Please Look After Mom
Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
Mom raised us with unconditional love. With dad being the typical traditional father who wanted little to do with running the household and the family, mom played so many roles for us. Whenever we needed anything, we only needed to turn around, and sure enough, mom was always there.
Mom provided for us even when our demands went beyond the capacity of dad's civil servant salary. When we wanted McDonalds more than twice a week, she would learn how to replicate the taste of them McPatties at home. When we wanted toys, she would caress our heads and said "Next month, my dear, when dad gets his salary, okay?" As boys, my brother and I were careless with our clothes; mom was always there to mend them. And when it came time for us to be schooled, she gave up many of her jewelries so that my brother and I could continue our stay in Vancouver, Canada.
Sometimes we misunderstood her, mistaking her love for what felt like constraints and restrictions. Sometimes we quarelled with her, assuming that she was less educated, and thus, less enlightened in her decisions. And sometimes we take for granted the small things, the little magic that she did for us, like the tasty chicken sandwiches that popped up weekly in our lunch bags.
These were the thoughts that hovered over my head throughout the time I was reading Kyung-Sook Shin’s "Please Look After Mom".
The book took some time to grow on me (around 20 pages into it) probably because it's written differently from Haruki Murakami's “Norwegian Wood”, the last novel before this one. But then I got used to the style, and even liking the narrative. I became quiet infused in the story, the complex and intricate ties among the many characters of the novel.
Having just spent 8 days in Korea, some of the places mentioned in the book reminded me of nice memories of that trip. But, this book actually tells a sad story. Not the kind of sad story that makes you depressive suicidal and all. But the kind that takes us on a journey of self-reflection. The kind that makes you reconsider some of the less appreciated things in life; those people you often take for granted, whose sacrifices have often gone unnoticed.
When Chi-hon, one of the main characters of the book, was told that her mom had gone missing in downtown Seoul, we see the unravelling of the secrets and feelings that connect the Park family as one. The search for mom, and the lives of the Parks became a microscope through which we observe family relations in modern day South Korea. Told from the perspectives of Chi-hon, her older brother and younger sister, dad, and mom, the book gave a glimpse into the ties linking each and one of the members of this family. Ties that are changing in a changing world.
I'm not a Korea expert, but I don't think I'd be completely wrong to suggest that the story is not only about a Korean family, but also about Korea itself. A country that has gleefully embraced the 21st Century's modernity. A country so busy with its ambitious goals of progress and globalism that it's beginning to loose some of its traditional roots. A country which is rapidly taking for granted the hardships and gloominess of the past, only to be reminded of them when a shocking event happens.
In the book, that shocking event came in the form of the disappearance of Chi-hon's mom, which caused regret and severe loss among those around her. Chi-hon and her siblings began to realize how little love they have returned to their mom. Mom, who has selflessly raised the entire family without paying attention to her own well-being. Mom, who defended and fought for her children in the face of anything imaginable. How they wish to see their mom again and say all the things that should have been said, do the things that have always been requested by their mom.
Indeed, there were parts of the book where the author pulled on too much of the sentimentality strings. It was as if the author was trying really hard to make the reader cry. I was taken on a roller coaster of feelings: sadness, guilt, anguish, loss, helplessness. A bit like a Korean drama, I should say.
But somehow, the story is believable, and I took everything in like a nice plate of bulgogi. If anything, I think many of us Asians would be able to relate to the story as well as the message behind it. And although one may not be able to see it, there is hope resonating towards the end of the story.
The book brought up strong feelings in me. Each time I put the book down during breaks in between reads, I was always engulfed with the need to call mom. To ask her what she's up to. To find out whether dad's listening to her advice or not. To promise her that I'll be visiting both of them during the upcoming weekend.
To tell her that I love her. And that, just like the way she showered me with love and care (and continues to do so), I will look after her.