East Goes West by Younghill Kang was an insightful, often funny and interesting story that focuses on a young man’s journey experiences throughout America and Canada after having arrived from Korea during the 1920’s. The book was actually first published in 1937 and the copy I was lucky enough to receive is the first republished copy in over 50 years!
The story is a semi autobiography of Younghill Kang but he is replaced from the POV of a fictional man called Chungpu Han. Han first sets foot on America after arriving in New York with 4 dollars and the works of Shakespeare in his suitcase. At this point in his life he is 18 and ready to absorb all that he hopes he can gain in America. It’s not all plain sailing for Han as he has a torrid time trying to accustom himself to America. For example, Han has a letter of introduction to the Y.M.C.A. given to him by a missionary. The naïve Han is made to believe that is his golden ticket to riches and prosperity. Upon arriving at the main office of the organisation he is told to go to Harlem. There he deals with racism first hand as he is told no Orientals or Africans can be employed at the Y.M.C.A.
Having unwittingly spent all of his money on a haircut and clean shave, Han finds himself having to go to a “flophouse” a place that offers very low cost housing. Although jobless and left without any direction as to where his life will end up going, this doesn’t stop Han from continuing to discover the American Dream. He has known poverty before so it only gives him a “it can not get any worse than what I’ve known”.
“So far I had failed in everything undertaken in America. Housework, clerking, wait ing, in nothing was I good. It remained to be seen if I could rem edy this by education.”
There are many times Han is struggling to even get something to eat, sometimes even going 24 hours without eating or drinking. Luckily for Han, he befriends many immigrants and outcasts like him New York. Immigrants from Korea, Italy, China, Japan, and the Philippines. Many of these friends like him are or have struggled to assimilate to life in America. However, even with their struggles they are still able to aide him and save him from starvation. It was actually really heart-warming seeing the generosity of people. The world then and now is definitely a dog eat dog world, so receiving even a little bit of help can go a long way.
Much of the help Han gains and essentially helps him learn about what it means to be American come from Korean exiles like himself such as George Jum who to a certain extent was Hans Guru. George a playboy who has absorbed everything that is American culture putting behind what he was accustomed to in Korea.
“The next period of my life must properly be dedicated to George Jum. He attempted to be my teacher in things American, and certainly he had left all Asian culture behind as a thing of nought. If I am not a very shining example of his precepts, the faults must be laid to me and not to him.”
Later however, having failed to keep down a job we see Han travel to Canada in the hopes of clearing his path towards success. Thanks to a Canadian missionary called Mr Luther who was the headmaster of a Korean school where Han has completed his post graduate degree, he is told a scholarship is open to him in the Maritime University up in Canada. He meets great tutors such as Ralph and Ian. From his experience in Canada he discovers it as essentially as a bootleg Britain and really needs to catch up with America in terms of its development.
“Marvellous how this noisy coloial town could still convey obliquely an Old-World pattern, reminding of the English home.”
He then finds himself in Boston where he becomes a salesman and then returns to education. This becomes somewhat of a pattern for Han throughout the book i.e. working for a bit then returning to college. He makes more friends and acquittances there and begins to settle down. Long story short, he finishes his education gaining a diploma from Boston, finally settles into a regular job , and even a wee romance blossoming. Still however Han never managed to gain a feeling of self fulfilment, even being partially jealous of George Jum.
When considering the writing, it was very descriptive and so detailed reminding me of the great Haruki Murakami. I’m going to be honest however and say reading this was a bit of a grind. Han’s POV is very philosophical which meant some parts went on and on. I do feel the novel could’ve been cut down by 100 pages. However, Kang does describe characters and places in such amazing detail that you can’t help but be in awe.
There are also many funny moments throughout the book, i think my favourite was definitely Han’s being an atrocious houseboy. Kang also covers issues he faces and observes along his travels throughout Canada and the USA such as racism and stereotyping towards oriental people. I would however go far as saying that the character of Han was a bit of a racist himself due to how he stereotypes those from an African background and the use of racial slurs. It was very uncomfortable for me if i am very honest and i do understand that a book written during the 1930’s didn’t think about these things back then but still it annoyed me.
One final thing I really enjoyed was the array of different characters Han meets throughout America and Canada. Although some are only part of the story for a short time, they all played a key role in Han’s experiences and his reflections of being a Korean immigrant in America during the 1930’s. Han is very observational and describes the people he meets with such intricate detail that you can picture them in your mind.
Overall, this book was a grind to get through but I do feel it was worth reading. I learned a lot about the history and journey of Koreans living in the USA. The writing was also very descriptive and detailed, but at times I felt it was too much and went on a bit too long. This is worth reading but a lot of patience is required for sure.
Thank you to Viking Books, Penguin Random House, and Penguin Classics for gifting me a copy. I am very grateful for the opportunity #PRHparter