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Teaching Lost Names in an American High School

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In a currently popular world literature text of 1,442 pages, there are a total of four pages on Korean literature. An entire country’s literary heritage is condensed into two poems. Until I read Lost Names by Richard Kim, my only contact with Korea had been to watch my mother cry as my older brother set off for the Korean War. Then later I encountered some opinions and allusions to the country through study of Japanese language and culture. None of these led me any closer to what might be the heart and soul of the Korean people—the essential quality to which I wanted to expose my students in world literature. Then I read Lost Names. I knew immediately that this text would help my students discover that a small country across the world from America, with customs and traditions very different from theirs, is a place with warm, friendly people who share the same hopes and dreams as they do.

The student body at W. G. Enloe High School is very diverse. There might be a dozen different national backgrounds in any given classroom. A student sitting side-by-side with a friend who speaks English fluently may have no idea that his classmate’s home life is based on assumptions and ideas quite different from his own. Until they are introduced to world cultures and world literature in tenth grade, our students often have little idea of the value and richness of other cultural heritages.

Image of an old woman.It is the personal lives of others that draw students into literature, that make them want to know and understand more about another culture. Literature is the perfect key to open the curious minds of adolescents and help them to understand that for all of our differences, human beings share the same basic needs and desires and values. Lost Names is one of those rare texts that appeal to all ages. Seeing World War II through the eyes of a boy growing up in the midst of the chaos puts the war in a completely different perspective for our students who have no understanding of genuine hardship or sacrifice.

Before my students begin to read Lost Names, they have studied the cultures, religions, and literatures of India, China, and Japan. They have looked at World War II through the eyes of Japanese survivors of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. They are empathetic and sympathetic to the suffering of the Japanese people. Then they look at another non-American side of the war—not just what Japan suffered, but also the suffering Japan caused. They triumph with the small victories of a young boy and his proud father trying to retain their self respect amid the indignities of occupation and war. The story that Richard Kim weaves encircles them and draws them into the pain and daily victories of survival, into the courage and determination to persevere in the face of great danger. They see the Confucian values of family hierarchy and duty, not as abstract characteristics to memorize, but as a way of life that, when they are practiced well, supports every member of a society. They see filial piety and duty as two parts of a whole. They see the boy practicing these values as a son and then as a leader of his group at school.

Until American students see how these values work in everyday life, it is hard for them to understand how anything but being a “rugged individualist” can be a good way of life. When, in chapter three, the boy challenges a classmate to a race, knowing the classmate will win, students can see that losing can be a different kind of victory. From reading this novel students can begin to develop an understanding of the tragedy of war in general and civil war in particular. In addition, they can vicariously experience the triumph of the human spirit, something common to all mankind.

At the end of last school year, when I asked which works in the curriculum should be taught again and which replaced, there was a great outcry for the continued inclusion of Lost Names. For further information, see Teaching More about Korea: Lessons for Students in Grades K-12. The lesson plans are published by The Korea Society as an outcome of the Tenth Annual Summer Fellowship in Korean Studies Program. The booklet includes “A Study Guide for Lost Names and Discussion Questions for Various Short Stories,” all by Korean authors. For more information about the publication, contact Yong Jin Choi, Director, Korean Studies Program, The Korea Society, 950 Third Avenue, 8th Floor, New York, NY 10022; phone: (212) 759-7525, ext. 25.