LTI Korea’s annual essay contest held at universities and cultural institutions around the world is part of our efforts to make Korean literature more accessible to international readers. Starting with three countries in 2005, the list of participating countries expanded to fourteen by 2016 and included the US, France, Germany, Spain, Mexico, China, Japan, Russia, and Italy. In 2016, LTI Korea held the contest at UC Berkeley and was one of the sponsors of the Sejong Writing Competition held by the Sejong Cultural Society (SCS). Here you can read the winning essays by Rachel Park and Kaitlyn Jurewicz from UC Berkeley and SCS respectively.
The very title of Cheon Myeong-kwan’s story Modern Family reveals its project of describing the modern Korean family. But at the heart of this project is a deep, aching loneliness, perhaps the most paradoxical and contradictory loneliness of all: the isolation from one’s family, the people who are supposed to be the closest to you. Modern Family begins with the unexpected reunion of three adult siblings in their childhood home after many years apart. Ironically, it is this physical proximity that makes them realize how distant they are from each other—that they are all virtual strangers. More than just strangers, there is even hatred on the narrator’s part, forty-eight-year-old In-mo, who is forced to move home after failing as a film director. Each sibling brings with them the weight and burden of becoming a failure in the eyes and standards of the rest of the world. But instead of bringing them closer, their struggles only drive more distance between them.
The loneliness of the story is best exemplified by the lack of language and communication between the characters. There is little meaningful conversation and the words that are exchanged are typically insults or derisive remarks intended to cut and hurt each other. In this family, it is the unspoken that resonates—the meaning and weight of the silences and gaps between words that reflect the true loneliness, hurt, and painful love that bind the family together. The words “I love you” are hardly, if ever, spoken. When language cannot be used to communicate, what other way can they express themselves except through their actions? In this manner, food becomes the primary vernacular for this family. In-mo is initially drawn to visit his mother not by any explicit invitation, but by her offer of chicken stew. He makes a point of noting that he usually rejects his mother’s invitations to come over for food but at that moment, in his solitude and dejectedness and failure after trying to live life by himself, the offer of food takes on a new meaning: it is the offer to have someone care for him, an offer of love and kindness that is entirely altruistic.
In his mother’s apartment, he is welcomed back with open arms and no questions asked, despite his feelings of shame and regret. Instead of finding comfort and solace, he is forced to face the reality of his situation and the emptiness he feels: “. . . as if I’d never been in love, the word felt so unfamiliar and foreign. I’d turned into a monster. A monster who’d lost all purpose in life, left emotionless and loveless from years of heavy drinking. This was how I saw myself at forty-eight.” This very idea of love takes on complicated meanings in the novel—there is invariably the typical romantic love between a man and a woman that the narrator yearns for, but there is also the idea of familial love, which is far more complex. Love for one’s family, in the narrator’s eyes, is tangled with feelings of sacrifice, duty, and obligation. It is a love that overlaps with resentment, hatred, and need. But above all, it is a love that cannot be articulated or expressed explicitly.
Perhaps this is why the mother tries to feed her family so well, making dinners laden with expensive meat even when she knows she cannot afford to do so. Mealtimes become the sole time in which the family spends time together despite all living under the same roof. Within this context, food becomes a language in itself, expressing in its silent existence far more than any of the words or conversations exchanged by the family members. Even In-mo’s own definition of what a normal family should be like hinges upon the motif of eating, envisioning “A warm bond between siblings, healthy and innocent kids, concern and consideration for one another, obedient and conscientious family members, a dinner table surrounded with love.” In-mo’s dream of a “dinner table surrounded with love” is a sharp contrast to the picture he paints of his own family, particularly during the early times of their reunion: “meat was served at the table for every meal, and we always ate every morsel like beggars tasting meat for the very first time. Others would have gotten sick of meat after a few meals, but the table was noisy with the sounds of us three siblings voraciously gnawing, chewing, and swallowing.”
In-mo’s description of family mealtime is far from flattering, rendering his family more like animals than the warm family in his imagination. Even in this scene, In-mo compares his family to others, what he thinks of as “normal” families, and his own family falls short. He treats their meals with suspicion, constantly questioning his mother’s motives, even going so far as to question her sanity for feeding them so well. Blinded by his suspicions, In-mo fails to recognize the true motive behind the elaborate meals: his mother’s selfless love and care for her family. It is because In-mo cannot comprehend the possibility of altruism—of doing something without expecting anything in return—that he misconstrues his mother’s intentions. The family meal thereby becomes the lens through which we see how In-mo views his own family.
It is fitting, then, that the nature of the family meal changes as In-mo’s own view of his family changes. The novel ends with the death of In-mo’s mother, what should be the disintegration of the family. Instead, her death highlights the transformation of their entire family throughout the course of the novel. Initially strangers that wanted nothing to do with each other, they are drawn together and find solace in each other in the face of their mother’s death. At her funeral, In-mo orders pizza for his niece and they eat together—a striking contrast to an earlier scene in which his niece ordered pizza for herself and refused to share. Eating, which had once emphasized each family member’s selfish desires, now is a way for them to care for one another. More importantly, he no longer compares his family’s actions to that of “others,” simply accepting them and recognizing that there is no set of requirements that they need to meet in order to be a family.
In-mo’s constant longing for a normal family brings up the question: What exactly is normal? And what exactly is a family? Ultimately, Modern Family becomes about the search for defining family on one’s own terms and that perhaps there is no such thing as a universal definition for family. Family is the unique, complex, and often painful, bond that links people to one another but above all, it is defined by sacrifice and the compulsion to sacrifice.
by Rachel Park