During Park Chung-hee's dictatorship nearly thirty years ago, Mr. Rhee had quit his engineering job at Hyundai Heavy Motors and immigrated to America with his wife. The family of four had settled in the basement of a kind American couple and cleaned office buildings until purchasing their own dry-cleaning store. They had done well enough until the recent recession, which had even lawyers watching their expense accounts. Until Mr. Rhee's wife had abandoned him for an American man she met in salsa classes, he had watched Korean news clips of the developing country's daily disasters - student demonstrators attacked by pepperspray bombs in 1986, the Samgpoong Department Store collapse that killed generations of families in 1995 - and convinced himself that he had been right to leave, even after the country flourished and began giving academic scholarships to the brightest from Guatemala to Mongolia, and setting trends in film and technology.
Mrs. Shin knew another Korea. In 1996 she had married up. A glittering four-hundred-guest Hyatt Hotel wedding, a Tiffany diamond flashing on her finger, and a villa nestled high in the hills, like a medieval castle overseeing the neon signs and pollution of Seoul, had transformed her. But money in Korea meant residing with the in-laws until the new bride was made acceptable, it meant surveillance and criticism. While hip-hop became the rage and women were sworn in as senators in the National Assembly, Mrs. Shin had subordinated herself to her husband's will, rivaled her mother-in-law for his affections, and accepted all blame when she remained childless the first six years of marriage. After nine years of a difficult, exciting life together, her husband had said that he could not do it anymore, that they were not healthy for each other, and left with their daughter. She was no different from Mr. Rhee; she felt that she had failed at living.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Drifting House by Krys Lee. Copyright © 2012 by Krys Lee.
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