Foreign Student

Overview

Highly acclaimed by critics, The Foreign Student is the story of a young Korean man, scarred by war, and the deeply troubled daughter of a wealthy Southern American family. In 1955, a new student arrives at a small college in the Tennessee mountains. Chuck is shy, speaks English haltingly, and on the subject of his earlier life in Korea he will not speak at all. Then he meets Katherine, a beautiful and solitary young woman who, like Chuck, is haunted by some dark episode in her past. Without quite knowing why, ...

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The Foreign Student: A Novel

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Overview

Highly acclaimed by critics, The Foreign Student is the story of a young Korean man, scarred by war, and the deeply troubled daughter of a wealthy Southern American family. In 1955, a new student arrives at a small college in the Tennessee mountains. Chuck is shy, speaks English haltingly, and on the subject of his earlier life in Korea he will not speak at all. Then he meets Katherine, a beautiful and solitary young woman who, like Chuck, is haunted by some dark episode in her past. Without quite knowing why, these two outsiders are drawn together, each sensing in the other the possibility of salvation. Moving between the American South and South Korea, between an adolescent girl's sexual awakening and a young man's nightmarish memories of war, The Foreign Student is a powerful and emotionally gripping work of fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Translation is a tricky thing. Mere transliteration is only a start. Translating a piece of writing, whether literature or a wire news story, takes finesse, for a certain amount of rearranging or restating is necessary to retain the original meaning. Susan Choi elegantly describes this almost morphological process in her ambitious first novel, The Foreign Student: "Sometimes, a line that seemed fine would begin to grow lumpy and poor as more lines accreted beneath it. Sometimes, like a cheaply built house, the whole would have to be completed before it unexpectedly started to sag.... The thing would emerge and begin to grow buoyant, as if it could read only just as it was. This is what he wanted: for the original to vanish. Then you knew it was actually there, bled in, letter by letter."

The main character of Choi's novel is the son of a great Korean translator who flourished under Japanese rule only to be punished for it in the aftermath of World War II. Chang Ahn follows in his father's footsteps, as a translator of news reports for the United States Intelligence Service in Korea's capital during the precarious time between two devastating wars: "He continued to translate, creating his place and becoming increasingly trapped there. Translation was a sure thing in American Seoul; neither side understood the other, but the constant racket of translation gave off an impression of good understanding, or at least of good faith." Like his father, and like Korea itself, Chang is caught between cultures -- between democracy and communism, between America and Russia and China, between the Occident and the Orient, and, after the war, the South and the North.

"He thrived there, in the zone of intentional misinformation, the way that disaster throve in the breach. He had already sensed that, like his father, he had no real place in South Korea." Disconnected from his family and his country, Chang leaves his homeland for Sewanee, Tennessee, and the University of the South, where he befriends Katherine Monroe, a lonely, seemingly independent southern belle who has returned to her family's summer house after the death of her father.

Katherine, too, is caught between forces beyond her control. At age 14, she began her first and only romantic relationship with a family friend, the brilliant but bitter professor Charles Addison, a proverbial big fish in the small pond of Sewanee. Ten years later, she returns to the summer house, only to immediately take up with Charles. Estranged from her socialite mother, Glee, who put an end to the family's summering in Sewanee after she learned of the affair, Katherine is pretty much friendless -- that is, until she meets Chang, who stirs her interest and with whom she feels an inexplicable bond.

Katherine "had spent half her life immobilized by the fear she would lose Charles, and her unhappiness, she realized now, had been passive and essentially hopeful....So long as the power to withhold her happiness lay outside herself, she could wait, and stroke her despair with the intensity of imagining its opposite." Chang, too, shares this trait of passivity, but in a much more tumultuous and politically charged (but no less wrenching) context: "He had realized that in avoiding an allegiance to the Americans he had overlooked his actual problem. No allegiance at all was an allegiance, by default, to the Republic of Korea, a government that only seemed to exist in order that it not be a Communist government, in the same way that his own recurrent desire to join the Communist party arose largely from his contempt for the republic's regime."

Choi structures her novel so as to heighten the central theme of displacement -- moving from Korea to Tennessee, backwards in time to both Chang's and Katherine's childhoods, and back to mid-'50s Sewanee. While the technique can sometimes be confusing, especially in relating scenes from the Korean conflict, in the end it energizes Choi's meticulous prose. Perhaps most of the confusion in the sections set in Korea is due to the fact that the Korean War remains the least known of the major international conflicts of the 20th century -- to Americans and Koreans alike. In weaving together these two very different lives, the results are bumpy, full of mixed messages and inarticulateness, advances and retreats. The novel reflects this -- the convergence of lives never results in a seamless whole, and it is to Choi's credit that she portrays reality in this way.

In the end, both achieve a certain freedom, together and apart -- Katherine finally leaves Sewanee to care for her dying mother. Chang's life as a translator now seems to lead to a tangible goal: "His lust to master the language had never been abstract, no matter how fastidious and intellectual his approach might have seemed.... It had always been utterly, ruthlessly pragmatic, driven by his faith in its power to transport him. It had gotten him into USIS, and across the ocean to Sewanee, and then, just as he was in danger of becoming apathetic from accomplishment, it had brought her within view. Every possibility of speech had been a possibility of speaking to her."

Jill Smolowe
Initially, their interwoven stories seem as . . .mismatched as they themselves are. . . .in and through each other, they discover a capacity for solace, forgiveness and renewal. . .Choi. . .writes gracefully, insightfully and with striking maturity. . . —Time
Kimberly B. Marlowe
Susan Choi's first novel, THE FOREIGN STUDENT is a richly detailed exploration of a young man's escape from the nightmare of a country torn by war. During a stint as a translator for the American information services in Seoul, a young Korean named Chang Ahn is caught up in the political turmoil and forced into a life on the run. By August 1955, two years after the cease-fire has ended the war, Chang has managed to emigrate to the United States, where he attempts to settle into the life of a scholarship student in the university town of Sewanee, Tenn. Yet he is unprepared for the smallest shocks of a vastly different world: even the realization that people in Sewanee go to sleep at night without locking their doors is unnerving. Choi herself the daughter of a Korean immigrant father catches such moments under a very clear glass, wisely resisting the urge to embellish. Instead, she allows the story to blossom slowly after Chang renamed Chuck makes his first real friend in America: Katherine Monroe, his 28-year-old neighbor. Caught in a poisonous relationship with a popular professor, begun while she was only 14, Katherine is nearly as wounded as Chuck. Together they begin to heal, not with the dreamy pleasure of romantic young lovers but tentatively and painfully, mindful of all that has gone wrong in their lives-and all that might still go wrong.
Cox News Service
While these powerful images may be, by now, gross stereotyping, their core truth feeds Southern writers on a rich diet of subtlety, profundity and irony lacking in other American fiction, say, the Updike school of high WASP suffering or the McInerneyesque chronicles of People magazine partygoing. So it's good to report that Susan Choi believes in the old-time religion of William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison and Eudora Welty. Her first novel is a strong, graceful piece of prose that stirs war, love, class and culture together in a strange and beautiful alchemy.
The opening of "The Foreign Student" conjures the sort of mythic dream time Faulkner raises in "Absalom, Absalom" or Welty evokes in her Morgana stories, the never-never "before the war" when rich families closed up their townhouses and moved to their country estates. Only this is not Jefferson or Jackson but Seoul, and the war is the Korean War. Chang "Chuck" Ahn is the child of privileged Koreans who lose everything in the conflict.
Barely surviving the ravages of the civil war, in 1955 Chuck manages to escape on a church scholarship to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.
There he meets Katherine Monroe, the child of privileged Southerners who is trapped in a destructive relationship with a dilettante professor. Chang and Katherine are hurt, haunted people who manage, almost blindly, to come together and heal each other.
Kimberly B. Marlowe
. . . [R]ichly detailed. . . .Moving from the present to the past, from America to Korea, Choi. . . [constructs] an intricate portrait of lovers who must prove. . .that they are survivors.
New York Times Book Review
The New York Times
Ms. Choi, a Korean-American, did something larger and more original than ingeniously devise a foreigner experiencing America. She devised America through the experience of the foreigner -- an America seemingly strange, largely because our own eyes hadn't known where to look. It was revelation under black light; not replacing daylight's vision but extending it to show crags we took for hills and torrents we knew as streams. — Richard Eder
From The Critics
Beneath the threatening summer skies and low-swaying emerald leaves of Sewanee, Tennessee, baroque romantic etiquette and indelible lines cleaving insider from outsider strip-mine the 1950s social landscape. The result? A Southern Peyton Place, but one as sophisticated and absorbing as the best of Mary Lee Settle. At its center Choi details the inexplicable comings and goings of the uncommonly beautiful yet troubled 28-year-old belle Katherine Monroe, who develops an unlikely relationship with Chang Ahn, a young Korean refugee. Enfolding Ahn's memories of war-torn Korea into lushly self-enclosed Sewanee, the novel shares with its characters the allure of an undiscovered country; their attractions are charted in deftly contoured prose, so lyrical at times it approaches incantation. At her best when driving Katherine and Chang apart, Choi only stumbles in an all-too-expected ending that is less convincing than the secrets that preceded it.
­Elizabeth Haas
Library Journal
Set in Sewanee, TN, this first novel unravels the stories of 28-year-old Katherine Monroe and her friend "Chuck" Chang Ahn, a 25-year-old Korean-born student. Both characters have complex histories. For instance, at the age of 14, Katherine became involved with an English professor, a college roommate of her father's during his days at Sewanee. Equally poignant is Chuck's experience during the war in Korea, when he served as a translator for the United States. These tales, and a few others linking minor and major characters, are loosely woven together in a fashion reminiscent of the writing of Amy Tan. However, the reader is unable to gain a strong sense of a single character before being moved to the next. Hence, when the story lines shift, the individual reader is left with a sense of confusion and disconnection. A good effort, but not recommended. -- Shirley N. Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Fountain Valley, CA
Kimberly B. Marlowe
. . . [R]ichly detailed. . . .Moving from the present to the past, from America to Korea, Choi. . . [constructs] an intricate portrait of lovers who must prove. . .that they are survivors. -- The New York Times Book Review
People
An evocative romance set in the 1950s about the love bonding a Korean student and a young American woman.
Richard Eder
A novel of extraordinary sensibility and transforming strangeness.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
An uneven first novel that elegantly details the love story of two young people, a Korean student and a southern beauty, whose earlier lives have been shaped by war and obsession. Like so many current debut novels, the writing here is stronger than plot or character, but Choi, in giving her male protagonist a Korean background, especially one shaped by a less familiar war—the Korean War—adds a refreshingly unusual dimension to her tale. Set in the mid-1950s, and taking place mostly at Sewanee, the University of the South, the story begins when Chuck Ahn, formerly Chang, meets Katherine Monroe. Now in her late 20's, Katherine, living at Sewanee in her family's old summer home, is in love with Charles Addison, an older professor—he was a classmate of her father's at Sewanee—who seduced her the summer she was 14.

Chuck, who recently served as a translator for the American forces, is there on a scholarship. As the year passes, Katherine and Chuck keep meeting by accident in scenes that alternate with their recollections of the past. Katherine recalls how she came to be seduced, and how her obsessive love for Addison has shaped, or perhaps, as one observer suggests, ruined her life. Chuck remembers the privations of the war years; his flight when the communists retook Seoul, and, in an internment camp, his betrayal of someone who'd once helped him—an act that made him determined to leave Korea. A surprise proposal of marriage from Addison finally makes Katherine confront her confused feelings. In New Orleans for the summer to be with her dying mother, she invites Chuck to visit. He does, and the two at last accept their pasts, and—in the best tradition, thoughthe affair never crackles with convincing tension—one another. While the love story never seems all that credible or affecting, Choi has tried to write a great sweep of a novel that is both moving and intelligent. The result is deserving of praise, and the author of encouragement.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060929275
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/1/1999
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 634,150
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Choi was born in Indiana and grew up in Texas. Her first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian-American Literary Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the Discover Great New Writers Award at Barnes & Noble. With David Remnick, she edited an anthology of fiction entitled Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

1955
The mountain at night was pitch dark. The twin beams from the headlamps would advance a few feet and be annihilated, and only the motion of the bus striving upward indicated that you were not at sea, and only the dispersion of stars in the sky marked off what lay around you as a mass and not an infinite void. His first time up this road from Nashville the bus had put him off in the middle of nowhere and nothing and its tail lights winked out around a bend before the driver thought twice and backed up. The small lights reappeared. When the bus was alongside again the door swung open and the driver pointed into the featureless blackness. "That way," he said. Chuck had still been standing at the side of the road with his suitcase hanging from one hand and his overcoat over one arm, and this was the petrified figure that Mrs. Reston, the vice vice chancellor's housekeeper, found at the door to the vice vice chancellor's house forty-five minutes later. You would not have known that the motionless person had just walked two miles straight uphill with a steady and terrified step and only the slight paleness of the gravel reflecting the stars to direct him. To Mrs. Reston he seemed to have dropped into the pool of porch light from outer space. She showed him inside and unclamped the hand from the suitcase's handle and unbent the arm from beneath the drape of the overcoat, and gave him some tea in the kitchen.
Mrs. Reston was annoyed with the bus driver for not having explained things more clearly. It would seem like a failure of hospitality, in her opinion, unless a person knew that the gravel drive up to the vice vice chancellor's was toosteep and shifty a purchase for the lumbering bus and even most cars. They'd go skittering right off the edge. As far as hospitality went, she was ready. She had been ready for his arrival for days and had been waiting with a pot of tea and her embroidery basket and a pile of Silver Screen back issues for hours.
She gave him his tea in the kitchen, in order to impart the idea that he was not a guest, but a boy being welcomed home. This tactic, based on years of experience with free-floating, frightened young men, fell securely within the realm of which she was the mistress, and she would have done it even if the vice vice chancellor had not been away for the weekend. But she was glad that he was. "You must be tired after such a long trip," she said. "I'm going to keep you down here a quick minute because I've been so anxious to meet you, but then I'll take you right up to the guest room. There's the one nice thing about the vice vice chancellor's being away. You can sleep late. Otherwise I'm very sorry he's gone. Oh, my goodness, you look so tired! Are you going to perish?"
He shook his head and smiled. He was somehow not capable of speech.
"How many hours was your trip?"
He took a long time to answer this question, so long that although she was never quick to judge, and so unflaggingly optimistic in all situations that the vice vice chancellor had once complained to her about it, the horrible thought crossed her mind that he didn't speak English at all, that he had faked his letters the way some boys faked their grades. And then he said, in a voice that snagged on its own exhaustion, "Eighteen hours and--"He wanted to add something, to answer her kindness as well as her question. "And we stop to take fuel in Alaska."
"Alaska! First time in this country and you've already been to Alaska. I don't think I will ever see Alaska in my life. Was it beautiful?"
This did not seem the word. It had been a gloaming, purple and vast. Past the end of the world. But he didn't have these words, either. He nodded, and nodded again when she said, "You poor thing. Let me put you to bed."
It was a tidy but comfortable room, with a high bed and a lamp on the table that was already lit. Mrs. Reston turned the bed down and patted it briskly. He stood helplessly by. All the distance he'd plowed through, and her one simple gesture disabled him. He followed her back to the door.
"Sleep late," she said, turning away.
He shut the door after her, and looked down at the knob. Then he opened and shut and reopened it. She was already far down the hall.
"Excuse," he called.
"Yes dear?"
"If I have to lock." He twisted the knob.
"But you don't. It's all right. We don't lock our doors here."
"Ah. Thank you."
He shut the door again and sat on the bed. Then he lay back on top of the covers, and pushed off his shoes with his toes. The shoes were too large, like the suit and the coat.
After a while he sat up, undid the knots in his shoelaces, and set the shoes beside each other on the floor. He lay down again and tried to find sleep. The thought of the door filled him with shame, because he could not accept the lack of precaution as a sign that he was safe.
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Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary
Susan Choi's story of improbable love brings together a displaced Korean student and a rebellious young American woman, two outsiders who seek solace and escape from the afflictions of their pasts. Chang Ahn has experienced first-hand the horrors, political turmoil, and betrayals of the Korean war. Hoping to leave behind his nightmarish memories, Chang escapes from his war-torn country and arrives at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, in August 1955. Unprepared for the totally different world of Sewanee, Chang--nicknamed Chuck--takes pride in his carefully guarded "compact self-sufficiency," practicing his English with the charismatic Professor Charles Addison and deciphering the rules of college life, where he does not quite fit. Then he meets Katherine Monroe, who quickly becomes the unsettling center of his attention.

The brilliant and impetuous twenty-eight-year-old Katherine is something of a figure in Sewanee. The daughter of a well-to-do Southern family, she has rebelled since childhood against the conventions of family and society, settling in her family's old summer house in Sewanee and into an obsessive affair with Charles Addison, who seduced her when she was fourteen. Estranged from her mother and unhappy with Addison, Katherine is as much a loner and outsider as is Chang. As Katherine and Chang struggle with their respective histories and move toward love and mutual understanding, alternating chapters reveal the details of their pasts. Harrowing accounts of Chang's experiences in Korea are juxtaposed with troubling revelations of Katherine's childhood and young adult years; both contribute to our understanding of whothey are and where they may be going between the autumn of 1955 and the summer of 1956. And as their stories unfold, we gradually come to understand both the seemingly impassable differences and the surprising affinities between them as well.

Topics for Discussion
1. How are Katherine and Chang similar in terms of family, education, social class, and other factors? What kinds of experience and influences do they have in common? In what way is each a refugee?

2. What losses do Chang, Katherine, and other characters suffer? How does each deal with his or her losses? How do their losses affect their subsequent lives and expectations?

3. Choi writes that it was his past "against which Joe [Monroe] defined himself, and which in Katherine's family set the standard for everything." (pg. 24) To what extent is this also true of Katherine, herself, of Chang, of Addison, and of other characters? How does it relate to Chang's being "used to the constant pressure of the future"? (pg. 41) At what point do Katherine and Chang, in fact, permit the present and possible futures to provide the standards for their thoughts, feelings, and behavior?

4. In what ways are Katherine and Chang independent? In what ways are their lives constricted or determined by society, other people, and other outside forces? What does each learn about independence and dependency?

5. Through his work as a translator, Chang learns that "you wanted one thing to equal another, to slide neatly into its place, but somehow this very desire made the project impossible. In the end there was always a third thing, that hadn't existed before." (pg. 67) To what extent does this also apply to cultural and personal issues confronted by both Chang and Katherine? To what extent are Chang and Katherine each "the third thing . . . Translation's unnatural byproduct"? (pg. 84)

6. Katherine tells Chang, "In my family you never could move a muscle without it being a declaration of loyalty to somebody and war to somebody else." (pg. 150) What loyalties and betrayals, actual and imagined, are important in Katherine's and Chang's lives? What is the impact of each? To what extent does a fear of betraying and of being betrayed hinder each of them in their relationships?

7. What borders and boundaries--for example: geographical, emotional, cultural--are crossed or transgressed? What are the consequences of each crossing or transgression?

8. To what extent is the "total, irresolvable uncertainty" that Chang carries with him after his release from torture characteristic of life itself? How do Chang, Katherine, Addison and others deal with the "total, irresolvable uncertainty" of life?

9. What are Chang and Katherine each looking for that each finds in the other?

10. What are the implications of Choi's setting her story of an interracial love in the American South of the mid-1950s? Why do you think she makes only muted and indirect references to racial prejudice and condescension?

About the Author:
The daughter of a Korean immigrant father and a Russian-Jewish mother, Susan Choi was born in Indiana and raised in Texas. Her father's stories of life in Korea and of his experiences as a newly arrived immigrant in the American South would later inspire her own stories and her first novel. She attended Yale, where she was a literature major, and went on to earn her M.F.A. in fiction at Cornell University. She now lives in New York City, where she has worked on the staff of The New Yorker. Choi's short fiction has appeared in Epoch, Documents, The Iowa Review, and Writing Away Here: A Korean-American Anthology. The Foreign Student, her first novel, was chosen by Richard Eder of the Los Angeles Times as one of the Top Ten Books of 1998, and it won the Steven Turner Award for a First Book of Fiction.

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