Memoir Book Review – To Kill a Tiger: A Memoir of Korea by Jid Lee

by Matilda Butler on February 10, 2010

catnav-book-raves-active-3Post #38 – Women’s Memoirs, Book Raves – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Reviewed by Barbara Bottini

Tigers can be menacing animals and their attacks are often fatal. The metaphoric tiger in Jid Lee’s memoir, To Kill a Tiger, is all that. Ms Lee spent the first twenty-four years of her life fighting the tiger of Confucian thought and practice to save her indomitable spirit. As Ms Lee points out in scene after scene, the Confucian belief system that had infused Korean culture for centuries was not kind to the female population. The practice that held sway over all Koreans was that males were dominant and females were to be subservient and cater to the wishes and demands of males. In childhood, a girl’s father was totally in charge, In addition all brothers (especially older ones) took precedence. Then in adulthood, a woman’s husband (usually in an arranged marriage) was the ‘lord and master.’

Lee, JidFor someone of a meek and conforming personality this might be palatable, but for Jid Lee, a young Korean girl with a strong spirit, subservience was extremely difficult and often led to conflicting feelings of determination to not be subdued followed by guilt for creating conflict within the family. Ms Lee’s retelling of her childhood adolescence in this very different culture is so vivid and descriptive that the reader can not help but be struck by the strength and bravery it must have taken to reveal such painful recollections.

In fact, while reading To Kill a Tiger, I recalled my own experience from 1989 to 1993 of living in Taegu, Korea and teaching on the American military base there. Ms Lee’s memoir reminded me of the strong emotions I experienced whenever I had to deal with the Korean male civilians who worked in many of the military base offices. Typically, the Korean men would treat me with contempt or even ignore me until I eventually learned to adopt a subservient attitude, a softened body posture and quiet tone of voice. As an American woman, accustomed to being strong and assertive, having to act meek and mild really bothered me. Inevitably I would walk out of the offices with a hefty exhalation of breath and the strong urge to pound someone. I can’t begin to imagine what it was like for Ms Lee to live with her strong spirit in such a repressive culture for so many years without surcease or respite.

Throughout Ms Lee’s memoir, interwoven with her family’s story, is the history of Korea during much of the 20th century. Her recounting of U.S. political involvement in Korea and the painful consequences for Korean citizens is far more detailed and involved than any I have encountered thus far. Once again, as a reader, I learned of U.S. government backed dictators who were kept in power, even thought they may not have had Korea’s best interests at heart, because they were staunch anti-communists. She tells of mass arrests, imprisonment and torture, and even murders that affected many Koreans and even imperiled her own family.

There is much intriguing information in this book including the interesting and eye-opening transition of Korea from occupation by Japan to becoming a democratic republic in a process that was not as straightforward as I had thought it was. Lee also informs her readers about the bitter and bloody battles between followers of Christianity and the supporters of communism. As the subtitle indicates, this is a memoir of Korea.

In a recent interview, Jid Lee admits that she felt compelled to write her story, to tell of the sexual repression of women in Korean society and also to explain the Korean War from a Korean woman’s point of view. Indeed, Lee relates how her mother didn’t hesitate to cook and care for two Korean soldiers trying to return to the northern area of the peninsula (in what is now North Korea) in spite of the menacing actions taken by the American Air Force.

In telling her family’s story Lee uses dialog to add dimension to the every day encounters and exchanges between family members. When asked how she went about recreating these scenes she jokingly says that the dialog “was a hoax.” She explained that she would remember the scene and then imagine what her mother would have said based on her mother’s way of handling various situations. “The content is my mother’s, the language is mine,” said Lee. In an interesting aside, Lee said that her mother thought of herself as a Korean citizen, not a Korean woman. Perhaps this was how she dealt with the strains of living in a Confucian imbued, male dominated society. She wasn’t so much a female as she was a citizen, doing her duty for her country.

Ms Lee has written a compelling and engrossing account of her life and her country’s history. Readers will be drawn in by Lee’s experiences, thought processes and explanations. Her passages paint pictures of a difficult life filled with adventure, heartache, drama, strong familial love, duty, devotion and eventual triumph.

Reviewer Barbara Bottini is a retired teacher living in Gilroy, CA. From September, 1989 to June, 1993 she lived in Taegu, Korea and taught school on the American military base there. She is currently writing her memoir of that very different and exciting time.

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