East Asia: Wrap-up!

Happy last-month of this hell year! We made it!

Welcome to the second to last update on my Own Voices Global Reading Challenge. I still have a month to go, but I can resolutely say that this challenge was exactly what I needed — and could a global reading challenge come at a better time than during a year when we’ve all been locked away inside our homes for nine whole months? In all seriousness, this challenge has really pushed my boundaries, exposed me to new things that I’ve loved, and introduced an entire wealth of knowledge and experience to me that I never would have been able to achieve otherwise (in this year, in particular!). I’ll write more about my reflections as the year officially draws to a close, but this month made me especially grateful that I went on this journey.

I faced the usual struggle that I faced every other month/region this year with East Asia, which was that most lists of reading recommendations I found were heavily biased towards Asian-American stories. Again, that isn’t particularly surprising since I’m doing my book hunting from a country that sees itself as the pinnacle of human achievement, so why bother looking for other views? *Sigh* It also comes down to the other two problems I’ve faced a lot this year — language/translation availability and the Western greed for “Other” trauma stories. That said, I’m pretty pleased with what I managed to read this month, despite the fact that two out of three authors spend a large amount of their time in the United States.

So, here is what I’ve read in November for East Asia!

What I Read

The Poppy War trilogy by R. F. Kuang (China): I’ve seen this book hyped around the internet for a while, but I kept delaying getting into it. It was always heaped with praise, and you know how easy it is to start to wonder if hype is just hype. I am here to say that The Poppy War trilogy by R. F. Kuang is my absolute favorite book series of all time. I finished the third book and immediately began planning when to start again. And I am a notorious anti-re-reader. This series is seriously that good. I couldn’t have picked a better time to read it actually — the final book was released two days before I finished the second book, and let me tell you there is no way in hell I would have been able to wait any amount of time to read book three. Telling the story of Fang Runin, The Poppy War is essentially a war trilogy (so if you can’t stomach gore and violence and trauma, avoid this series), but it delves more deeply into the evils of colonialism, imperialism, war-mongering, religion, self-determination, psychology, racism and colorism, and the complexities of human relationships, that it truly defies classification. It was the most satisfying, exhilarating, and explosive thing I’ve read in years, and I literally want to shout from the rooftops how brilliant it is. While Nikara is fictional, Kuang draws heavily from Chinese traditions and history to fabricate her story. It inspired me to do some research of my own into Chinese history and mythology, which is an area that Americans in particular are either unknowledgeable or mislead about. This series is heavy and hard to read at times, but overall, the nuance and power of this story is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Stay tuned for more ranting about how much I love this series.

Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-Sook (South Korea): A big gear shift for me coming off the high of fantasy China, Please Look After Mom is a beautiful, haunting, and moving story about the ways that we can lose and find ourselves in our relationships to others. Following the disappearance of their mother on a crowded Seoul train platform, So-nyo’s husband and children must come to terms with the woman they’ve lost, the ways in which they’ve led themselves to this crucial moment in time, and how they can refashion their lives in order to better serve each other and themselves. This was a very beautiful read! I especially enjoyed the way that the point of view and narrative styles switched between chapters. The use of second person in a few chapters really helped me to go deeper with some characters and emphasize with them more fully. The novel is a beautiful testament to the complexities of human experience and relationships, and how we can never really and deeply know someone else because we can’t live their life. Highly recommend!

Newcomer by Keigo Higashino (Japan): In another daring genre shift, I picked up this detective novel by Keigo Higashino. I love a good Agatha Christie style cozy murder plot where and entire cast of diverse characters not only become implicated in a murder but also have to work out any kinks in their lives along the way with the help of a charming and genius detective. Set in a suburb of Tokyo, this novel follows the investigation of Detective Kaga as he uses creative and somewhat unorthodox methods to find the person who strangled a woman in her apartment. Each chapter focuses on a different group of people who might be related to the case in some way. I enjoyed the almost short-story style of the narrative, bouncing between shops and families as the detective nosed around and unearthed other mysteries and miscommunications along the way, but I did often find myself distracted from the murder. In fact, I think I found myself more invested in the trivialities of the neighbors lives than I was in the murder itself, and as a result, I felt really disconnected from the murder victim. I still enjoyed the book though I lost a little interest by the end, and I particularly liked the descriptions of life in Nihonbashi — I often felt like I was sitting outside a cafe with Kaga as he made some unwitting neighbor squirm with on-the-nose questions. Overall, I enjoyed this brief visit to Tokyo!

Further Reading

How to Talk to Ghosts: In honor of the publication of the final book in The Poppy War series late in the month, author R. F. Kuang spoke to NPR about her trilogy and the inspiration behind Rin, the heroine of the series. I found it incredibly interesting that she based the characterization of Rin on Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Zedong. I found this great essay she wrote for Uncanny Magazine called “How to Talk to Ghosts”, in which she explores the nature of ghosts and the ways in which people can be haunted by them. Kuang is a master writer and thinker, and I really enjoy everything she writes, so I highly recommend checking out this essay, even if you aren’t interested in her novels. Kuang writes brilliantly on the immigrant experiences in ways that I hadn’t considered before.

BTS Law for South Korean Conscription: I found this on accident as I was writing this blog post, and I fell into a rabbit hole. I sort of kinda knew vaguely that there were conscription laws in South Korea for all male citizens, but I have to admit that even that precursory knowledge was brought to me by K-Pop. The article spawned an hour long Wikipedia journey in which I started at “South Korean conscription” and ended up — as with most things — fuming about American imperialism. But I want to take this on another tangent — the power of the teen fangirl. The BTS Army made headlines over the summer as they organized to not only push BTS to donate $1 million to Black Lives Matter campaigns following the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as well as subsequent national protests, but also organized the fandom itself to match and then exceed the group’s contribution. The BTS Army is proving itself a force to be reckoned with. Since the time of Elvis and the Beatles, teen girls have been powering the music industry and the male celebrity more generally, and now it seems that their loyalty, devotion, and most importantly spending dollars, have managed to change South Korean law. I’m interested to see what will happen in another two years when the oldest BTS member reaches the new conscription age. Hats off to the fangirls of the world, who supported BTS with so much vigor, devotion, and energy that world leaders couldn’t help but notice! That’s girl power, baby.

Japan’s Labor System: Another timely piece, and another one that — you guessed it! — led me down a rabbit hole! While doing some research, I stumbled across an article about the rising rates of suicide in Japan in response to COVID-19, especially among women. I’d heard similar findings about the mental and emotional toll that the virus is taking on American women, and I was disheartened to hear that this is the case in a lot of other places as well. As I was reading about the crisis in Japan, I noticed some terminology that I thought I understood but also found incongruous in the article — when they were saying “non-regular” workers, I thought they were talking about part-time or gig work as its understood in the American economy. I did a little research however and found that Japan is actually working inside a labor system of “regular” or permanent employees versus “non-regular” or non-permanent employees that remains from Japan’s efforts to rebuild their economy at the end of WWII. Basically, the program incentivizes employees to stay with a company and work harder for them by ensuring a job for life — making it nearly impossible to be fired, ensuring large bonuses and stable pay, and other perks for regular employees. However, in the past few decades, following bubbles and bursts in the Japanese economy, the reliance on “non-regular” workers, who can be fired often without cause, are paid significantly less, and overall enjoy far fewer employment protections and stability, has become more popular and the “regular” worker system is beginning to fade away, leading to labor exploitation. I found this article interesting because I, and so many others, have faced a lot of job insecurity over the past few years. It will be interesting to see how this develops in the next few years, especially as we begin to deal with the havoc that the virus has wrecked on the global economy.

Overall, this was a really great month for my reading. I read some amazing books, learned a lot of new things about cultures and countries that I was unfamiliar with, and found my new favorite series ever (I’m already planning my reread).

Next month, we finish our trot around the globe with Oceania. I’m already having a hell of a time finding books that aren’t solely white Australians, so wish me luck! Stay warm, read a good book, and until next time, dear reader!

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