A review of American Seoul by Helena Rho

Reviewed by Peter Mladinic

American Seoul
A Memoir
by Helena Rho
Little A
May 1, 2022, Hardcover, 224 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1542035576

Hands are significant in this memoir: a daughter’s hand reaching out, a doctor’s hand healing, a writer’s hand moving across the page, the self moving across continents. Helena Rho dedicates American Seoul to her mother.  Her memoir emphasizes the value of heritage, the persistence of personality, and the triumph of memory.

Having lived in Korea in early childhood, and started school there, the author with her family moved to Uganda, where she started to learn English. In adulthood, in the U.S., she remembered not one word of her native language.  A language constitutes a world; that idea is significant in Rho’s memoir.  She goes into a Korean shop for lunch with her daughter, and a woman working there encourages her to speak Korean, as does a woman, a minister’s wife, with whom Rho talks on the phone about lessons in Korean for her daughter and son. Growing up, she didn’t speak Korean with her parents.  They had artifacts from Korea in their home, but they never talked to her about Korea. She wants her daughter and son to know they are Korean, she wants them to know their heritage. They travel with her to Korea, and meet her cousins and play with her cousins’ children.  Most importantly, she wants to know she is Korean, and that fervent desire is clear in the bond she forms with Emo, her mother’s sister, her aunt who lives in Korea. Emo is a role model for heritage in this memoir, helping the author to know herself, that she is Korean, kin to ancestors who go back thousands of years. Symbolic in Rho’s memoir is the framed picture of a crane that was prominently displayed in her mother’s home, and that is now with the author, literally with her and her daughter as they drive on a rainy day and a few raindrops get on the picture, and she imagines the crane in flight. They have just come from her mother’s apartment where she and her daughter stood outside a door that was not opened.  In contrast Emo opens her own door to Rho, and the also doors to her heritage.

Rho’s father was a physician. He was the oldest son in his family.  Her mother had four daughters, but no son; that is one reason the family left Korea. Her mother was looked down on, especially by her father-in-law, for having no son. The author, like her father, becomes a medical doctor, a pediatrician, a doctor with a love of Shakespeare and English literature, who wants to write. She is a dedicated physician. Her mentor is a doctor who pioneered work with children who have AIDS; he was the first doctor to show how children are born with AIDS, how the disease is passed from parent to child.  Some of the most poignant parts of Rho’s memoir are her interactions with seriously ill, often terminally ill children, and with parents. She herself is the parent, who mostly cares for two young children on her own, since her husband, also a physician is often away. At age forty, Rho leaves medicine to be a full-time parent, who wants to write. She feels alone in her marriage, and bored playing children’s game, and also distanced from her three sisters, who seem jealous of her and unable to understand why she stopped being a doctor.  She is self-conflicted, and that conflict is manifested in her love of the American writer Ernest Hemingway. She loves Hemingway the writer, and loathes the Hemingway man, the misogyny and big-game hunting machoism Hemingway is known for.  In some ways he is like SS, her ex-husband.  During and after their divorce he  “drags out” legal proceedings, not so much for money but for power.  Rho’s mother was despised by her father-in-law, for not having a son. Ironically Rho is very close to her own father-in-law, whom she affectionately calls Poppy.  He calls her Pook, and encourages her to write, to be herself. Ironically he is the opposite of his narcissistic son, the husband who gets angry and breaks things and says it’s his wife’s fault, the husband to whom she apologizes, the husband who, ironically, initiates the break up, the husband she comes to know for who he is, and, in the process, comes to know herself.

Helena Rho is a writer, a memoirist who is working on a novel about Korea. She is a daughter, a sister, a mother. She was a pediatrician. Who she was is part of who she is. She was the girl sexually abused by the older boy, the girl sexually abused by the male math tutor in Uganda, the wife bruised by the out of control husband, the doctor sued by the mother of boy whose injured hand she tended, sued for something that happened through no fault of her own.  The girl who saw from a boat the blood clouded water where an alligator had killed a flamingo, and instinctively became aware of the danger that lurks beneath the surface.  The woman who remembers all she has lived.  She knows a person can bear scars and live “happily ever after.”  There is distance in this memoir, between parent and child, between husband and wife, between sisters. There is also closeness: Dr. Oleske, Emo, Poppy, Liam the author’s son, also her cousins in Korea, are living presences in that closeness. As is the woman in the shop where mother and daughter have gone for lunch, after the daughter’s Saturday ballet lesson. The woman encourages Rho to speak Korean, there in Pittsburg, PA, to be Korean, to be herself, an integral part of a culture that goes back four thousand years. To read Helena Rho’s story is to know what it is to be human, and to experience the triumph of memory in sentences that are lyrical and precise, so very well written. There’s only one Helena Rho, there is no other memoir like hers.

About the reviewer: Peter Mladinic’s poems have recently appeared in Divot, Mad Swirl, Bluepepper, Off Course and other literary journals. An animal rights advocate, he lives in Hobbs, New Mexico, USA.