In “Pachinko,” Min Jin Lee weaves a multigenerational story of a Korean family in Japan from the pre-WWII Japanese occupation of Korea to the 1980s. Surviving–or not–war, partition, discrimination, and rejection, the Baek/Boku/Park family rises from desperate poverty to wealth through shrewd entrepreneurship, an unstoppable work ethic, and pachinko, a gambling business of dubious respectability that is one of the few sectors open to Koreans, even those for whom Japanese is their first language and who can “pass” as Japanese.
The book is fairly epic in scale, and is consequently not an extremely quick read. Readers should not be dissuaded from trying it, however, as it tells a fascinating tale of a society that features all too rarely in English-language literature. The narrative jumps along in fits and starts, occasionally skipping over key events or dropping bombshells and then rushing off in another direction, but the story of the Korean immigration to Japan, and of the Baek family, is nonetheless engrossing, full of drama and interest as the characters struggle to pull themselves out of abject poverty during the pre-war and war years, and then to fight their way past bullying and discrimination, and somehow hold their family together in the face of external and internal pressures, in the post–war years. The older Koreans want to return to their homeland, but their homeland has become two homelands–half the family is from what is now South Korea, and half the family is from Pyongyang–and reports coming from both Seoul and Pyongyang are not encouraging. The younger generation considers Japan to be their home, but Japan does not return the favor, and even third-generation immigrants are not Japanese citizens and have to submit to fingerprinting and monitoring in return for being allowed to stay in the only home they’ve ever known.
The story of the immigrant to America is well-known; “Pachinko” takes the immigrant narrative and turns it around by taking the same story and setting it on the other side of the Pacific. Readers of immigrant literature will find much that is familiar here, but there are some startling differences, especially the issues surrounding immigrants to a country that, unlike the US, is homogenous and mono-cultural. Unlike Korean immigrants in the US, the Koreans in Lee’s book can “pass” as natives and members of the dominant culture, which makes the dominant culture all the more determined to mark them as separate and different. Differences in clothing and cuisine are dwelt upon at length, and the younger characters are forced to worry about smelling like garlic and kimchi at school, something impossible to avoid when your family is supported by home-made kimchi.
Which brings us to my personal favorite thing about the book: the luscious descriptions of Korean, Japanese, and hybrid food! Cooking forms a major part of the female characters’ activities, and the male characters are no slouch at eating, either 🙂 Not only did I learn about a number of Korean and Japanese dishes I hadn’t heard of before, but I was filled with inspiration to make some of my own. Lovers of East Asian food, or anyone who loves reading and thinking about food, should read this book for that reason alone! The immigrant experience in “Pachinko” is one where poverty fills others with suspicion and scorn, but wealth occasions even more suspicion. Food, though, holds the family and the community together, allowing the characters to maintain a link to their homeland and demonstrate their care for each other in a concrete, hands-on fashion. A delicious read for anyone interested in Korean or East Asian culture.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.
Grab your own copy here: Pachinko