The novel, Clay Walls, is written by Ronyoung Kim, who was an American immigrant from Korea. Being a migrant living in America, Kim was able to relate well with the two generations represented in this novel. She pointed out the life experienced by the Korean immigrants in America and specifically in Los Angeles. She covered the life of the immigrants who lived in this area mainly between 1920s and 1940s. She was motivated in writing this novel by the fact that she could not let the life experienced by the migrant die without being highlighted.
The story focuses on a family of Haesu and Chun and their children Harold, John, and Faye. Haesu was from Yangban, which consisted of Korean elite class. She got into an arranged marriage with Chun, who came from Sangnom. This was a class which used to work for the Yangban. There was a huge difference in livelihood between these two classes of settlement between the Yangban and the Sangnom.
Chun and Haesu had to leave Korea and took exile in America because Chun was in the Japanese police list of the wanted Koreans for alleged political agitation. This was, however, a case of mistaken identity. Haesu was forced to accompany her husband and the novel follows her focusing on her life and transformation she went through in America, where they migrated. The novel also focuses on the relationship between her husband and her kids. .
Many hardships faced this family, including the challenge of adapting to the new American culture which was completely different from the Korean culture. There was a serious generation gap between Haesu and her children, who were born and brought up in the United States. She tried to bring them up in line with the Korean culture but this was a huge challenge since they had already adapted to the American culture. Things got tough for Haesu especially after Chun abandoned them and became addicted to gambling, which led to the fall of the family business and eventually his death.
In this paper, we are going to focus on the conflicts between the first generation consisting of the original immigrants and the second generation of those born in the United States. The main conflicts that will form the backbone of our discussion include the conflict of culture, mainly demonstrated by Haesu and Faye; the conflict between Chun and the children with Haesu on adaptation; the conflict between Haesu and the children arising from the way Haesu intended to bring them up.
There is a huge difference between the Korean and American cultures. Haesu has an approach to life which is completely different from her children. She is concerned with how Faye is handling life, which is against her will. She wants the kids to adapt and embrace the Korean culture but they oppose this because they have already got used to the American culture. Moreover, they do not take Korea to be their original home country in fact; they say their home is in Los Angeles. This can be seen from the statement they make about Korea: “‘I don’t know this place,’ John declared. ‘L.A.’s my home.’ He held his nose. ‘It stinks here.’ ” (98).
Haesu expect Faye to show her maximum respect just like she did to her own mother; this, however, does not happen and she is very offended by Faye’s behavior. She wanted to make Faye feel safe in the intimacy of their sharing the women’s quarters (111). The reality, dawns on her when she discovers that she is the one who has changed, and not her Korean culture.
Faye is unable to relate to some of her mother’s statements when they visited Korea, she does not like the way her mother treats her and expects her to behave. She tries to compare her mother with mothers of non-Asian acquaintances and she cannot find a connection. She feels bad when her mother keeps a close eye on whatever she does, including accompanying her to find a job. This conflict is revelled when Faye says: “I never knew when to be proud of Momma or when to be embarrassed. I hated having people stare at us and sometimes Momma seemed to go out of her way to make trouble. But, the way Mr. Seligman smiled at her told me she had done something right” (194-95). Haesu just wants her daughter to have a good life and be successful, which happens when Faye grows up. The short story “All American Girl”, which focuses on empowering the girl child, can be brought at this point in order to show how the teenage girl like Faye should handle life and any situation in it.
In the movie Hidden Korea the culture of the Korean people is demonstrated and it relates very well to the life that Haesu seems to like. In this movie, Korean culture is brought out clearly showing how people lived and attended to their day-to-day activities and also how the young respected the elderly, as Haesu expects her children to respect, listen to her, and obey her orders. The movie clearly demonstrates how the Koreans behaved, and it is the same way Haesu wants her children to approach life.
The other conflict is demonstrated on the bringing up of the children mainly by Haesu. The gap between the children and their parents, especially the gap between mother and daughter, seems to be more than just a generational conflict. The children do not seem to understand why their mother is so strict on them. Haesu is brought up in Korea, where all elders were respected and not questioned. The children talk back easily to their mother, showing very little respect, and Haesu is furious about it. This can be seen on the questions John asks, “why not” (70), when Haesu orders him to stop using the word bitch. Faye, on the other hand, declares that she does not want to curl her hair (62) when Haesu is preparing her to board the ship.
This conflict is clear and Haesu cannot seem to understand why her children are so rebellious. On the other hand, the children cannot understand Haesu and her culture and identity as a Korean, and this creates the distance between these two generations. Haesu tells the children that they cannot understand what she and their father went through, “You’ll never understand what your Papa and I went through” (190).
Faye and Haesu conflict when she discovers that in terms of bringing them up Haesu does not treat them as equal. She finds out that her mother treats the boys different from her and she cannot seem to understand this. Faye says, “I wondered how she could justify treating me one way and the boys another” (201-2). The unequal treatment does not seem to go well with Faye and it is a source of conflict between these two characters, and she even questions her identity as a female. She asks, “Momma, are you glad you’re a woman?” (202). This difference on bringing up the children is even more prominently demonstrated when Faye is being taught to cook rice, and she says, “I began to cook the rice every night and soon discovered that the first joint of my forefinger measured the right amount of water. The boys no longer complained” (196).
There is a conflict between Chun and the children. This arises when Chun becomes irresponsible, addicted to gambling and abandons his family. This conflict arises since Chun cannot support his family any longer, so he abandons his role and Haesu takes over. He stops supporting them and this responsibility is assumed by Haesu. It is clear that in the Korean culture the upbringing of a boy child is the responsibility of the father, while the mother raises girls.. Chun, however, runs away from his responsibility and leaves Haesu to handle the kids. At some point, the children are seen wondering about their father’s irresponsibility, and decided to ignore him.
When Haesu and the children go to Korea, Chun stays in America, due to addiction and irresponsibility he dies after collapsing their family business. It is clear that there was a conflict between Chun and Haesu, especially regarding adaptation to the new American life. Chun accuses Haesu of holding on to the Korean culture instead of adapting to the new culture. Haesu does not adapt easily to her new life in America, this is evident from the novel, “The Yangban class deemed themselves superior to any manual labor. This is why Haesu, is deeply humiliated by her menial jobs in America, while Chun accepts them quite well” (127).
In conclusion, it is evident that the conflict between the first generation of the original immigrants and the second generation of those born in America was a serious one. The conflict proved to be above generationally motivated when responsibility of the family members changed. There is a serious conflict between Haesu and Faye, which is brought about by some of the rules mothers imposes upon her daughter. The rules set between mother and daughter seem to be different to the boys who are expected to be the responsibility of their father.
The upbringing conflict is clear when the children are comparing the way their friends are brought up and the way their mother is bringing them up. The language used by the children is disapproved by their mother and the children cannot get the reason for it. This comes out when Haesu is ordering John to watch his use of words. This conflict comes due to the cultural difference between parents who migrated and the children born on the American soil.
Another generation gap is seen when Haesu claims that they cannot understand what they went through when they migrated. Lastly, a conflict arises between Chun and his children due to his irresponsibility and gambling addiction, which leads to the collapse of their family business. The other conflict is between the parents themselves, when Haesu seems to differ with Chun, especially when he abandons his responsibility and becomes a gambling addict.
It is thus clear that the conflict was inevitable considering the difference in the approach of life between these two generations. The first generation is, therefore, supposed to understand the second generation and their approach of life since they were born and raised in a different environment and state.
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