cambridge book review

The Tiger’s Wedding

James Dante

An excerpt from the novel, The Tiger’s Wedding (Martin Sisters Publishing 2013)

[All of the travel literature described Korea as the “Land of the Morning Calm.” So naturally when Jake St. Gregory, a thirty-year-old accountant from Burbank, California, accepts a teaching position in Seoul, he expects a serene escape. Instead, he finds himself in a chaotic relationship, hospitalized, scrambling for money, and then jailed. His pending deportation should come as a relief. But Jake can’t bear the thought of losing Jae-Min, the woman who is the one source of true happiness in his life. Jae-Min, the wife of an abusive husband, has her own turmoil to resolve. Torn between the old Korea and the emerging one, between kimchi and McDonald’s fries, she symbolizes that country’s lost generation. In this tale, set during a pivotal time, their mutual search for happiness draws them together. Ultimately, it might be a fracturing nation that keeps them apart.]

__________

Koreanwedding

Traditional Korean wedding. Photo: James Dante.

Jae-Min never thought of herself as mysterious or complex, so, naturally, she enjoyed my treating her as such. Photographs and objects around Sun-Hee’s home prompted my curiosity, a few times leading to answers too candid for my comfort.

Sun-Hee’s spare bedroom, before converting it into a mini-classroom, had the effect of a time capsule. In addition to the keepsakes, she held on to the small black-and-white TV once the sibling magnet of their childhood home. As a teenager Jae-Min spent much of her life in front of that old Samsung. With it, the broader world pierced her countrified existence. Jae-Min watched the reports on the assignation of President Park and the pro-democracy movement in the city of Gwangju, close to her own town.

Even more captivating, ABBA was conquering the international music world. The American armed forces channel often televised the band’s concerts. Jae-Min never missed a broadcast. She showed me her vinyl copy of Dancing Queen, which she had as a girl played and replayed until scratches overtook the music. Sadly, she must have realized that the four Swedes would probably never visit Chollanam-do, the southwestern region of Korea known mostly for its melons.

Jae-Min’s maternal instincts were encouraged early on. Every morning she awoke at five with her mother and elder sister. Before school they made certain that a whole day’s worth of rice had been cooked, that enough barley tea was brewing, and that each of the younger heads got scrubbed and checked for lice. By five a.m. her father would be starting the early church service. Although the ministry had insulated them from the worst sort of poverty, they never prospered much above their neighbors.

She flattered her father with talk of joining the ministry, though her parents doubted the rural community would easily accept a woman of the cloth. Jae-Min set out to direct the congregation toward heaven, not with thundering oratory but with music. Three times a week, she played piano and sang before the small but intense group. She saved up her money and purchased a cheap violin, and before long her nimble fingers found the right harmonies.

During her last year of high school, the church hierarchy relocated Reverend Oh and family to one of Seoul’s poorer areas. His mission was to capture as many of the Pope’s wayward sheep as possible. Jae-Min soon realized she lacked the zeal to follow her father’s calling so closely. Her love of music, however, continued to grow. Right after high school, with the help of a scholarship, she began her music studies at a small Christian university.

By the time Jae-Min finished her studies, Sun-Hee had become old enough to take over Jae-Min’s chores. By then, in the eyes of Jae-Min’s parents, every single male at church became a potential catch.

A relatively young man named Mr. Kim joined Reverend Oh’s church. He was the mechanic who kept their truck humming along. Jae-Min and the man had met at church but never really talked until one winter night when he came to the house with his jumper cables. Of course, her father would’ve preferred his daughter meeting a university graduate, but she was after all twenty-four, and the man did earn a decent living with Hyundai Motors.

At her mother’s insistence, Jae-Min agreed to host a dinner for the two families. Mr. Kim didn’t exactly, as they say, sweep Jae-Min off of her feet. He did, however, appeal to her with his strong looks and rugged manner. A woman is almost certainly flattered and amused when this type of man plays the part of the perfect gentleman. When they started dating, Mr. Kim began attending church regularly, a bargain price for securing a virgin.

A combination of his pressuring and her curiosity led her to a downtown hotel where he awaited. Her life soon changed in ways unexpected. With each encounter, the place between innocence and marriage grew more distressing for her. Then one day the affair became the favorite topic of church chatter, causing the parish males to begin looking upon her with that peculiar combination of contempt and interest.

Although the thought holds great appeal, there was no point in my believing she never loved him. Of course she loved him. What livable choice did she have?

The nation changed during the course of their marriage. Martial law ended. Despite the deep boot prints, democracy sprouted from the Korean soil. They built structures that seemed to reach for the heaven they lacked on earth. University women began seeking careers as well as men with good earnings potential. Jae-Min sensed her own life contrasting with all of this. For this reason she embraced the opportunity to teach at Ripe Apple Language Institute. Her husband allowed her to work, providing she kept up on her domestic duties. She thought the extra money would pave over the potholes in their marriage. Instead, expectations from both of them grew. At some point she must’ve realized that she was trying to pave over a canyon.

Now she talked of divorce.

__________

James Dante is originally from Western New York, a place where the snow is relentless, the families are close, and The Holy Trinity could refer to Pizza, Wings, and Subs. For most of his life, however, he’s called Northern California his home. An academic late bloomer, he completed his BA from the University of California at Davis at the age of twenty-eight. International relations proved to be a fine field of study for becoming aware of the broader world and for sounding smart at dinner parties but for little else. After escaping a monotonous government job, James caught the teaching bug in South Korea. There he ended up teaching English at three language schools near Seoul during the mid-1990s and found himself intrigued by the culture and the people. This is how the idea for The Tiger’s Wedding came about. James’s fiction has appeared in literary journals such as Rosebud and Toasted Cheese. The Tiger’s Wedding is his first novel. When James isn’t teaching adult education classes or promoting his book, he’s working on the rough draft of his second novel, which will be set in Moscow.

June 20, 2013 - Posted by | fiction, novel | , , ,

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