Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Foreignness and the "Other"

By Adam Johnson

Foreignness and the "Other"

Part 1, Pages 20-34

"If you slept with one of these girls," Gil said, "you'd know it was because she wanted to, not like some military comfort girl trying to get nine stamps in her quota book or a factory gal getting married off by her housing council." (28)

Gil has reached a level of understanding about North Korea that Jun Do has not yet attained—hence the tension between the characters. Gil gets it: life in the free world means self-determination, the right to do as you please, particularly in the most intimate moments. This is a basic freedom that Jun Do cannot grasp at this point.

... Jun Do saw a passenger jet crossing the sky, a big plume behind it. He gawked, neck craned—amazing. So amazing he decided to feign normalcy at everything, like the colored lights controlling the traffic or the way buses kneeled, oxenlike, to let old people board. Of course the parking meters could talk, and the doors of businesses open as they passed. Of course there was no water barrel in the bathroom, no ladle. (26)

As Jun Do moves through Japan on his way to kidnap Rumina, his exposure to modern life in a developed country overwhelms him on every level. There is no lack of comfort in this place (flushing toilets, people)—and it makes him miserable. Unlike Gil, he has no plans to become part of the luxury. All the things that amaze him here are the things that separate him even further from Japanese society, because they're things he can't have.

Jun Do never looked. He knew the televisions were huge and there was all the rice you could eat. Yet he wanted no part of it—he was scared that if he saw it with his own eyes, his entire life would mean nothing. Stealing turnips from an old man who'd gone blind from hunger? That would have been for nothing. Sending another boy instead of himself to clean vats at the paint factory? For nothing. (22)

When Jun Do first sets foot on Japanese soil with Gil, he feels the chip on his shoulder growing. His life of depravation—all in the name of a sociopolitical ideal—suddenly seems hollow. This first experience with another culture gives Jun Do an inkling of just how wrong things in his own country really are. As his moral flexibility is tested further, the giant TV sets will be the least of his worries.

Part 1, Pages 34-62

"To row around the world," the Second Mate said. "Only a sexy woman would do that. It's so pointless and arrogant. Only sexy Americans would think the world was something to defeat." (44)

This truly comical moment makes Jun Do uncomfortable, but he really can't think of a good defense against the Second Mate. The concept of the arrogant American comes up in several places in this work, with Johnson doing his best to capture honestly the truth of some of the stereotypes. Though this is a goofy statement on the part of the Second Mate, the idea of the arrogant, sexy American taking on the world holds traction for many people who are not Americans.

"You don't know how devious these North Koreas are," Pak countered. "Their whole society is based on deception. You wait, we'll tear this boat apart, and you'll know I'm right." (58)

The South Korean translator is working on his own preconceived notions about his slippery neighbors to the north. While Pak's assessment seems unfair (Jun Do is our hero, after all) and verging on prejudice, there's much truth in what he says. His distrust of the enemy at the border is not something the American naval officers can appreciate fully. All they can see is badly impoverished fishermen.

The First Mate found a pair, blue and white, and stowed them under his bunk. The Pilot was marveling over a size fifteen, over what manner of human would take that size, and the Machinist created a tall pile of shoes he intended for his wife to try. (55)

The finding of the gigantic Nike shoe is a little like finding Sasquatch's footprint in your backyard. You know such creatures must be mythical, and yet there it is: proof in footwear. For an undernourished North Korean, finding such a proof must open the eyes too far, too fast. Knowing that the world is big enough to contain you and said really big person is enough to strike fear into the heart.

"And what if you do make it around the world—how do you wait in line for your dormitory toilet again, knowing that you've been to America? Maybe the millet tasted better in some other country and the loudspeakers weren't so tinny. Suddenly it's your tap water that smells not so good—then what do you do?" (47)

This is a common lament of people all around the world: what if the grass really is greener on the other side? How can I continue to live my sad, sad life? The Second Mate also shows us his provincial side when he couches everything in terms of his North Korean existence: the toilets, the millet—all things that wouldn't be an issue in America to begin with. He senses that bigger, better things are out there, but he doesn't even have the language with which to dream (or despair) about them.

Part 1, Pages 124-143

Women were free to smoke in America and should not be confronted. Disciplining other people's children in America was not okay... With great discomfort, Dr. Song touched on American standards of personal hygiene, and then he delivered a mini-lecture on the subject of smiling. He concluded with dogs, noting how Americans were very sentimental, with a particular softness toward canines. (125)

For an American reading this, it's the stuff of comedy. But for an American to write it? Well, that takes some clever perception. It's sometimes easy to forget that Jun Do is merely a character written by Johnson, especially in moments like these. He really has to step out of the American mindset to get into Jun Do's and Dr. Song's in order to see Americans as they might be perceived outside their own borders. The bit about the dogs will return repeatedly, reminding us further of the vast differences between North Korea and most of the developed world.

The Captain had told Jun Do that off the east coast of Japan the ocean was nine thousand meters deep, and now he understood what that meant. Witnessing the vastness of the Pacific—how impossibly monumental that you could row across it!—he understood how rare his radio contacts had been. (124-125)

Jun Do's world suddenly gets to be a much bigger place when he travels beyond the borders of North Korea. It's all a little overwhelming—if not downright depressing—to understand the distances between peoples.

Part 2, Pages 348-366

"I wonder of what you must daily endure in America, having no government to protect you, no one to tell you want to do. Is it true you're given no ration card, that you must find food for yourself? Is it true that you labor for no higher purpose than paper money?" (350)

This moment when Sun Moon speaks to an uncomprehending American rower about the incredible folly of capitalistic life is a double-edged sword. It's clearly a criticism of American culture, but Johnson also makes us acutely aware of the otherness of a world in which ration cards and absolute government control are actual things. In the end, neither side looks particularly attractive.

Part 2, Pages 417-438

"Korean, this is a word written in blood on the walls of the heart. No American could ever use it. So she has paddled her little boat, so some sun has beat down on her. Have the people she loved faced death so that she might live? Is sorrow the only thing that connects her to all who came before her? Has her nation been occupied by Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese oppressors for ten thousand years?" (420)

Sun Moon is desperately trying to convince the Dear Leader to stick with the plan to let the American Rower go—otherwise her plans to defect will be derailed. And she is good: while we know her ulterior motive, her patriotic panegyric is moving and makes us wonder just how much of it she really feels. If you're very careful, you might imagine an authorial intrusion here, with Johnson speculating on what it means to belong to a nation.