Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 108 in 2004.
Standard discussions of immigration argue that the decision to leave the homeland is based on push and pull. "Push" refers to the survival difficulties in the native environment. In the novel, Mottel: The Cantor's Son by Sholom Aleichem, for instance, the family leaves Russia, since their other options are starving to death or being slaughtered in a pogrom. "Pull," on the other hand, refers to the attractive forces of the destination country, which, for the United States, are usually the promise of riches.
In a sparkling new novel, Translations of Beauty, Mia Yun makes a remarkable and playfully original addition to this canon in telling the tale of a Korean family who immigrates to Queens.
The push for the family is an historical event, a violent crackdown by the government that left a memory of blood. The narrator remembers, "Barely a month ago, [before the family's immigration] the lives of hundreds of people were snuffed out in a horrible bloodbath ... in Kwangju." After the dictator of South Korea, Park Chung Hee, had been assassinated, his violent successor cracked down on dissent, jailing opposition politicians and killing the rebellious citizens of Kwangju. The aftermath of this bloodbath reverberates throughout the book. Yun suggests that for many in the older generation, such as the father, ties to the homeland remain the main molders of life. Moreover, she indicates that this fixation on the past, which would seem to isolate its holders from participation in U.S. life, is not simply a liability. To take the father's case, he never makes a happy transition to life in Flushing, but his reverence for Korean culture gives him a depth of character lacking in such "well adjusted" people like prosperous Uncle Shin, who has embraced American life and become, in the process, a shallow, money-grubbing show-off.
However, like the Americans who fled the Vietnam War by going to Canada, the father has to give up his major investment in his homeland, his social activism. He turns to America's one good substitute for politics, that being gardening. Some of the most tender scenes in the book describe his cultivation of his Zen garden in a backyard in Flushing.
The father's part of the story paints the immigrant experience in the tragic light that shines in such works as Puzo's The Fortunate Pilgrim, Roth's Call It Sleep or stretching backward, Cahan's The Rise of David Levinks,. in which central characters constantly look back in regret at the lands they have abandoned.
The other major component of the book, focusing on the lives of the twin daughters, is a bracing departure from pattern. Where earlier immigrant stories concentrate on the "pull" of wealth, the sisters want to come to America for ... cosmetics.
When she was four, one sister was accidentally facially disfigured. The family hopes that "in America, the land of uncommon miracles, she might ... get a new face," and, besides, it is thought, "in America, kids won't call her names."
Much of the novel turns on the girls' attempts to redeem the promise of toleration, which undergoes quite a battering from elementary school, where they suffer anti-Oriental barbs, to an ill-fated stop, during a vacation, at a Catskills redneck beanery. By the end of the novel, the sisters are coming to accept the fact that they will never be accepted in the mainstream, each finding her own way to stomach this bitter pill. Still, this part of the story is almost jocular in comparison with the tale of their dad; for, without as much baggage from the past, they are able to fight their ways to a chastened maturity.
America never seems to conform to immigrant dreams. Mia Yun in her eloquent narrative has given a unique spin to this truth, in a story that is at turns touching and at turns comic, told in shimmering prose.