Still Life with Rice: A Young American Woman Discovers the Life and Legacy of Her Korean Grandmother

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In this radiant memoir of her grandmother's life, Helie Lee probes a history and a culture that are both seductively exotic and strangely familiar. And with wit and verve she claims her own Korean identity, illuminating the intricate experiences of Asian-American women. Born in 1912 - "the year of the rat" - to aristocratic parents, Hongyong Baek came of age in a unified but socially repressive Korea, where she learned the roles that had been prescribed for her: obedient daughter, demure wife, efficient household...
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Overview

In this radiant memoir of her grandmother's life, Helie Lee probes a history and a culture that are both seductively exotic and strangely familiar. And with wit and verve she claims her own Korean identity, illuminating the intricate experiences of Asian-American women. Born in 1912 - "the year of the rat" - to aristocratic parents, Hongyong Baek came of age in a unified but socially repressive Korea, where she learned the roles that had been prescribed for her: obedient daughter, demure wife, efficient household manager. Ripped from her home first during the Japanese occupation and again during the bloody civil war that divided her country, Hongyong fought to save her family by drawing from her own talents and values. Over the years she provided for her husband and children by running a successful restaurant, building a profitable opium business, and eventually becoming adept at the healing art of Chiryo. When she was pressured to leave her country, she moved with her family to California, where she reestablished her Chiryo practice. Writing in her grandmother's voice, Helie Lee depicts the concerns and conflicts that shaped one family's search for home. Evocative and keenly felt, Still Life with Rice interprets issues that touch all of us: the complex nature of family relations, the impact of social upheaval on an individual, and the rapidly changing lives of women in this century.

In this radiant memoir of her grandmother's life, Lee recreates a culture that is both seductively exotic and strangely familiar. Lee's desire to recover the family's history, as well as to understand the intricate weave of her own identity, results in the exploration of universal issues such as the complex nature of family relations and the rapidly changing lives of women in this century. of photos.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Lee traveled from California to Korea to recapture the life of her grandmother. Hongyong Baek (b. 1912) grew up in northern Korea, the daughter of wealthy parents, and at 22 entered into an arranged marriage and began a life of servitude to her husband. Drawing on interviews with her grandmother and writing in her voice, Lee dramatically describes the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of Korea, which forced Baek, her husband (with whom she ultimately fell in love) and their children to flee to China in 1939, where they supported themselves by selling opium. After they returned to Korea, the 1950s' civil war caused them extreme hardship. Baek lost her husband to diphtheria and was separated from her son. She supported her other children by practicing the healing art of Chedo. Baek emigrated to the U.S. in 1972. A captivating memoir of a courageous survivor. (Mar.)
Mary Ellen Quinn
As a way to explore and affirm her Korean heritage, Lee reconstructs the life of her maternal grandmother. Born in 1912 into a well-to-do merchant family, Hongyong Baek had a traditional upbringing, culminating in her wedding day, when she met her husband for the first time. Marriage to her charming and somewhat feckless husband turned out to be happy, and Baek was content with her severely circumscribed role. But life was disrupted by political events. To escape Japanese oppression, Baek and her family joined other Korean refugees in China, where her resourcefulness helped her prosper as a dealer first in sesame oil and later in opium. When 36 years of Japanese occupation ended, she and her family returned home. But peace and prosperity came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of civil war. After incredible hardships, family members were reunited, and Baek used her skills as a healer to restore some measure of financial security. Written with great narrative power and attention to detail, a testament to the will to survive.
Kirkus Reviews
In a bio-fic, Lee makes her debut both recounting and imagining her Korean grandmother's eventful life: childhood and marriage under Japanese occupation, opium smuggling in China, and flight during the Korean war.

Lee opens her first-person biography of her grandmother, Hongyong Baek, with a telling fraction of her own story—an all-American California girl, slightly uncomfortable with her grandmother's Korean outlook, who travels to Korea, Hong Kong, and China to trace her roots. But Lee's mannered naïveté about her family's past seems at least in part a narrative device to stir curiosity about her grandmother's life. Likewise, her simplistically novelized recreation of that life is a strategy to acclimate the reader, albeit at the risk of losing sight of history. Lee successfully grounds such matters as her grandmother's pampered childhood and arranged marriage within the context of Korean culture, vividly illuminating family relationships, power struggles, and the realities of daily life in pre-Communist Korea. But the irritating imagined sections, with stilted dialogue and interior musings—such as Hongyong's marriage ceremony and her wedding night—are extravagantly intimate and unsatisfying. Nor does Lee seem to have full command of the background to the family's exile to China, where Hongyong entrepreneurially took up opium smuggling (and the healing art of Chiryo), nor to her grandmother's persecution under the North Korean Communist regime for converting to Christianity. Lee incorporates little sense of history beyond vague sentiments and a few important dates; the Japanese occupation and the Communist regime dwindle into a hazy background. Only with the Korean war is there a sense of living through history as Hongyong and her four youngest children make the harrowing trek south as refugees.

The human interest of Hongyong's story is compelling, but its treatment will likely strike readers as incomplete.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684802701
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 2/6/1996
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.48 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.14 (d)

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