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10,000 Sorrows: The Extraordinary Journey of a Korean War Orphan

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They called it an "honour killing," but to Elizabeth Kim, the night she watched her grandfather and uncle hang her mother from the wooden rafter in the corner of their small Korean hut, it was cold-blooded murder. Omma had committed the sin of sleeping with an American soldier, and producing not just a bastard, but a "honyhol" -- a mixed-race child, considered worthless. Dumped at a Christian orphanage in post-war Seoul like so much garbage, bleeding and terrified, Kim ...
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Overview

They called it an "honour killing," but to Elizabeth Kim, the night she watched her grandfather and uncle hang her mother from the wooden rafter in the corner of their small Korean hut, it was cold-blooded murder. Omma had committed the sin of sleeping with an American soldier, and producing not just a bastard, but a "honyhol" -- a mixed-race child, considered worthless. Dumped at a Christian orphanage in post-war Seoul like so much garbage, bleeding and terrified, Kim unwittingly embarked on the next phase of her extraordinary life.

Unflinching in her narration, Kim tells of her sorrows with a steady and riveting voice, and ultimately transcends her past by laying claim to all the joys to which she is entitled.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As a small child in Korea, Elizabeth Kim witnessed the murder of her mother, Omma, by Omma's father and brother. Labeled an "honor killing," Omma's death was considered justified because her child, the author, was born not only out of wedlock but also of mixed race (the father was a American G.I.). Considered "less than human" by her family, Kim was sent to an orphanage where she was eventually adopted by an American Christian Fundamentalist couple. But in California, Kim's life was no less full of manipulation, racism and ostracism. It is not until, as an adult, she leaves an abusive husband and sets off to raise her own daughter that Kim is able to come to terms with herself and her past. Hearing Kim read her own story adds a palpable level of intimacy to this uplifting chronicle of endurance and the healing powers of love. Knowing that the very voice heard is that of the sad and confused little girl, matured into a successful adult, is eerie. Yet there is comfort in knowing that she is alive and well and now able to share her incredible tale. Based on the Doubleday hardcover (Forecasts, Mar. 20). (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Dorothy Rompalske
Using carefully crafted, elegantly restrained prose, Kim reveals a history so full of unsettling detail, it might have been indescribable in less capable hands.
Biography Magazine
Friedman
This unflinching, beautifully rendered work is part treatise on "honor killings," part heart-wrenching look at how a soul can be twisted into self-hatred.
Entertainment Weekly
Andrea Behr
The reader's jaw drops at the horrors this woman suffered, and it pretty much stays dropped throughout the book. But there's a lot more than horror here. Kim has managed to create love and beauty by facing her experiences and meditating over them, and she offers what she learned as a gift to any reader who toughs it out with her.... she has the gift of telling her story with such clear-sighted, humble honesty, and such compassion, that it's just fascinating and compulsively readable as it is devastating. I was in tears by the second page but didn't put it down until I finished it.
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
There is a Buddhist saying that each life is filled with 10,000 sorrows and 10,000 joys. In Kim's first book, a grueling memoir of her childhood, one is blinded by the sorrows and left yearning for at least a hint of joy. During the Korean War, Kim's mother committed the ultimate sin of bearing a honhyol (a mixed-race child), who in the eyes of Korean society is worthless. To pay for her crime, Kim's mother was killed by her own father and brother as little Elizabeth watched from a bamboo basket where she had been hidden. Kim's own life was spared, but she was abandoned at an abysmal Christian orphanage where she had to wait, alone and terrified, to be adopted. Kim was eventually taken in by a childless fundamentalist Christian couple in the US who abused her both mentally and physically. To make matters worse, Kim (with her half-Korean, half-Western features) was rejected by the midwestern community that she was forced to become a part of. Her parents eventually orchestrated her marriage to a man so abusive and controlling that it is a wonder she ever escaped—but Kim finally took control of her life and set off with her newborn daughter to make a fresh start. This did not come easy. She suffered through physical and emotional pain, poverty, depression, and failed relationships. After a while this litany of despair may begin to weigh heavily on the reader. Kim has an undeniably awe-inspiring story of survival to tell, but she tells it in such a reductionist manner that the reader is overwhelmed by events without having time to reflect on their deeper meaning. Kim liberally laces her text with her own poetry, as well as that of writers she admires, but even this does notallowher work to soar with the lyricism she is striving for. A fascinating, tragic tale, hampered by lackluster prose.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385259620
  • Publisher: Doubleday Canada Limited
  • Publication date: 5/9/2000
  • Pages: 240

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Kim is the city desk editor for the Marin Independent Journal. She lives in San Rafael, California.
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Read an Excerpt

On the night Omma died, it seemed as if the Land of Morning Calm held its breath in disbelief at the horror visited upon its children. The gusty December wind stopped blowing and the bitter cold settled down, unmoving, in our little house. The air was thin and brittle.

Omma prepared a special dinner of bean curd in chili and garlic with our usual rice and kimchi, and quince tea. She was more animated than usual, and talked to me as if I were a grown woman and an equal, not her small child. Her crumpled silk skin looked feverish, and her eyes darted to and fro as she talked.

Omma told me that somewhere in the world it would be possible for me to become a person. She explained her Buddhist belief that life was made up of ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows, and all of them were stepping-stones to ultimate peace. She said nothing ever truly ended, not even life. Everything continued in a pattern of night to day, dark to light, death to rebirth. Omma said honor was found in following one's heart, not in other people's rules. She talked about power. It might be possible for a woman--even a nonperson--to have power, she said.

When dinner had been cleared away and the floor swept, Omma filled the large, blackened iron pot with water and put it on top of the heating pit until it was comfortably warm. She bathed me carefully and quickly so I wouldn't get cold, then dressed me in a clean hanbok, an ankle-length cotton skirt with a short, wrapped bodice. She brushed and braided my long, curly dark hair, which usually was covered with a white scarf. She handed me a folded piece of rice paper covered in fine writing and said that before first light the next day I was to leave the village by the dirt pathway, carrying the paper, until I found someone on the main road to show it to. Bewildered but accustomed to obedience, I simply nodded.

Omma grabbed me fiercely and crushed me to her body, pouring out a torrent of love in whispers. She told me over and over how precious I was, how beautiful and perfect. She told me she valued my life more than her own. She told me I was her beloved.

Omma released me and pushed me a few inches away, then told me to step inside the large, woven bamboo basket beside our bed, which we used for storage space. "Whatever happens, be absolutely silent, and remain here until just before first light," she said. Eyes fixed on her face, I obeyed silently, crouching down in the basket. Darkness descended as she closed the lid.

As the next hour or so wore on I sat cross-legged in the basket, watching the candle flame flickering through the slats of bamboo and seeing slivers of Omma as she sat motionless in front of the little wooden Buddha. Her sonorous chanting filled the room, the pure sound rising and falling. I waited, wide awake, tense and afraid.

The candle had burned low and the room was in twilight darkness when hurried steps outside sliced through the quiet, and voices filled the room. I was aware of a confused tangle of noise and movement and I pushed my face toward the slats, adjusting my view through the half-inch-wide gaps so I could better understand what was happening.

I recognized the voice of Omma's stern-faced father, a village elder who had never once spoken directly to me. I recognized the voice of Omma's elder brother, a loud young man who was an important village leader.

Both had done an unprecedented thing that afternoon: They walked up to Omma as she was working in the rice field and spoke to her. We were working quickly, trying to keep ourselves as warm as possible. I straightened up for a moment, aware that someone was coming, and was amazed to see my grandfather and uncle walking toward us. Since they were elders in the village, I knew this was a momentous occasion. Omma stood up, rubbed her tired back, then bowed and waited silently for them. The men did not bow but began speaking immediately in clipped tones. All three kept their voices low, so I didn't know what was being said, but I watched from a distance as they talked. All looked angry; my mother looked at the men with contempt. None of them bowed when the conversation was finished.

And now these men were crowded into our tiny home. With them was the young wife of Omma's brother. She didn't speak, and her head remained bowed. The men were wearing the high net hats that marked their importance as village leaders. Omma's father was a swarthy, barrel-chested man with a stern slit of a mouth and deeply etched lines down his cheeks. Her brother was taller and lighter-skinned. Omma's sister-in-law was wearing a stiffly starched white hanbok.

Omma's brother did all the talking. He told her the family had discussed the matter again since presenting demands to her that afternoon in the field, and he, his father, and his wife were there to carry out the plan. A family had offered to take the honhyol--me--into their home as a servant. They had seen me at work in the rice fields and decided I was now old enough to be useful around the house and also to be betrothed. The people making the offer planned to fill two needs at once: Add a servant to their home and find a future wife for a young man in their employ.

From the impassioned demands of Omma's brother, it appeared a sum of money had also been promised. Though they held respectable positions, our relatives were poor, as was everyone in the village, and the chance of reaping a financial windfall and ridding themselves of the family's shame--all in one move--must have seemed like an incredible piece of luck.

Omma remained kneeling before the altar. She didn't move a muscle, but her voice was steel.

She told the men that her feelings hadn't changed since the conversation in the fields, and that she would never sell her daughter into slavery.

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Reading Group Guide

About the Book:They called it an "honor killing," but to Elizabeth Kim, the night she watched her grandfather and uncle hang her mother from the wooden rafter in the corner of their small Korean hut, it was cold-blooded murder. Her Omma had committed the sin of lying with an American soldier, and producing not just a bastard but a honhyol—a mixed-race child, considered worth less than nothing.

Left at a Christian orphanage in postwar Seoul like garbage, bleeding and terrified, Kim unwittingly embarked on the next phase of her extraordinary life when she was adopted by a childless Fundamentalist pastor and his wife in the United States. Unfamiliar with Western customs and language, but terrified that she would be sent back to the orphanage, or even killed, Kim trained herself to be the perfect child. But just as her Western features doomed her in Korea, so her Asian features served as a constant reminder that she wasn't good enough for her new, all-white environment.

After escaping her adoptive parents' home, only to find herself in an abusive and controlling marriage, Kim finally made a break for herself by having a daughter and running away with her to a safer haven—something Omma could not do for her.

Unflinching in her narration, Kim tells of her sorrows with a steady and riveting voice, and ultimately transcends them by laying claim to all the joys to which she is entitled.Discussion Questions:

Question: The author tells her story in basic chronological order except for the opening, which flashes forward. How does this opening scene inform the rest of the book? Would it have had the same effect if it had come later in the book?

Question: Talk about the author's use of her own poems in the book and the influence of other poets, especially Millay, on her life.

Question: There is an overlay of sadness in this memoir. Discuss its various forms and rhythms in different chapters and sections of the book. Where does sadness drape thickly? Where does it intrude sharply? Does it ever abate?

Question: This memoir suggests that geography imprints a person's soul. Talk about this in relation to the author's feelings about the desert and the mountains.

Question: Compare and contrast the different mothers in this memoir—their power and their weakness. For instance, Kim is not sold into slavery in Korea only because the family that was willing to buy her demanded her mother's approval.

Question: The author's earliest memories center on the ritual that her mother made of meals, however meager those meals were. Discuss the role of food in this book.

Question: The author portrays her Fundamentalist father as a study in contrasts. Publicly, he is kind, caring, and devoted to his congregation. Privately, Kim says he is deeply caring too, but harsh and judgmental in his manner. Talk about these contradictions and about the Fundamentalist faith in which the author was steeped as a girl.

Question: Fear plays a big role in Kim's life once she is brought to the United States. Talk about the different ways fear had an impact on her life, from the Bosch painting that hung over her bed to her abusive husband.

Question: At which points in Kim's life did somebody from outside her family give her hope, and assure Kim that it was her parents, not she, who were crazy? Could her story have been different had there been more such people or had they taken a more active role?

Question: When her grandmother comes to live with them, the author's life changes again. Discuss Kim's relationship with her grandmother and what she comes to understand about her grandmother and her mother.

Question: What is the role of dreams in this book?

Question: The author's daughter, Leigh, has a voice in this memoir. Twice Leigh offers her view of her mother and of the way they've lived. Discuss the author's choice to include this other voice and the perspective it gives.

Question: The author chooses a profession that enables her to give a voice to those that have none. Talk about this choice.Why do you think she chose this job?

Question: As the author works her way out of depression, she quotes Blake about those who are without hope, and she explores the meaning of suffering. Talk about the journey she takes to get to the point where she recognizes the ten thousand joys in life and not only the ten thousand sorrows.

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