When My Name Was Keoko
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Some comments on WHEN MY NAME WAS KEOKO
• When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park
• Some comments by Ellen Bearn
• In early late 1930s/early 1940s, older generation (at least ordinary people) had not gone to school and could not read. Sun-hee/Keoko learned Japanese by speaking with her Japanese friends.
• “Remember the flag”: foreshadowing implies Korean flag will be banned.
• Psychological impact of being given a Japanese name is huge; overriding theme in entire novel.
• Scholars in Korea were well-versed in classical Chinese literature; something Korea has in common with Japan but during war time, such connections became irrelevant. Later, when Koreans learn only Hangul, connections to ancient Chinese literature will be lost.
• Expectations to feel grateful about having Japanese education; Koreans actually felt that their own culture was being negated, erased.
• When Sun-hee/Keoko decides to keep a diary, she is suddenly aware of the fact that she doesn’t know how to write in Korean. “Could Korean thoughts be written in Japanese?”: a genuine question.
• Importance of words: awareness that words can express content, thoughts, messages, identity.
• Survival: constant work to survive might make you forget that there is beauty in the world. This becomes a worry for Sun-hee/Keoko.
• Tae-yul explains at age 17 that in Korea you are 1-year old when you are born, so he is 18 when he enlists. However, it’s the same in Japan.
• Sun-hee/Keoko’s father writes article in both Korean and Japanese since at that time many young people could not read Korean. Importance of using Japanese even after Japanese had surrendered.
• One more comment: one of the themes running through this book is about names. Names give you identity, names connect you to your culture, names connect you to your family, names have meaning. When Koreans are forced to adopt both Japanese surnames and given names, it is an affront to Koreans. Most of the Japanese names in the book are common names: Tomo, Megumi, Kaneyama, Sachiko, Hiroko. However, Keoko is a somewhat strange name and does not adhere to common Japanese vowel-consonant connections. “ke” and “o” do not usually follow. “ke” and “yo” are ok, “ke” and “i” are ok. So the choice of that name is a bit disconcerting. Kyoko, Keiko, Kayoko: there are all common names. It may seem like a minor issue, but when the book is partially about having to adopt a Japanese name, and when that name seems odd, it’s noticeable.
• This book has many parallels with the story which the film Grave of the Fireflies is based on. NOSAKA Akiyuki wrote a memoire about his war-time experiences about a brother and sister’s experiences as civilians during war time. Although one family is in Korea experiencing the Japanese colonial occupation, and the other family is living in Japan, the aggressor power, both feel suffer the consequences of civilian life during war. Pairing the two stories would provide a nuanced perspective to students.
Sharon Isherwood, French teacher, grade 8, Shaler Area Middle School, Glenshaw, PA
Although Linda Sue Park’s WHEN MY NAME WAS KEOKO can be enjoyed by a wide range of readers, from upper elementary students to adults, it is the perfect fit for middle school students as they struggle to understand their place in the world while discovering more about themselves and their identities in the process. Linda Sue Park’s novel of historical fiction touches on many universal themes and provides deep insight into both Korean culture and world history. It is “easy” reading with something for everyone as Park explores important issues ranging from self-realization and acceptance to gender inequality and racism. Throughout her novel, Park seamlessly weaves in lessons about loyalty, respect, tolerance, compassion, love, forgiveness, and resiliency all while highlighting the power of education. She also reminds us that we have the ability to endure, adapt, learn, and move beyond injustices and hardships.
Set in what is now South Korea during the early nineteen forties, WHEN MY NAME WAS KEOKO is an intimate story of one family’s and one nation’s indomitable spirit during Japan’s 35-year occupation of Korea. The narration begins in the World War II era of 1940, and ends post-war, in 1945, and it is shared between two siblings: Kim Tae-yul, the 13-year old brother and Kim Sun-hee, his 10-year old sister. Their contrasting perceptions and styles of narration, fueled by their individual passions, reinforce their personalities as well as their familial and societal roles. Despite their differences, Tae-yul and Sun-hee effectively tell the story of how they, their family, and their country suffered under the rules imposed on them by the Japanese. Beginning with the changing of their family name from Kim to Kaneyama and their first names to Nobuo and Keoko respectively, the siblings share their first-hand accounts of how the Korean people were forced to submit to Japanese power, language, and culture.
Throughout their struggles to survive the Japanese occupation, the Kim family and their fellow Koreans (those who do not become chin-il-pa, or lovers of Japan) find their own ways to cope and remain true to themselves and their culture. Whether through simple acts of defiance such as choosing Japanese names with hidden meanings or saving a rose of Sharon tree, the national tree of Korea, or through dangerous choices like joining the resistance movement in Korea or enlisting as a volunteer in the Imperial army in order to sabotage Japan’s war efforts, Linda Sue Park’s characters paint vivid images of one Korean family’s response to the Japanese occupation through simple, personal accounts of their daily lives. Their examples of human dignity and courage are more than relatable, and teachers and students of language, history, sociology, psychology, and personal development will find WHEN MY NAME WAS KEOKO a very user-friendly and engaging resource that allows for thought-provoking reflection and discussion about human motives and the good, the bad, the destruction, and the healing that can result from our words, actions, and memories - irrespective of our native language, nationality, or generation. As Sun-hee writes in her journal about the one remaining rose of Sharon tree that her family successfully hides and protects until it can be replanted in a place of honor: Do not mourn, little tree. Your brothers and sisters have been struck down – but you live still. Be strong! For you alone are the beginning of a whole new forest.
Review of When My Name was Keoko
In a culture where names are so important to your identity, the author, Linda Sue Park, does a fabulous job of connecting the importance of culture and circumstances together in an entertaining fashion. This book was hard to put down. It is suitable for not only middle school level, but entertaining enough to supplement at the high school level.
Seeing the time period of 1940 to 1945 (World War II) through the eyes of 2 children in Korea brings a whole different view to this time period. Starting in 1910, with the occupation of Korea by Japan, the Japanese slowly take away everything “Korean” about their life; dress, hair styles, language, school, food, material possessions and most difficult…… their Korean names.
The story is told through the voices of the girl Sun-hee and her older brother Tae-yul. Although the book is fiction, its historical events are accurate. It truly shows the Korean culture including the family relationships and the role of males and females in the culture.
Also included in this book are turbulent times, Korean resistance movement, underground newspapers, and Tae-yul volunteering for the Japanese army, all through the eyes of two children. The book keeps you reading with all the secrets and comes to a surprise end dealing with the relationships within the family. Readers definitely get a feeling of this time period and Korean culture.
When My Name Was Keoko, Namelessness
Of all the Pacific War literature for adolescents I’ve read, this book may be the most accessible for the students I teach – English Language Learners mainly from Central American, African, and Asian countries with their own stories of fear, violence, family separation, resistance, and survival.
During the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 through the end of WWII, the identity of the Korean individual was crushed. Recall how westward expansion in the United States obliterated the identity of Native Americans. Recall how Native American families surrendered children to the flagship Carlisle Indian Boarding School which, in turn, forced children to give up their own cultures, languages, religions, and even their names, doing psychic damage to generations.
The Japanese aspired to obliterate the Korean culture by imposing a new infrastructure on every aspect of Korean life – dress (pants instead of Hanbok), food (millet and brown rice instead of white rice which was confiscated for export to Japan), education (Japanese became the official language with Japanese history and culture replacing Korean language and history), religion (Koreans were forced to bow to the East -home of the Japanese emperor- and support neighborhood Shinto shrines), and even the surrender of their Korean names and adoption of Japanese names (which is, by the way, still a legal requirement for application for Japanese citizenship today.)
Perhaps best classified as historical fiction, this narrative is told through the alternating voices of a young Korean girl, Sun-hee, and her older brother, Tae-yul. The author incorporates true stories she heard from her parents who lived in Korea at the time and touches on familiar events of the Japanese occupation – the imperial gift of rubber balls, the 1936 Olympic gold medalist Sohn Kee Chung being hailed as “Kitei Son” from Japan, the young Korean men pressed into service as kamikaze pilots for Japan, and the disappearance of young girls.
The book spans the years 1940 to 1945. Uncle is a resistance worker who disappears into hiding in northern Korea, never to return. Father is a demoted elementary school official and scholar who secretly pens articles for a resistance newspaper. Sun-hee is an inquisitive, intelligent child whose daily life teaches the reader volumes about male/female roles in Korean culture as well as daily life at home and in the community during the occupation.
The sentences, paragraphs, and chapters in this book are short and the vocabulary is accessible for English Language Learners. The book could be a resource for lessons on culture, conflict, the Pacific War and Asia, imperialism, and colonization. It is useful for the study of memoir, perspective, and interpretation.
What appealed to me most, however, is the theme of namelessness. Conveyed by the title and Park’s heart rendering story are the helplessness, frustration, confusion, anger, and loss experienced by the characters.
Many Central American students are familiar with a recent movie called “Sin Nombre” or “Nameless.” It is also a heart rendering story of adolescents trying to survive amid violence and societal breakdown that fragments families and wipes out hope. The main character is stuck in a world he didn’t create and for which he is not responsible. The movie title “Nameless” comes from what the director saw scrawled on scraps of cardboard littering the border between Mexico and the United States – makeshift markers for those who died trying to make it across.
When My Name Was Keoko will resonate on many levels with our students from troubled countries who will hopefully find both catharsis and the inspiration and voice to tell their own stories. The book will also be a powerful connector to the Pacific War story, and to all stories of lost children in the world.
Easy Middle School Read
Linda Sue Park hit the nail on the head again with this delightful book. The book is written from two different points of view, a teenage boy and a preteen girl, which appeals to both male and female audiences. This books is most appropriate to middle school students probably 5-7th grade as the vocabulary is very simple. The lexile level is 610L. I would recommend this book as a supplemental reading when studying about World War II in US History or in a World Cultures class when discussing Asia or culture. Because the Japanese strip Korea of its identify by instituting Japanese cultural practices, a student can easily identify important parts of culture and create a working definition of culture as well as explanation of its importance.