, 33,629 according to UN statistics). There seem to be a few others too, such as the numbers of incidents along the DMZ. Shapiro lets stand the ludicrous figure of 99,952, given by a tour guide. This works out to more than eight hostile acts per day every day since the 1953 cease-fire.