Paying attention to commonalities between cultures is–to paraphrase one of Jamie Zerndt’s characters–like seeing the snowball instead of obsessing about differences between the snowflakes. Zerndt, who has taught English language learners in Korea as well as the U.S., interweaves three storylines in THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY to illustrate the tenuous relationship between South Korea and America. He focuses on the snowball by emphasizing universal concerns such as ambition, family dysfunction, and substance abuse.
Dead end jobs and a desire for adventure propel Billy and her boyfriend, Joe, to leave America’s rusty heartland for jobs teaching English to young children in South Korea. Billy regrets their decision upon arrival at Kids Inc., where the school’s “sonic boom” of tiny feet and high-pitched voices overwhelm her. Neither has ever taught. They also know little about Korean language and customs. Billy is a Hokey Pokey failure who disappoints the kids at first. Conversely, Joe captivates students and staff with his lively style and ability to play guitar.
When crisis occurs for Billy and Joe, it isn’t long before two of the school’s Korean employees sense an earthquake coming. Yet Moon and Yun-ji have problems of their own. Moon is a recovering alcoholic who is divorced and repentant about hurting his son during infancy. He oversees the transition of new teachers and troubleshoots problems ranging from soothing a child following a toileting accident to upbraiding a television director who insults American staff. Yun-Ji is an administrative assistant and college student struggling to escape her alcoholic father’s restaurant business. Although wary of Americans, especially soldiers, she’s also desperate for excitement. Yun-ji succumbs to a G.I.’s “sweet” blue eyes and kindness until a tragic military accident sets Koreans against Americans.
This might sound heavy, but it is not so. In Korean art, butterflies represent harmony and joy. THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY harmonizes heaviness with humor, such as Billy’s internal sarcasm when losing control of her class within the first minute of teaching. The story transforms anger to joy during a snowball battle between the Americans and Koreans.
Flaws are few in this fine novel, and focusing on them might spoil the plot. What’s more important is to encourage the addition of this story which touches on multiculturalism and family dynamics to high school, college, and library reading lists. That way, its message of understanding may snowball.
~Alicia Rudnicki for IndieReader