Academic journal article MELUS

Class and Self-Identity in "Clay Walls."(novel of Korean immigrants)(Critical Essay)

Academic journal article MELUS

Class and Self-Identity in "Clay Walls."(novel of Korean immigrants)(Critical Essay)

Article excerpt


Ronyoung Kim deplores that "A whole generation of Korean immigrants and their American-born children could have lived and died in the United States without [others'] knowing they had been here," and says that "I could not let that happen" (Solberg 23). To that end, in 1987 she wrote Clay Walls in which she portrays an invisible minority group of Koreans who arrived in America from the early 1920s through the late 1940s. The plot follows the protagonist, Haesu, who descends from the Korean elite class called Yangban, as she has to make crossings, against her will, across two boundaries. First, she is forced out of the confines of her Yangban class through her family's arranged marriage for her to Chun, a man from the Sangnom class--a class which usually works for the Yangban. Second, she has to cross geographical boundaries by leaving her own country, which was then under the increasingly oppressive Japanese occupation, and making an unwanted and unexpected exile in America. She and her husband have to leave Korea, because her husband is wanted by the Japanese police as a political agitator under ludicrous circumstances of mistaken identity. The novel closely follows Haesu who is forced to undergo many drastic changes: intellectual, psychological, linguistic and cultural. As she makes those crossings, she also moves from a sheltered life as a daughter of an aristocratic family to a wife of a lower class man whom she refuses to love, and eventually to an invisible woman sojourning in a foreign country where Koreans are considered less than human.

In this essay, I analyze a series of cultural encounters Haesu is subjected to both in Japanese-occupied Korea and in America, and see how the process of finding her own voice and identity as a Yangban evolves under those oppressive circumstances. I also discuss her attitudes toward gender, marriage, work, motherhood, and Japanese and American culture, and the impact of each of these roles and influences on her self-identity as a Yangban.


Clay Walls is a historically accurate novel that brings into prominent relief the social and cultural situations of the first-generation Korean immigrants in the early twentieth century. Haesu was born to a Yangban family in Korea at the turn of the century, which coincides with the troubling last decades of the Yi Dynasty. It was in 1910 that Japan forcefully annexed Korea and concurrently embarked on a ruthless policy of annihilating Korea's political and cultural identity. The colonization made Koreans feel "Korea is dead" because "no person is as sad as the person without a country" (Takaki 278). From that time onward, Koreans' fierce and persistent resistance against a very harsh Japanese colonial rule brought about several nation-wide uprisings. The first non-violent independence movement culminated on March 1, 1919, during which the Declaration of Korean Independence was publicly proclaimed at Pagoda Park in Seoul, the capital. In the process of suppressing this peaceful demonstration, the Japanese regime massacred more than 7,000 and wounded more than 15,000 peaceful Korean demonstrators. Furthermore, to root out the possibility of a subsequent liberation movement, the Japanese declared that anybody participating in the independence movement would be punished severely, and, to prove a point, staged many merciless killings of Koreans all over the peninsula. Haesu's husband, Chun, who is more concerned with his own personal welfare rather than with a patriotic cause, is half- comically mistaken for someone seriously involved in this movement and has to flee the country for an unwanted exile in America with the help of Reverend McNeil, an American missionary for whom he works.

While the political instability in Korea forced a number of Koreans to find exile outside of Korea, the Japanese regime made it nearly impossible for them to immigrate to the United States. The number of Koreans living in the United States in 1920, when Haesu and Chun immigrated, was very small. …

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