A slim memoir about life in Korea from the mid-1930s through the Korean War and beyond.
As a small child, Oh (co-author, The Korean Embassy in America, 2003, etc.) expressed dismay when kids teased her about her masculine-sounding first name, Bongwan, which translates as “Phoenix in a Jade Bowl.” Her father explained that he didn’t want to impose gender restrictions on his eldest daughter; he wished her to be able to rise from the ashes like the legendary phoenix while also remaining grounded in the real world, like a jade vase. Oh’s affecting portrait of her family’s struggles begins in Seoul with Japanese colonialism—she was forced to salute Japan’s “Rising Sun” flag in school—but her father, an intellectual lawyer, retained pride in his heritage, refused to change the family surname and taught his children the Korean language. The author’s laconic, fast-moving prose offers memorably poignant moments, including an account of the death of her younger brother. Her mother eventually had seven children, and the author, barely into puberty, was forced to grow up quickly and act as a surrogate parent to her siblings during tough times. Fear and hunger permeate most of her memories; for example, Oh spent her 11th birthday standing in a rice ration line on V-J Day in 1945, when Korea was liberated from the Japanese. The family’s troubles didn’t end there, however; while they lived under American rule, Oh’s father was unjustly jailed, North Korean occupation ultimately began in the south, and the author was temporarily imprisoned in a North Korean “Volunteer Youth Corps” at a boarding school. One moving section depicts Oh’s migration as a war refugee during the “One-Four Retreat,” in which she and her siblings packed into an overly crowded train during a bitterly cold winter. Despite their hardships, Oh’s parents always emphasized education, and she eventually graduated as a valedictorian and was accepted into a mostly male university, paving the way for her later journey to America.
A powerfully understated memoir that offers a glimpse into Korean history and a story of the strength of familial bonds.