In diaspora communities, it’s not uncommon to find cultural practices from the homeland, even after they’ve become unpopular or forgotten there. This is colloquially referred to as “the immigrant time capsule effect.” It can be experienced in many of the ethnic enclaves in the US. My first impression of Los Angeles’ Koreatown when I visited in the 2010s, for example, was that it felt very much like Seoul in the 1980s. Grocery stores were even selling canned grape drinks that were popular when I was a child and haven’t seen since. The immigrant time capsule preserves such practices of the homeland culture at the time of emigration. The country left behind changes, however, just as the diaspora changes, as immigrants settle in the new country. The homeland of their memories haunts the descendants in their new land and remains alive in the diaspora.
In Joseph Han’s debut novel Nuclear Family, Jacob Cho, a Korean American man from Hawai’i, returns to Seoul, where he is literally haunted by his dead grandfather, Tae-woo. Tae-woo is one of the many Koreans born before the Korean War, when there was only one Korea. Having been born on the side of the Korean Peninsula that became North Korea but having been in what became South Korea when the borders were closed, Tae-woo had to start a completely new life in Seoul, acting as if his previous life were dead. Thinking that, in real death, he is finally free to go back to the wife and children he left behind, Tae-woo heads straight towards the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the heavily militarized barrier between the two Koreas, only to find that an invisible barrier won’t allow human souls to cross. When Tae-woo discovers that Jacob has inherited his grandmother’s gift for seeing and communicating with the dead, he finds Jacob and takes hold of his body. Tae-woo enjoys all the pleasures he missed from being alive—eating, drinking, and flirting with the ladies—until he has his fill and is ready to try crossing the border again. Tae-woo heads back to the DMZ, this time on a guarded tour for non-Korean citizens only. Closer to the border than he ever could be in a Korean body, Tae-woo uses Jacob’s US citizen body in an attempt to run over the DMZ—only to be shot in the leg before fully crossing.
Tae-woo’s ultimately failed possession of his grandson is one of many narrative arcs in Nuclear Family. Other members of Jacob’s family experience their own versions of diasporic loneliness—of not being physically close to your family, your loved ones, and the land you are from. US immigrants who descended from Koreans born in what became North Korea but ended up in what became South Korea, like Jacob’s parents, are part of a double diaspora. Barely having recovered from the first diaspora, the family immediately continues on to the next. I suspect the desire amongst Korean American writers to examine this double diaspora haunts them, especially since many Americans do not have a nuanced understanding of inter-Korean relations, despite the US being a major player in the Korean War in the first place. Han skewers this brand of frustrating American ignorance in his book as well, mainly through Jacob’s family’s experience in Hawai’i. Worried that the family are North Korean sympathizers or, even worse, “North Koreans” themselves, the regulars at the Cho family restaurant begin to shun them. Unnamed vandals throw rocks through their windows, and they find cockroaches when they’ve never seen cockroaches in the restaurant before. In one particularly tense scene, Jacob’s sister, Grace, watches one of their dear family friends getting take-out from a rival Korean restaurant. Grace confronts her, only to hear half-baked excuses and retorts that Jacob shouldn’t have so rashly tried to cross the DMZ. The friend ends with the following warning: Grace, too, needs to be careful of prying eyes.
How families are split but still continue on in yearning is a key concern for Han, as Nuclear Family tells the story of people who are often neglected in South Korean stories. In South Korea, stories told from the perspective of South Korean people born in what became North Korea are not examined as frequently as they are in Korean America. There are several probable reasons behind this. During the long stretch of right-wing dictatorships in South Korea, any accusation of being associated with “the Communists” would have been dangerous, so people would have tried to distance themselves from any North Korean ties or interests. Since then, many South Koreans have also moved on to building a South Korean identity divorced from North Korea in general. And like Tae-woo, most who were young adults during the War have already passed away.
Stories about North Korea or references to North Korea are common in Korean American literature. They are often told in unflinching, honest ways, by writers who never lived in fear of Cold War censorship. As someone who grew up in South Korea and is somewhat unable to completely shake away this internalized fear, it felt cathartic to read Han’s examination of this history and how it still haunts families and individuals today. Perhaps Korean Americans in the diaspora are better equipped to tell the stories of Koreans from the North who were stranded in the South. Perhaps they can uniquely empathize with the loss and loneliness that comes from the scattering of family ties and the inability to go back home, much more so than South Koreans who have always been in the South and therefore have never experienced diaspora in this way. Much like Jacob gives Tae-woo a body with which to reunite with his long lost family members, Han gives a voice to these wandering souls.
Despite its heavy themes, Nuclear Family is also a warm and, most importantly, funny read. There is no melodrama; there is no tragedy beyond what we would expect from real people going through the tough parts of life. The book’s cast of characters—Jacob, Tae-woo, the Cho family, the Jeong family, and the students in Jacob’s class—are rendered as whole characters, rather than symbols of the hardships faced by the Korean American community. They are both able to fully mourn and long for a home and family they can never return to and, through humor (and in Grace’s case, lots of marijuana), acknowledge the absurdity of the situations they face. The book is unabashedly Korean American, feeling no need to overexplain to an audience that doesn’t care to do their own research. At the same time, Nuclear Family invites those who are unfamiliar but are willing to explore its world with an open heart. It is a book that exemplifies what is unique and special about Korean American literature outside of Korean or American literature, and one that will haunt the reader for a while.
By Joseph Han
Published on June 7, 2022
Minyoung writes fiction and essays in Oakland, CA. Find her at myleeis.com.