AMERICAN SEOUL

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In Korean culture, the word jeong is significant. Meaning bond, obligation, or responsibility, it is usually a positive concept of attachment, but it can easily turn into a tool for manipulation and abuse. This duality lies at the heart of Rho’s compelling memoir, an exploration—occasionally harrowing—of finding a way to balance the expectations of others with obligations to oneself. The author, who moved with her family from Seoul to the U.S. when she was 6, built a life that seemed perfect. She graduated as a doctor when it was not easy for a woman to do so, and she became an assistant professor of pediatrics at three different prestigious children’s hospitals. Within her family, she was umchin tdal: the chosen one, the prettiest sister, the model that others were supposed to emulate. But behind the success were pain and difficulty, especially the unrelenting parental pressure to be the best at everything, as well as a protracted, bitter divorce. Rho also discovered that she was not suited to a medical career: She worried constantly about making the wrong decision, and she realized that she was an introvert wearing “the persona of an exuberant extrovert.” A traumatic car accident set in motion a change of thinking, and at the age of 40, she left medicine to become a writer. Even more, she sought to rediscover her Korean roots, learning the language and returning to Seoul, reinvigorating links with her extended family. These chapters form the emotional core of the book and the essence of Rho’s journey, and she ably conveys the complexity of being in a society although not really of it. She concludes that there are ways to claim two cultures as home—and love both. Rho’s story reveals the importance of resilience, strength, and human connections in choosing what sort of life to live.

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