Quiet Odyssey Book Review
Quiet Odyssey is the autobiography of Mary Paik Lee, a Korean woman who had a hard life. In the early 1900’s, she immigrated to the United States. Lee’s family represented a part of a small group of immigrants who left the country after the Japanese invasion. The book of Mary Paik Lee is a testimony of discrimination against Asian people in America in the early 20th century. It is a story about poverty and numerous obstacles which immigrants encountered in America. Reading Mary Paik Lee’s story helps to learn about all difficulties faced by people during immigration to the U.S.
The first chapter of the book is dedicated to Lee’s background. She came from a respectable Korean family; however, the war influenced her life. At the age of five, she moved with her family to Hawaii because they were forced by Japanese soldiers to leave their house. They settled there for a few years. Her father found a job on a sugarcane plantation, but their life in Hawaii was difficult. It was a time when Mary first faced Americans’ negatives attitudes to her family. Mary writes about this part of her memories with some sadness. She remembers how her father tried to justify the Americans’ hostile attitude to them by presenting previous events in history.
The stay of Lee’s family in Hawaii was not long as it was difficult to find stability there. Thus, they moved to Riverside in California. In this city, they were friends with the similar family who left Korea because of the Japanese invasion. In Riverside, Mary’s father started to work in the citrus grove. Sometimes, he preached at the local church. They had no water in the house and lived without electricity. It was a period of hope and the search for the place where they could start a new life. They worked much. Children used to do the laundry, while Mary’s mother used to prepare dinners for her husband’s co-workers to earn extra money. It was a start of a small family business. Thus, Lee’s family built a small dining area for workers. It helped them to make some money.
Due to some income, after five years of living in Riverside, Lee’s family moved to Claremont. According to Mary’s memories, they lived in a beautiful American house. However, Mary’s father did not earn enough money to pay bills, and they were forced to move to the city called Colusa. There, Mary worked in a teacher’s house, but the job was too difficult for her, and her father was forced to look for another job. Thus, he went to Dinuba, but the new job could not improve their financial position, and that money was not enough to leave Colusa for a better place. Therefore, parents and five children moved to Roberts Island. Mary and her older brother helped the family to work on the potato plantation. The father taught children to fish and cook. It was a period of the Great Depression, and additional food helped to save some money. However, later Lee’s family was forced to move to the silver mines of Idria in San Benito County.
At that time, Mary was already 19. She had close friend Hung Man Lee. In 1919, they married and moved into a separate small house without heat, water, and a bathroom. However, it was their own house and it had electricity. Soon Mary gave birth to son Henry Lee. After some time, she and her husband opened their own business, a fruit store. Mary sent money to her family as their business was successful. When they decided to move to Anaheim, they faced strong discrimination on the part of German Americans who used to live there. In Anaheim, Mary gave birth to her second son Allan Paik Lee. She and her husband continued to run their business for the next eleven years. Her third son was born in Whittier, California. It was just before World War II. During the war, particularly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, all Asians were treated badly in America. Finally, the family moved to Stanford. Mary’s husband died at the age of 83. A few years later, her son Henry died in an airplane crash. In her old age, she experienced many losses. To survive, she moved to Los Angeles to teach English to Korean children and left her job only at the age of 85. On the last pages of her story, Mary writes, “… I am free of cares and worry and am just trying to relax and enjoy what little time is left. I attend church regularly where most of the members are black, because it is there I feel most comfortable”.
Contrary to popular belief that the Korean diaspora moved to the United States after 1965, the story of Mary Paik Lee shows that Korean immigration had its roots at the beginning of the 20th century. Tens of millions of immigrants have greatly affected the United States over four centuries. They came to the New World to build a new life and work hard to benefit themselves and their new home. Lee’s family, who left the country after the Japanese invasion and moved to Hawaii, had the same goals. Despite the ‘melting pot’ metaphor first used by Israel Zangwill in the early 20th century to describe the America’s ability to ‘melt’ the representatives of all nations, races, and classes and create the new society (Zangwill), the story of Mary Paik Lee shows that America was unfriendly to those who were forced to immigrate to the country in search of stability.
The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee contains some memories presented by Mary Paik Lee in her book about racism faced by Asian immigrants in America. According to the author, the situation became worse after the start of World War II. Multi-ethnic groups were formed in order to prevent collaboration between plantation workers. The owners of sugar plantations supported competition among immigrant workers. According to the author, they even provoked conflicts between different ethnic groups to augment their productivity. Elizabeth Jameson and Susan Hodge Armitage write that Korean immigrants used to be very successful while working on Hawaiian plantations. The authors state that they “organized councils with ten or more Korean families”. At the beginning of the 20th century, as it is described in the book, Korea had a difficult economic and political situation on the eve of losing its national independence and transformation into a Japanese colony. At the same time, Korean immigration to the United States was encouraged because of an urgent need for cheap labor on Hawaiian and Californian plantations.
The book Quiet Odyssey is very emotional. It contains the description of some important historical events and facts. At the same time, it tells about the three generations of Korean immigrants who faced difficulties in America trying to start a new life. Some very important traditions are also presented in this story. While reading the book, readers understand that Korean immigrants violated old traditions. In Korea, there were traditions forbidding emigration. They were based on the Confucian norms that did not allow leaving graves of ancestors. In addition, in the Korean government, there were many traditionalists who opposed legal immigration. This information helps to understand how difficult for the Korean family was to take a decision to immigrate to another country.
This amazing autobiography shows the strength of the human spirit. There are many good and strong people in the world. They inspire and serve as positive role models for others. The lives of these great people are an example of real love, friendship, fortitude, and kindness.