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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About 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.
Read an Excerpt
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.
"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.
What People are Saying About This
A novel of secrets that unfold like the leaves on an artichoke. The Foreign Student is a mosiac of betrayal in peace and war that marks the debut of a gifted young novelist wise beyond her years.
Two very unlikely worlds intersect in The Foreign Student, war-ravaged Korea and the genteel culture of Sewanee, Tennessee. In gracious prose, Susan Choi renders their cruelties, their lies, and their beauty.
Reading Group Guide
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.