A Korean American friend of mine recommended “Re Jane” by Patricia Park (reviewed by NYT in May 2015) and I was captivated by the synopsis and especially how the novel dove into the concept of Nunchi. I was about half way through the book when I unexpected ran into this sleepless night. Maybe I had thought the book may help me sleep, but no. Just like a very best book would, it kept me company all night.
This is a story about a half-Korean, half-American girl named Jane Re, who grew up in flushing- a super Korean/Chinese neighborhood- with her uncle. She’s only heard of her parents, her father being a military guy and her mother being a Korean woman, and that they met in Korea and gave her an unwanted birth. Her uncle is an abrasive character, typically Korean in his authoritative and unemotional demeanors, with some tough love in him. Jane Re falls into an au pair job in Brooklyn after college, in a household with two white American parents and a Chinese adoptee. Before she knows it, Jane falls in love with Ed Farley, the husband and father in the house she works in, who is the opposite of her uncle, communicative and kind. Unable to figure out what to do, she leaves her job in Brooklyn and moves to Korea with an English teaching job. She lives with her aunt (her mother’s sister) and adjusts to the urban life in Korea where she is expected to dress up every day and put on impeccable make up. She meets a Korean guy, Changhoon, who she falls in love with, only to break off her engagement with him and return to the US. She meets up with Ed Farley again, and explores that relationship, but the story ends with her on the 7 train in New York City with no dramatic ending or closure.
I really like how realistic the story line is, and what speaks to me about the story of Jane Re, unsurprisingly, is her struggle to find herself between Korean and American culture, with all their nuances, prejudices, expectations. Her being mixed adds to the layers- that she isn’t accepted as a member of either community.
The concept of nunchi is layered beautifully in the story. Nunchi is a Korean concept which does not have any direct translation into English, perhaps best described as an ability to read the situation and act in a way that is expected of you. It is all circumstantial, and in a way oppressing! It puts one in a position where one must automatically know what to do. As a Korean woman, I am familiar with this concept. You must bow here, you must pretend to say no, you must know when the other person is pretending to say no, the list goes on. This is polar opposite of what Judaism teaches- which encourages questioning of the authority, rather than readily accepting and acting accordingly. There is a scene in Re Jane where her friend Eunice tells Jane “Lose the nunchi, Jane!” I have had my imaginary friend Eunice tell me “Lose the nunchi, Jung!” for quite some time now.
The romantic relationships that Jane Re have are sincere in its own right, and appropriate for the context. But we all know the feeling, when we were in love with the idea of love, but not with the person? or when we were in love with who I thought I could be when I was with the person, but not with the person himself/herself? Ali Wong‘s recent show Baby Cobra (streaming on netflix!) on strong-willed Asian girls dating white guys laughs at Asian girls dating white guys, feeling like they are “colonizing the colonizers!” and feeling empowered for that reason. ha! Yes it can be offensive, but you get the drift. I mean, this would NOT be the right reason to date a person.
In Re Jane, Jane’s friend Nina visits Jane in Korea, and meets Changhoon. When Nina leaves Korea, she tells Jane that she thinks she is not really in love with Changhoon. She says “it’s like you are on a job interview and you’re afraid you’ll blow it.” After Jane breaks up with Changhoon, she thinks to herself that marrying him would have provided “the ultimate stamp of legitimacy for me in this not-quite motherland.”
While I had never thought about my relationship through this lens, I could not deny that Jane’s struggle resonated with me, especially as I explore conversion to Judaism. Yes, sometimes, it does feel like I am putting on a mask that does not belong to me, which sounds eerily similar to what we do in our job interview, despite people saying ” you just gotta be yourself!” And yes, conversion process, if I don’t find AND embrace some meaning and reason for my own self, will serve as that “stamp.” My imaginary friend Nina tells me to hold onto myself in this process.
As Jane’s aunt explains how her uncle who raised her immigrated to the US, she says “it takes a certain kind of person to go through immigration. You get broken. Only the strongest can put themselves back together again. But even then… even then you can never return to what you were before.”
I’ve been on many journeys which made me who I am, very different from who I was. And Jane Re came into my life just at the right time, as a comforter, and sage.