Young-adult author Lee follows a Korean American woman, adopted as a baby by an American family, to her homeland to learn the language and find her birth mother.
Korean by ethnicity but American to the core culturally, Sarah Thorson is almost 20 when she announces that for her graduation trip she wants to go to Korea. Her worried, blue-eyed parents of Eden’s Prairie, Minnesota, tell her: “You don’t have to do this to yourself.” As part of the Motherland Program at Chosun University in Seoul, Sarah joins other Korean American students who are trying to mold an identity—except that Sarah, whose name sounds like “child for purchase” in Korean, doesn’t know a word of the language, can’t even communicate to buy something to eat. While she is making new friends—like Jun-Ho, a Korean soldier at the Balzac Café, whose malapropisms charm her; and the Korean-American Doug, in her program, who becomes her protective boyfriend—there emerges a mirror narrative concerning the life of a woman who might or might not be Sarah’s birth mother. Kyung-Sook has been selling shrimp at the market in Enduring Pine Village for 20 years, married to a man who didn’t sire the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1972. Lee’s story is an unflinching examination of identity, as Sarah continually asks who she is: the Fabulous Sarah of her high-school years? Or a Korean “Twinkie,” yellow on the outside, white on the inside? The other students are derisive, asking whether the majority of Koreans in the States can trace “their way back to some Korean whore who hooked up with a GI”? The dual narratives are effective, though the plotting tends to get heavily scripted, as Sarah, for example, appears on a TV show about missing persons, and ends up playing the same kind of flute, the taegum, that Kyung-Sook once played.
Nonetheless, Lee’s first adult outing is an authentic, emotionally powerful portrayal of two cultures.