Although Ch’ae Man-Sik’s (June 17, 1902 – June 11, 1950) three-story collection “My Innocent Uncle” was written between the 1930s to 1940s, decades before my newfound interest in Korean literature (or the Hallyu phenomenon, for that matter), reading it in 2014 still sends brilliant a-ha moments to me.
Granted, that I am a foreign reader whose life experience is starkly different from a Korean’s, still there are strains of truth that translate almost seamlessly to a Southeast Asian like me: the desire for freedom, that appetite for education, and a well-schooled youth’s unsettling uncertainty about the future.
Reading the satires of Ch’ae, I can’t help but relate with the desolation of the characters simply because what I am reading about is that face of a Korea that was not even on the brink of the economic miracle that we know. Ch’ae’s characters are either set in during the colonization period of the Japanese, or just after it.
The first story, from which the book title was taken, tells the story of an intellectual—the uncle—who was educated in Tokyo and who adopted “socialist” beliefs.
Told from the point of view of his un-schooled but streetwise nephew, Ch’ae skillfully illuminates how the working class of that time viewed the intellectuals of that time, and vice versa. That is, intellectuals were viewed by the working class as people who waste away their lives in idle talk and drinking–what the narrator funnily termed as “scotchalism”, and which some literary analysts say might be the narrator’s way of saying socialism.
Meanwhile, these intellectuals see the working class as pitiful people who slave away at menial work under the Japanese in the hopes of being rewarded with a money and position, and as pitiful people who will readily strip away their Korean identity (changing their name to Japanese, marrying a bride from Japan, speaking the language).
Here, I see how education poses a stark contrast between the willingness to work the mind and the body—a divide that may seem all-too familiar to anyone whose country is plagued by inequality.
Chae’s exploration of education and inequality’s impact on Korea continues with the story “A Ready-Made Life”, which tells us how another Tokyo-educated Korean, identified in the story as P, is just one of many jobless intellectuals who could have been productive members of society but who are deprived of a chance to be useful during colonial Korea. He spends his days drinking, daydreaming, and engaging in idle talks with people like him.
Of the three stories in this book, this is the one that could potentially resonate most with young people who worry about an uncertain future despite the diploma they earned. In a world where economic uncertainty pervades, seeing one’s self in a story that was written in the 1930s is possible.
Last but not least in the series is “Once Upon a Paddy”, the story of a farmer who makes the mistake of selling his land to a Japanese during the colonial period, and who also mistakenly assumes that he can get it once the Japanese get kicked out of Korea. This makes him the laughingstock of the village.
The story thus makes for a bittersweet view of farmers who, I realized after reading this, always seem to get left behind. They got left behind during the economic boom from the 1960s onwards, and from this story, it seems that they got left behind even before then, too. This reminds me of how similar it is in my country—about how farmers get left behind and how they, in turn, feel hopeless. And how there are people like Ch’ae Man-Sik, whose brave and insightful writing illuminates their plight.
It’s amazing how, in reading this, there are many points of connection between me as a foreign reader and the Korea, and between me as a present day reader and the Korea that was in the 1930s and 1940s. Amazing, too, how these connections shed light on myself and my understanding of the world around me, which is how great writing should be.