The Relatable Book

I finished my project on my grandpa and I finished The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and thought I would talk about both, since I felt like the two topics intertwine with each other. I have a lot to say about both subjects, so this post became an essay – which I’m really sorry about! I didn’t mean for the post to be so long. I know I’ve mentioned the topic of my grandpa a couple times but this will be the last time (I swear!) because all of this information was basically the culmination of my project.

This past week I finished my presentation that I did about the “Letters of Park Byoung Won” (my grandfather). The class I took was called “The History of Recorded Information”, which explores the history and transformation of information within society. So this includes documents and a wide variety of books. For our project, we were supposed to pick an artifact or a document and I chose to do my project about the written letter.

A few reasons I chose to do this project was because

  1. I got to learn more about my family history. Even though I was close with my grandfather, he passed away when I was really young, so I didn’t get to know him as a person
  2. I got to learn a bit about Korean history
  3. I was interested in the letter when it’s the only and main form of communication that you have.

My grandfather was born in the year 1912, in a town called Sinuiju (신의주), Korea. Sinuiju is now located in North Korea because the town is located at the very top of the country, right near the border of China. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, my grandfather escaped (via walking) south with his oldest son (my uncle, who now lives in South Korea). His original plan was to come back for the rest of his family when the war ended but the war never ended, and so that was the last time he ever saw his family. His first wife also came from a rich family and her brother worked in the government, so they had some amount of safety even during the war.

Lots of Korean families became divided this way. If you stop a Korean grandma or grandpa on the streets in South Korea, it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that they have or had family in North Korea. That may be an exaggeration but basically there are a lot of divided Korean families. In 2000, during the inter-Korea negotiations for a reunion, over 10,000 families finally discovered whether their family was even dead or alive. And I would be surprised if there were more people, who still don’t know the status of their family members on the other side of the divided line.

But my grandfather was privileged in some way because he got to send letters to them. The postal service doesn’t exist between North and South Korea. North Korea also operates on their own technology, so normal means of communication don’t exist (i.e. e-mail, Skype or telephone calls). What my uncle did was send letters to the United States to my grandfather, and my grandfather sent the letters over to North Korea (and vice versa).

And even though they weren’t allowed to write any sensitive information in the letters, I think that there is something really personal about the written letter when it’s the only thing you get to see from your family members. You can’t see their faces but you can at least see their handwriting. In one of the letters that my grandfather saved from his daughter, she says, “We read your letter together and cried because it was like seeing you again.”

It also made me appreciate the power of the written language. The Korean written language was created by King Sejong and his team in the 1400s. He created the Korean written language because he wanted to encourage widespread literacy (among other reasons). This is a translated quote,

“Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings. Therefore, many common people have no way to express their thoughts and feelings. Out of my sympathy for their difficulties, I have created a set of 28 letters. The letters are very easy to learn, and it is my fervent hope that they improve the quality of life of all people.”

And simple lines like, “When can we see each other again?” felt really sad and really depressing to think about. My grandfather passed away without ever getting to see his children and my uncle is a little over 80 years old now, with no chance of seeing his sisters or brothers again. Lots of Koreans will pass away without seeing their family members and soon there will be no one left. What does that mean when that happens?

I know that sometimes people don’t care much for their family and I understand. My own father is an alcoholic with a tendency to get violent and angry. I won’t get into too many details because the details are unpleasant but basically, it’s not fun dealing with an angry drunk person. My mom likes to complain about my character all the time and compares me to my sister almost every day. My parents fight nearly every day about the most silliest things. I come home from work and the first thing they do is either complain about me or fight with each other. We move homes at least every 2-4 years. We’ve always been poor. So yeah, not fun. At one point, everything felt so sucky that I was depressed for a period of time and went to therapy and sobbed every single session like my life was ending.

So basically, I understand when people say they hate their family.

But then I also understand what a big deal family is. My grandfather didn’t even get to fight with his children because he never got to see them. Even fighting with them is a privilege that some people don’t have. And even though life sucks and my parents suck, family is still really important to me.

And in this way, I really related to the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. There are a lot of different themes that I can talk on and on about but basically this book was awesome (definitely 5 stars). Even though I can’t understand his Indian/Native American experiences, I understood what it’s like to make yourself feel vulnerable. Because that’s what he did when he decided to leave the reservation to go to a school with all white people. He’s poor. His family’s poor. Family is a big deal to him and his father is a drunk.

There are so many great passages but there was one moment when Junior was talking about his dad.

Yep, my daddy was an undependable drunk. But he’d never missed any of my organized games, concerts, plays or picnics. He may not have loved me perfectly, but he loved me as well as he could.

Junior has a really great view on life. He’s witty and observant. And despite the fact that obstacles are constantly thrown his way, he never loses his sense of humor and he never stops trying. Because it’s so easy to become depressed and to stop trying.

I read a lot of fantasy and one of the reasons I love fantasy so much is because you’re escaping real life for a moment. But sometimes I appreciate books based on real life experiences because they show you how other people approach life. And sometimes they approach life in a really awesome and beautiful way.

Here’s the summary of the book… which I’ll end with because this post is way too long. As always, thanks so much for reading!

Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.

Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.

15 thoughts on “The Relatable Book

  • I enjoyed this particular post! It’s always interesting read on history, especially when someone’s life reflects it. My own grandmother went through the period of Japanese Occupation, and she was forced to learn Japanese during the cultural obliteration of Korea. She also went through the Korean war as well, like most other grandpas and grandmas did. I regret not asking more about history of her personal life back when I was with her, and I’ll never get to learn more about her now. It’s fortunate that you have something written left of him. I hope you had unforgettable experience doing this project!

  • Damn. I had to pause a second after reading about your grandfather. My parents were also split from their families when the VN war broke out to take refuge in our current country. Luckily, we’ve had the opportunity to go visit members who didn’t make it out. I can’t imagine how it must feel for the populations that never got to reunite with their family. I’m similar when it comes to family. We all have our ups and downs but I couldn’t imagine myself without them.

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s a good topic to reflect about and reminds me to count my blessings. I will definitely add that book to my list! It sounds right up my alley.

  • I had a chance to read some of his work: and I loved Sherman Alexie’s work and it helps that I understand the some of the dynamics of said Native America population due to having Native friends and hearing how their lives and their stories are. It’s important to keep those aspects alive. I wish I knew more about my own family because of my European descent on my mother’s and native population of El Salvador well Central American and Spanish on my father’s side. I do know that I am Jewish ethnically and have probably lost a few or maybe a lot of relatives in the Holocaust. It haunts my nana a lot and me too just thinking about it. The stories that will never be told…it makes me beyond sad. It is heart wrenching but I am glad that you at least got your grandfather’s story, no matter how painful because it made him, him in the end and shaped your whole family, I bet.

  • Thanks for sharing more about your grandpa! That must have been amazing to be able to read the letters your grandpa saved. It’s so sad how Korean families are divided that way, and I was heartbroken to hear that your grandpa wasn’t able to see his children before he passed. I’m glad they were able to communicate in some way at least. I also didn’t know about the origin of the Korean written language, so I thought that was really interesting.

    Family is a big deal to me too, because that was the way I was raised. My parents and relatives immigrated over to the US during different times, and when they all got here, they made sure to really stick together and be there for each other. I haven’t heard of that book before, but now I’m interested in it!

  • Thank you for telling us about your grandfather. It’s really sad how families are divided that way.

    “Even fighting with them is a privilege some people don’t have”, now I had to pause on that and I’d like to really thank you for making me realize and remember the blessings I keep forgetting I have.

    I’ll definitely add that to my reading list :)

  • That book sounds fantastic and I’m totally adding it to my list, so thanks for the rec!

    Perhaps this is a daft question, but how did your parent get out of Korea? You said that your grandfather and your uncle left, but everyone else was still in N. Korea? Or did your grandfather have more children once he was gone? I’m guessing it’s the second one, since you said his first wife. But just wanted to clarify for myself.

    It’s a fascinating story and you’re smart for looking into it more. I often wonder about my family history, especially my father’s family, which fled Latvia in WWII and lived in France for awhile and then came to the US. How fascinating it must have been. Alas, there are no letter that I know of and all parties involved are dead now. But I definitely enjoyed reading a bit about your family history!

    • You’re right – my dad is from my grandpa’s second marriage. My grandpa met his second wife later in South Korea (she lost family in North Korea too) and a part of me thinks a part of the marriage was because he needed a wife to take care of his son.

      And you should definitely look into it! There’s lots of resources available on genealogy and history if you know where to look.

  • Thanks for sharing, Rezina. This sounds like an amazing project, and I am glad you were able to learn more about your family and its heritage. Reading about how your grandfather lost his first family is sad, but I’m glad he was able to still write letters to them and vice versa. It is a shame he never got to be reunited with them.

    I can believe the fact that there are many divided families in Korea, and it’s unfortunate. I don’t think my mum’s family are divided, but I never asked. That’s something I should ask.

    The Korean language is interesting, and I am actually glad King Sejong invented the Korean alphabet. It’s much simpler and adapted for the Korean language. It’s good he also wanted to encourage literacy for the common folks in Korea. It’s made learning the language easier for me, though I still suck at Korean spelling.

    I love it when we come upon books that speak to us. Thank you for sharing your own personal life and how the book fits with you. I’ve not heard of this book, but I am now curious about it. I agree that fantasy books are great for escaping realities, but I also like slice-of-life books because sometimes I need books to root me, and to just read about relatable issues and situations.

  • i always think it’s impressive how you’re curious about your family history and is keen on studying as well as understanding it. it’s like how a protagonist of a book learns his or her past through family records and lore haha. i find history interesting and i’m interested to learn more but i don’t care about my family’s history; i don’t even know if my family has any decent history to study for! i think it’s because i’m not like an immigrant or anything in this country and my family’s citizenship is that of Indonesia so yeah, it won’t be as interesting as yours. i mean, am i making sense here? unlike your circumstances, my family is just not much of something with lots of historical backgrounds, ya know…

    So basically, I understand when people say they hate their family.

    thank you for understanding. i don’t hate my family per se but my parents are emotionally abusive and they refuse to acknowledge their mistakes that my relationship with them as really rough and i hate the treatment and shiz they do to me (it’s different from me hating them as, well…them, if that makes sense). they’re definitely the kind of asian parents who see themselves as flawless and are doing things to shape me. like your mom, mine complains about me a lot too that it’s starting to become a daily supplement for myself. i’m not gonna rant or anything but i’m just glad you wrote that sentence because it’s very understanding of you since most people would get all pretentious and be like, “omg you can’t hate your parents! they’ve done so much for you bla bla bla” – sayings like this make me sick because it IS possible for family to be toxic and manipulative.

    when it comes to relationships with family, it’s really difficult to say. for instance, you understand things differently and carry a different perspective because you get to see, learn and understand things based on your family history while i have a different view on this kind of stuff due to the family that I have to deal with. regardless, it’s always a magical experience to find and read a book that is very relatable to us. i don’t read a lot of non-fiction but i’m glad you find a book that broadens your perspective.

  • Hey, talk about anything all you want- this is your blog and I enjoy reading some neat history you share.

    It’s great that you took advantage of this project and learned more about your family history. It’s always upsetting to hear families being divided because of events such as war. Wow, sending mail to North Korea sounds complicated. Though, it does make sense because NK likes to be their own bubble.

    I’ve always wondered about how different languages came to be. I’ve seen Chinese characters looking super complicated compared to Korean and Japanese.

    Even though it’s easier for us to be with our families these days, I do see that it’s not all rainbows and puppies. Though, there are always some sort of challenges present. We just need to find a way to cope with it :I.

    Thank you for sharing the history of your family. It’s good to read and be reminded about the importance of knowing more about your family’s past.

  • I don’t remember why, but I remember that this book was really popular when I was in middle school! I loved reading about how you related to this book. And wow, a lot happened in your grandfather’s life. The mail system that your uncle and grandfather had is very interesting, and speaks volumes about the social climate during that time. Thanks for sharing! -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey’s

  • Thank you for posting this! I always enjoy learning more about the history of the world, and I’ve recently come to find Korea’s history particularly interesting. I love the written word, and the fact that letters used to be the only method of communication for some families tells me that the written word will never die. I remember I used to write letters to my uncle who lives in the countryside when I was younger. As I grew up I phoned him more, but every now and then I revert back to snail mail and it gives me a sense of nostalgia.

    Family is definitely a big deal. My parents don’t get along, and I feel like I get compared to my sister often who is younger than me but is excelling more academically that I ever did at her age. As the oldest, I feel like a failure most of the time. At the same time, I count my blessings that I still have the support of my family even if they’re not perfect.

    I’ve never heard of this book, but I will definitely need to check it out!

  • I thought this post was really interesting, so I don’t know why you’re apologising! It’s great to learn about history and I find Korea’s fascinating. It’s so sad that people were separated from their families. I can’t believe your grandfather went his whole life not knowing some of his relatives. That’s awful. It’s so weird to think that some people still have to live live that.

    Family is definitely important. I don’t know what I’d do without mine. They’ve always been there to me when things are difficult and I can’t imagine a life without them.

  • Oh Rezina, once again, you’ve shared another beautifully written and touching blog post. I love learning about your grandfather (I also enjoy reading biographies and autobiographies, so that snippet definitely hit the spot). It is so heartbreaking to know that so many divided families will not see each other again before they pass away. And your strength definitely shines through in this post as you’ve endured through some rough challenges at home with your parents, but you are able to share this and allow yourself to move beyond it. You have such a strong voice with very well chosen words and direction. (I’m such a rambler, even my boss commented on it today!)

    And on family, although I have a positive relationship with my parents, I haven’t started truly appreciating them until recently. When I was younger, I used to hate that they didn’t know English or needed me to help them with basic tasks. I felt like I had to be the parent and that I couldn’t just be a kid. I also hated being poor and I used to blame my parents for that, but I can’t really fault them for that since they did immigrate with me and my sister to the US from Vietnam. I was so tough on my parents. Now, I keep telling myself I need to call my mom more often, and that I need to be more forgiving and patient with my parents. Ah I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but your talk about the importance of family definitely resonates with me.

    Seriously your blog is the epitome of personal blog writing! I feel so lazy with my photo dumps. XD

  • I know that you were talking about this book and how relatable it was, and how it’s a breath of fresh air from the fantasy novels out there – but what really gripped me was the story of your grandfather. You told it so beautifully, even though a lot of it seemed really sad. I learned a little bit about Korean history because of what you wrote. It sounds naive but I honestly didn’t know how badly the war divided families, especially between North and South Korea. Quite recently I read about North Korea and I have yet to watch a TED talk I saw from a woman who had escaped North Korea. It’s just extremely sad that a lot of people were unable to see their family for most of their lives.

    I love that you brought up the fact that a lot of people don’t like their families. It’s true. And you made the sadness sound so real – it was not just about the happy times one would miss from their family if they were separated from them forever. Even the tough times with your family is something a person without a family will ever experience. I can’t imagine how lonely it gets for those people. :(

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