Study Guide

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

By Adam Johnson

Foreignness and the "Other"

North Korean characters in The Orphan Master's Son often respond to foreign cultures with extreme distrust, fueled by the propaganda fed to them through loudspeakers that are hooked up in everyone's houses. When experience teaches these characters that not all is as it seems, the world opens up for them in sometimes frightening ways. In fact, the realization that the world is not the place they were taught has catastrophic consequences for many of these characters.

Americans have more accurate information about the world—and yet there are hints that they haven't cornered the market on truth, either. Johnson likes to make fun of his American characters, too. For example, they characterize the people of most of the developing world as "dog-eaters" and thinking that they can fix everything with military power, a good chat, or Jesus.

Still, Jun Do finds emotional depth and compassion in the Americans he meets, and there's an openness about them that is totally captivating for him. It's no coincidence that his desire for emotional intimacy happens after his visit to the U.S.—that is, after his first real encounter with the Other.

Questions About Foreignness and the "Other"

  1. How does Jun Do begin to learn about the world outside of North Korea? How does this knowledge change his view of North Korea?
  2. How does Sun Moon define being Korean? Is she sincere when she tells the Dear Leader that only Koreans can ever understand what it's like to be Korean?
  3. How do the North Korean characters in this novel regard their own government? Which of their notions are correct? Which are incorrect?
  4. What is the general view of Americans in this work? What is Jun Do's experience of Americans?

Chew on This

Jun Do's perception of Japan and its citizens stems from his own sense of depravation rather than from his direct experience of the place.

Dr. Song's interpretation of American political behavior is included to point out American failings rather than to highlight willful manipulation of facts on the part of the North Koreans.

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