A Review of American Seoul: A Memoir by Helena Rho
April 8, 2022 § 2 Comments
By Jennifer Lang
It all starts by accident: a traumatic car crash one mundane morning after dropping off kids on the last day of summer camp in Pittsburgh. A pediatrician, Helena Rho stands up, rebuffs a paramedic telling her that she’s in shock, refuses the ambulance and ER, wrongly thinking she knows better, falsely believing she’s fine, and drives home. Not only does the accident leave her with lifelong debilitating pain, but it also serves as a harsh wake-up call to harsher truths about and traumas from being sexually harassed as a young girl in Uganda and years later in an American medical school; about being raised by an immigrant Korean mother with severe depression; about being married to an abusive man; about being unhappy in her chosen profession and her suppressed dream of writing; about feeling unloved by her family; about suffering racial discrimination in the workplace; and about choosing her American upbringing over her Korean heritage. That accident, which she describes in horrific slow-motion detail, serves as a long overdue, much-needed catalyst for change.
Change, expectations, and shame are recurring themes in Helena Rho’s memoir, American Seoul. Her parents bore four daughters and no living sons to carry on the family name. Because her father hailed from an aristocratic class and was “the jangsohn—the oldest son of the oldest son, that all-important, highest-ranking male of his generation, a patriarchal line that stretched back five hundred years”—they were burdened by shame. This led her father to uproot them to Uganda, where the dictator Idi Amin opened the country’s doors to Korean doctors.
In Uganda, Helena lost her mother tongue, where her “home became a silent vacuum as my parents, who were uncomfortable speaking English, chose not to talk to us rather than stumble and sound foolish.” She was taught English. She was told to be a good girl. She said nothing after the son of a family friend as well as her English tutor sexually abused her.
A few years later, after Amin issued exit visas, her family immigrated to the United States, where she does the majority of her schooling and becomes “the idiot who listened. My father, bereft of sons, insisted that one of his four girls had to become a doctor.” But from the moment Helena is accepted into medical school, she’s miserable, unable to withstand her parents’ scorn or disappointment, stifling her dreams.
Expectations pile one atop the other. All four daughters marry non-Korean men, “a moral crime…. My mother remained so opposed to this notion of tainting thousands of years of pure Korean blood that she does not attend Susan’s wedding, the first among the four sisters.”
Third in line, Helena is perceived, by her sisters and by the culture, as the most beautiful child, which perhaps explains why the other three resent her and refuse to help her when she later needs it. Then, Helena is expected to stay silent in her marriage to an unsupportive, unloving, narcissistic man. For decades, she’s trapped in her roles as wife, mother, daughter, sister, pediatrician with what seems like no way to break free.
Change comes in the most unexpected way, through a phone call from a Korean woman, who convinces Helena to enroll her children in a Korean-language school at the church and to sign up for Korean at the University of Pittsburgh, where Helena is pursuing an MFA, through a scholarship to study the language one summer in her country of birth.
In 2006, Helena meets Emo (her mother’s sister in Korean) and her first cousins, who welcome her with unconditional love and kindness, making Helena wonder: what if her parents had never left? What if she and her sisters had grown up there? How would their lives have been different?
Only after returning to her roots does Helena realize that she’s more like her mother,“who traversed oceans and entire continents… Yet she could not escape her self-imposed shame.” Helena, too, is ashamed of losing contact with her mentally-ill mother, of looking Korean but not sounding Korean, of telling her aunt and cousins she’ll return soon only for years to pass.
Emo corrects her, “What happened isn’t your fault. How your mother chose to live her life has nothing to do with you or your sisters.” She tells Helena that her mother was willful and spoiled and their mother’s favorite, “if the two girls argued, Emo had to apologize no matter whose fault it was.” Helena never knew her mother had been the family favorite, had never “considered the burden of expectations that she carried.”
Helena does a beautiful job of depicting the pushes and pulls of being born in one country but being raised in another by foreign parents. Like her, I am from one place, but live in a very different other one. Her cultural insights and linguistic lessons make me think of mine, how they affect my daily life, the way I approach my world.
Sometimes I reach for books because of their covers or the titles. In this case, both are stunning. The homonym of Seoul/soul makes me smile at its spot-on perfection. Until that car crash, Helena was not in touch with, but in denial of her emotional part of human nature, the seat of her feelings or sentiments: her soul.
Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, Jennifer holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity. When not at her desk, she is often on her yoga mat: practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003.