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.