- Aboji, nan nuguyeyo (Dad, who am I?)
In his 1837 essay "The American Scholar," Emerson pronounced that democracy ushers in major changes not only in politics but in literature as well. With "the elevation of what was called the lowest class in the state. . . .That which had been negligently trodden underfoot . . . is suddenly found to be richer. The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time." And in a particularly vivid personification of the vigor democracy brings to the hitherto despised classes of the nation, he added, it is as if "the extremities are made active, when currents of warm life run into the hands and feet."
If democracy transforms literature, does democracy also transform history and history-writing? Is there a democratic history, and what would be the uses of such a history? Who should write it and what should it deal with?
Aboji, nan nuguyeyo (Dad, who am I?) is a volume of little more than 250 pages, written and edited by a youngish history professor and a group of his students who are mostly in their twenties. It was begun, we are told, as an attempt to examine every nook and cranny of South Korean society through the eyes and ears of the n. (new) generation. All the entries except the preface are written by the students, and each is a personal account of the life of an ordinary South Korean family from the 1970s through the 1990s. Since most of the students are from middle-class families, the thirty-seven personal narratives present an unfiltered view of thirty-seven separate slices of South Korean middle-class family life, each seen, experienced, and represented by a member of that family. If there is one thing that ties these disparate accounts together, it is that they are all insistently personal narratives, describing how each family struggled to cope with one or another of the major problems every middle-class family must deal with on a daily basis.
For example, the very first narrative describes in detail how a school teacher, Mr. Hong—probably the father of the writer—beginning with a bicycle in 1973, graduates to a motorcycle in 1980, and then to a car in 1990. And upon retiring after twenty-seven years of teaching, he buys a family van in which he and his wife could make visits to the different cities where their children now work and live. This mini-history about the changes in the school teacher Mr. Hong's means of transportation from the early '70s through the '90s is, of course, the story of one family, but it's also more than that, for through it we also see the economic and social changes that took place in the larger South Korean society during this period, typified here in the shift from the bicycle to the motorcycle and to the car.
The following are the titles of some of the other narratives in this volume: "The History of One Salary Man's Efforts at Obtaining a House of His Own"; [End Page 288] "A Civil Servant's Family Life Seen through his Monthly Pay Envelope"; and "The History of Policeman Ch'oe and his Family's Moving." Another individual yet representative mini-history is that of the twenty-six-day disappearance of a newspaper reporter and his subsequent eight-year unemployment during the years of military dictatorship and the effects these events had on his family as seen through the eye of his child. There are also "coming of age" autobiographical essays on such topics as a young boy's loss of faith; the first experience of love; the disastrous effects of the International Monetary Fund crisis on one particular family; and the "hell" of South Korea's university entrance examination system.
In these mini-histories and essays, as Professor Paik suggests, we read the contemporary history of South Korea written in 2000 by the "new generation." What is unusual about this history...