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Incompatible Lives : An astute observer ponders the gulf between her American mind, Korean soul : HOME WAS THE LAND OF MORNING CALM: A Saga of a Korean-American Family, By K. Connie Kang (Addison-Wesley: $23; 300 pp.)

August 20, 1995|Michael Stephens | Michael Stephens is the author of several books on Korea, including "Lost in Seoul." Last year, he published a novel, "The Brooklyn Book of the Dead" and a collection of essays, "Green Dreams."

Immigrant tales are the most American of stories. Even if our names appeared on the Mayflower passenger list, at least one generation of our family abandoned their place of origin to come here. And most of us immigrants come with harsher tales than simply a rough sea passage. Either we or our relations migrated to America to escape starvation, tyranny, threats of death and poverty.

K. Connie Kang's story as she tells it in "Home Was the Land of Morning Calm" both fits and breaks the immigrant mold. Her early years were spent first fleeing her hometown in North Korea, then traveling from Seoul to Pusan after the Korean War started. As harrowing as her story is--including an 8-year-old's wintertime journey on the top of a train as North Korean troops stormed the capital in 1951--it is fairly typical of what happened to Koreans who experienced the war. Their homes and belongings were lost, large numbers of women were made widows, children suffered horrible diseases, and lives were shattered, some of them never put back together again.

But by the time Kang was 9 years old, still a refugee from the war, she escaped with her mother to Japan to reunite with her father, a gifted linguist who spoke fluent English and worked for the United Nations. Unlike other Koreans who were fortunate enough to escape the war zone, her family did not return to the Land of Morning Calm, one of Korea's more poetic names. Instead, the family assimilated into Japanese life, but not before young Connie and her mother did some hard time in a Japanese prison for being illegal immigrants.

Kang then spent her adolescence in Okinawa, where her father's work brought the family, and from there, because she always wanted to be a writer, to the University of Missouri to study journalism. The young Connie in this saga is very much like the older Connie, the successful Los Angeles Times reporter. Both are unblinkingly astute observers, free of malarkey and sentimentality; both are good listeners, even lovers of talkers and spielers; and both know how resonating a good, hard fact can be.

The 8-year-old Connie Kang writes in her war diary, "I don't know why I am here," while the adult Connie Kang observes that "my several lives were often incompatible, and I led a schizophrenic existence. I shut the door to one when I entered the other." She observes that while she is more American in her mind, she is more Korean in her soul.

As an undergraduate and graduate student at American universities, she found her Korean-ness among a small group of Korean students who attended these schools in the early 1960s. But like Beaver Cleaver and the rest of us, Kang grew up eating Chef Boyardee spaghetti and listening to American pop songs and going to American movies.

While growing up in Japan, she writes, "I covered the wall of my bedroom with pictures of James Dean, Elvis Presley, Sandra Dee and Natalie Wood, and sang along with my record player to 'Love Me Tender,' 'Jailhouse Rock,' and 'Hound Dog.' I was so wrapped up with my life in Tokyo that I did not think about Korea much."

In Okinawa, Kang became so Americanized that she and her best friend Marsha, a girl from Georgia, formed a singing group called the Teen Tops. Wearing identical lavender dresses and cowgirl hats and holding lariats, they performed the Kingston Trio's "Tom Dooley" at the American Officers Club. Still, it is in Missouri that her Koreanization began.

Kang came from a family of early Korean Christians, and her own standards are a blend of the Protestant work ethic and the Confucian devotion to education. She was also a woman in a man's world, and as much as her father loved her, he still refused to see her for two weeks when she was first born because she was not the requisite son ( he would not come along for 12 more years). The dramatic values of Kang's narrative are held together by two tensions. One set of tensions is the pull of Christianity and family duty; the other set, perhaps the greater tension of the book, is her own lifelong uncertainty of where she belongs in the scheme of things.

"I was often struck by the paradoxical dimensions of my life--the hold of the West on my intellect and the deeper hold of the East on my emotions--and wondered how I might reconcile the two."

Perhaps these two poles can never be reconciled, for as Kang notes, in the East "No, thank you" might mean "Yes, please," but in the West it means "No, thank you." On a deeper, more personal note, she chronicles her parents' disapproval of her first love, an American graduate student in Missouri, and then later a short-lived, unhappy marriage to yet another American whom her parents fought to prevent her from marrying. That is another conflict between East and West: In the end, should filial piety take precedence over romantic inclinations?

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