Korean-American author Euny Hong’s journey to conversion began with Maimonides after reading “The Guide for the Perplexed” during a freshman-year course at Yale. With two Korean parents, her father secular and her mother Methodist, Hong grew up in a Chicago suburb before moving to Seoul when she was 12 years old.
In early August, eight years after her debut novel “Kept” (2006), Hong, 41, released her second book. “The Birth of Korean Cool” (Picador) is a witty chronicle of how pop culture shaped South Korea’s meteoric rise from a war-torn nation to a technological giant.
Hong spoke recently to the Forward’s Seth Berkman about the challenges Korean Jews encounter in America, the similarities between Israel and South Korea, and her friendship with another prominent Korean Jew, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl.
Seth Berkman: How do you know Angela Buchdahl?
Euny Hong: We were in the same dorm, basically, for three years. She doesn’t seem to remember this, but one of the first conversations I ever had about converting to Judaism was with her.
You moved to Korea in 1985. What are the main differences in Korea today?
Basically now it looks like the capital city from “The Hunger Games” and all that implies, including the technological jaw-dropping wonders and their opulence, decadence and extreme wealth. In 1985, the thing that kind of is the most visceral in memory has to do with defecation. It seemed really uncivilized and very barbaric, and it was very common to be in a taxi and then the cab driver stops, you don’t really know why, and he goes over to the wall by the side and pees because, I don’t know, why wouldn’t you pee against the wall? And then he comes back into the taxi and says nothing and keeps driving.
Even as late as 1985, you could still tell that it was a place that had a gigantic civil war 30 years earlier. Psychologically that was the case. Everybody wanted the dream of going to America, and there were all kinds of counterfeit American stuff.
How long had you been thinking about writing this book?
I never wanted to write a book about Korea. I lived in Korea during my whole teenage years. But the “Gangnam Style” [song] thing started. Then I mentioned to an editor, “Oh yeah, I grew up in Gangnam.” She practically went into hysterics. I wasn’t convinced it was going to be interesting to people. As I found again and again as a writer, when you’re completely honest about something, people respond to that.
Do you see any similarities between Korean culture and American Jewish culture?
I would say yes, but not as many as people think. When the question of my conversion comes up, I get every joke you could possibly think of — “You’re going to have a kid who becomes a doctor at age 11.” The idea [was] that I was making a super-compressed kind of success accelerator by virtue of being both Korean and Jewish.
There’s emphasis on education being more important than absolutely anything. But there are a lot of differences. One really big one is the role of women in the family. Things are changing now in Korea. Korean women are more educated than Korean men now. Because of selective abortions, there are not enough girls. So by necessity, women are a lot better treated and men naturally adapt to be a little nicer to get a girl interested in them. But I would say for the most part, the mother’s role is much more subdued than in a typical Ashkenazi family. It is okay — not stereotypically, but in practice — for the American Ashkenazi female to be opinionated and express her opinion. In Korea, there’s still kind of like this thing: They’re not supposed to be really loud in terms of values, not supposed to want to have the last word, and they get really annoyed if a woman is right. People often say, “Aren’t Korean mothers just like Jewish mothers?”No, they’re not, at all.
You’ve written about Jewish issues while living in France. Did your Jewish identity change at all while there?
I basically had to suspend religion for six years. It’s the only country I know of where the word “secular” appears in the first sentence of the constitution of the country. You just could not really talk about your religion or ask people what synagogue, what church do you go to. France is not very Ashkenazi, and that was the only form of Judaism I was familiar with. It was the first time I was heavily exposed to Sephardic culture. I was totally discouraged from going to their services. In France that’s pretty much the norm — women are always in the balcony. I was like, I’m not down with this; it’s not worth it unless I start my own synagogue.
You wrote about how you didn’t feel accepted in your New York synagogue at one point. Can you talk about being a Korean Jew in New York and it being something people constantly question?
This is why I think Angela Buchdahl is the bravest person I know. She could easily have avoided all of this, but she threw herself into it. It’s just not easy. You just don’t know what d–ks people can be until you actually start to have something in common with them or try to. I consider myself Jewish now still, but part of that is because I’ve been Jewish for a long time, so the fact that I don’t practice very much doesn’t really diminish my sense of Jewish identity. Emotionally, I still respond to Jewish issues very much as a Jew.
During the process of conversion and for the first few years, it almost was not worth it. I was younger and more tolerant. I was not the kind of person who would just walk away because of being insulted or whatever. Generally, the more religious somebody was, the more accepting they were. I had very positive experiences in Modern Orthodox synagogues, for example. If you go to an Orthodox synagogue, even if you don’t look Jewish, they kind of assume there must be a reason that you’re there. At a Reform synagogue or Conservative synagogue, which is what I converted to, they’re just very suspicious because there are so many people who go to shul and aren’t religious; a lot of them don’t even want to be there themselves unless it’s the High Holidays. So they’re suspicious of anyone who wants to be there who doesn’t have to be there. A lot of it, frankly, is self-hatred. “If you want to be like me, there must be something seriously wrong with you” kind of thing. I think it’s really unfortunate I had to see that side of people. It’s definitely something I’m still not okay with.
There was originally a part in your book about Israel that you took out?
Korea and Israel both started in 1948. They both had to build a government right away; they had no trained politicians really. They didn’t have national anthems, so they broke up songs that were pre-existing. The Korean national anthem is set to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.” That’s just an example of how improvisational everything had to be.
They both decided we want to be like the second Silicon Valley, the center of biotech, the center of stem-cell research. But they didn’t have time to wait for this organically. They really had to push it and create it. Both governments were able to immerse billions of dollars of tax money and invest and make this a startup-friendly country. I wouldn’t say necessarily Korea and Jews have a lot in common, but Korea and Israel have a lot in common.
They have no natural resources. All they have is human capital, a really, really highly educated population that’s really literate. That’s their trump card. So they solely invested in their people.
Both countries have a relationship with the U.S. that is very special. Israel’s surrounded by people who hate them, and [in Korea] you have the craziest person in the entire world north of the border.
Bad things happen when you try to let things just happen. You can’t be passive. So as countries they’re really, really aggressive. They’re both going to rule the world, I think. Mark my words, China is nothing. I think South Korea and Israel are going to be the countries of the 21st century.
This article has been edited for style and length.