(Some notes towards a review – “They Won’t Crack It Open” can only be found in
Imagining America : Stories From the Promised Land, Revised Edition)
Kim Yong-ik’s “They Won’t Crack It Open,” features a brilliant but rather surprising and subtle examination of the destructive effects of internalized social essentialism. Kim’s cleverness in this story is to take a multicultural story and by applying an inverted multicultural lens tell tale of how social essentialism can destroy individuals who can’t see past social construction to reality. Oddly, in this case the victim is a Westerner, Dick.
Kim chooses to focus on how cultural essentialism destroys the white insider Dick, rather than the more obvious narrative of the outsider (A Korean) attempting to gain entry to an unfamiliar race and culture. Thus the title, while it refers to a closed system, does not refer the United States for Kim, but rather for Dick. The essentialist conflict is largely an internal one and revolves around how Dick feels about his relationship to society in the United States versus the way he was able to portray himself in Korea.
Part of the subtlety is that Kim is writing about social essentialism in the United States that has nothing to do with racism or foreigners and little to do with immigrants. The subtlety is even deeper because Kim places much of the essentialism inside the character of Dick , and not in the surrounding culture. Kim uses a kind of reverse etching to sharply outline the effect that perceived dominant culture essentialism has on its less successful members. This is unusual in general and also for Kim, who typically wrote stories based on Koreans still in Korea (Knippling 147).
But Kim must certainly have recognized cultural essentialism as he had emigrated to the United States from one of the most homogenous and culturally closed countries in the world. The Korea Kim emigrated from was the Korea that required children to meet twice a day and swear that they would “devote (their) body and mind for the development of the fatherland and nation Kim arrived in the United States at age 28 with his, “mind and characters firmly rooted in (his) own culture.” (Ghymn 29).
“They Won’t Crack It Open,” in fact, closely follows the real events of Kim’s arrival in the United States as a young ‘wannabe’ writer and student at Florida Southern College. So if the United States had any cultural essentialism to be noted, Kim would be the one to note it.
First, “They Won’t Crack It Open, introduces Dick, a US soldier in Korea who impresses a camp of blind children, then returns to the United States before the crimes he committed to support the camp can follow him. This is told in flashback, with the story occurring in the United States, as the narrator attempts to track Dick down and find him, nearly literally, in a heap.
Kim uses several important symbols and metaphors to examine Dick’s position outside of core culture (brilliantly characterized as “the show”). The first, of course, is that of blindness and deception. The Korean children that Dick takes on are all blind, and Dick’s mother, with whom he lives, is short-sighted almost to the point of blindness. This blindness is more than just physical, it also includes misrepresentation and misunderstanding. Kim also makes clever use of names/identities and mispronunciations of them. There is also the “greatest show on earth,” which is obviously a symbol of the United States and the gaudy life it offers but does not guarantee. Finally, there is the ultimate symbol of the work, the coconut, which is mysterious and impenetrable and even as Cho sends it back to Korea he knows it will never be completely understood.
Blindness, both physical and psychological, is one of the key symbols of the story and oddly it is generally attributed to the most sympathetic and narratively honest characters – they may not be clever or questioning, but they are innocent and well-intentioned. Again, Kim uses an atypical authorial strategy that allows him to carve the story out in reverse relief. The one exception to this approach is when blindness is chosen – that is the case of Dick’s pride which I will discuss shortly.
The blind Korean school children are at least two kinds of symbols. First, they can represent the third world looking on uncomprehending. Second, of course, blindness can stand for a kind of uncorrupted innocence – having not “seen” the evils of the world. The first representation is clearly in play in some ways; it certainly comes into play when Cho imagines the children refusing to open the coconut (about which I will have more to say). Here, by refusing to “see” something for what it completely is, the children allow it to remain a false symbol – in this case Dick’s crown. This incomprehension is not, I am at pains to point out, the important issue of the story. Kim is not arguing that the United States is closed to third world understanding, rather he is using a non-comprehending third world to give Dick room to be himself. As uncorrupted innocents, the blind children give Dick a tabula rasa upon which to reflect himself as he sees fit. In many ways this is the trigger of the story as it allows Dick to create a description of himself that is a direct inversion of his reality at home in the United States. The tension in the story begins when Cho lands in the United States, eyes wide open, and Dick’s carefully constructed foreign fantasy unravels.
As a purely novelistic tactic, the blindness of the Korean children makes Dick’s masquerade in Korea even more bizarre. In Korean summers Dick would climb up an electric light pole near the school and dive into the sea. Kim admits that this was quite a sight, but that admission begs the question why does Dick perform only for a blind audience? And what are we to make of his final, nearly plaintive request of the Cho that he, “Tell them, Cho, that the diving chased out my evil spirit. (Kim 53)” So a man in disguise, performs tricks for children who can’t see, to exorcise the demons he earned in his homeland.
The blindness suffered by Dick’s mother is comparable to the blindness of the Korean school children. While she is not completely blind, she is also too innocent to entirely understand who Dick is. Because of this she is also a blank screen on which Dick can project himself or, more accurately, his failures. Dick does this through his rages, at one point admitting to Cho that “My mother is OK. I often get cross with her. (Kim 55)”
Dick’s blindness is of a different kind, though instantly recognizable to a reader from the western canon. Dick is blinded by pride. It is pride that causes Dick to spend money he can’t afford, drink when bitter, and refuse aid when it is offered. Dick’s mother ruefully notes that:
Dick is a good boy, but he always wants to show off. His friends want to give him jobs, but he’s been trying to find a big job by himself – that would impress his friends who want to help him. (Kim 52)
In fact, this pride is so great that it causes Dick to struggle to continue his relationship with the blind Korean children at the expense of his relationships in the United States. This ties back, of course, to his desire to perform masquerades for the blind. Dick would rather be “seen” as the “crown” in Korea than take care of his mother at home. Dick’s desire for charade is also played out here as the chastises his mother in selfish terms, “What will Cho think of us? You told him your damn story of how poor we are, didn’t you? (Kim 53)” This isn’t exactly Greek in scope, but it is the hubris of the outsider attempting to portray himself as something he is not. And of course the beautiful reversal/irony here is that Dick must travel to some place even more essentially (in the quotidian sense) not his culture to become who he wants to be in his culture.
The title “They Won’t Crack It Open” is a lovely initial mis-signifier as it seems to be considering the United States from the perspective of a visitor or immigrant who can’t get in. Kim tells the story of an Asian visitor and the title, and the opening scenes of Cho’s incomprehension and abandonment at the airport, lead a reader to believe the outsider will be Cho. But as the story progresses, it becomes clear the outsider is Dick. Like the coconut that will never be cracked, the title signifies the “inner” circle that unfortunate citizens of the United States can never achieve.
To begin, Kim names Dick, well, Dick. The semi-sexual lower class nature of this name would be clear to any English speaker and it is the first hint we get that our character may not be from within the greatest show on earth. Second, Kim does a very nice job with the Clown/Crown misunderstanding. Kim creates a mirror identity for Dick as the clown on the page becomes the clown that is Dick when a partially sighted Korean child notes the similarities between the description of a clown and the ‘real’ Dick in the room. Kim cleverly inverts this indentity (and adds yet another trick mirror to this local “greatest show on earth) by having the Korean children mis-pronounce this name as “Crown.” A three-tiered deception is completed (only partially intentionally) and Dick is, in a way, the King of Korea, although his title is unfortunately, “Crown Dick. (Kim 48)”
This is, of course, a complete fraud and it is one that Dick perpetuates by theft. Dick’s largesse to the Korean children is stolen goods. When, just prior to leaving Korean he brings blankets and food to the blind children, it is the fruit of larceny, “Later an army investigator had come a few times inquiring about some missing army goods. (Kim 53)” Dick can only live out the “Greatest Show on Earth” when he is divorced from it and even then he must steal from it’s traveling show.
Another indication, signified by use of names, that Dick is the real subject of the story is that others are generally not named. The Korean children are treated as interchangeable, only differentiated by levels of blindness, and Dick’s mother is referred to only as “ma” or “mother.” The only other “character” with a name is the greatest show on earth.
The “greatest show on earth” is Kim’s (through Dick, Cho and the schoolchildren) signifier for some ideal notion of United States’ culture. In Korea the vision seems compelling and worthwhile and Dick passes himself off as part of that show. As soon as Cho gets into the taxi it begins to become clear that the “show” is seasonal (it is shut down for the season when Cho arrives in Florida), that it’s geography is limited, and that not all are invited to see it. Cho, the clearest-eyed of all the characters in this story, quickly begins to see that the ‘show” is only a vision, not a reality. This is a recognition that unfortunately eludes Dick.
One of the cleverest and subtlest authorial decisions Kim makes is to place the dominant culture practically offstage. Dick is never seen directly confronting the greatest show on earth, rather it lurks offstage, vast and inaccessible. We only see the “show” when Dick is in Korea and even then he can only show a picture of the greatest show on earth in the pages of Life Magazine. When Dick is asked to demonstrate where he lives in relationship to it, he can only gesture somewhere outside the boundaries of the page. That paragraph is a brilliant look inside Dick’s head as he begins by answering, “vaguely, ‘Not in this picture.’ Then pointing to the margin of the page and beyond he had added definitely, “Very near though. (Kim 49)” Kim’s use of the word “margin” as the balancing point between Dick’s vagueness and false definition is brilliant – it suggests how far outside Dick really is from the show and how aggressively he must dissemble to ignore that fact.
This geographical relationship unfolds in reverse as Kim is taxied from the airport to Dick’s house. He passes through the neighborhoods of “homes whose large glass windows seemed to hold an underwater riches. (Kim 49)” This geographical inversion is also evoked when Dick’s mother notes that “When he was away, he was so good to me, writing to me every week. Now at home he never talks to me and gets cross with me easy. (Kim 52)” It is very easy to argue that Dick is most comfortable as he is least accessible to all aspects of his home culture. As long as he compares himself to the greatest show on earth he will come up lacking.
All of these geographical representations of distance from the greatest show on earth (whatever it is) demonstrate how alienated Dick actually is from his own culture (. And this distance slowly kills him. “They Won’t Crack It Open” is thematically similar to Amiri Baraka’s “The Death of Horatio Alger,” but it does it’s ‘freezing’ by self-exclusion from a culture, not immersion in it.
So Dick, like the Korean students, cannot “crack it open.” But what are we given to understand why Dick won’t accept aid, why Dick, more or less, is essential to himself? It is worth noting that Dick and his mother aren’t completely insiders. They are immigrants to the United States as well. Dick’s mother is clearly an immigrant. Dick’s mother is more than just an immigrant, she is an un-assimilated one. She tells Cho what are essentially tales upon herself by both her appearance and her actions. Cho notes that she doesn’t look like she comes from the United States (shabby clothes, big shoes and a house without most modern conveniences) and in fact reminds him of a Korean woman (Kim 52). The mother also tells a humiliating story (in the context of the “greatest show”) about attempting to pick up cow dung for fuel. These are interesting passages, for in them Kim comes very close to orientalizing Dick’s family and these are the only passages in the story that allow even of the ‘traditional’ outsider narrative into this story. Anne Cheng notes that the making of a hybrid culture includes practices “that are partly inherited and partly modified as well as partly invented, (26)” and if any argument is to be made about Dick being an outsider by something other than choice, that argument would be made based on these passages and “something indefinable, something that had been gained through years of history and passed on through generations, something that formed the senses and temperament that made (him). (Oh 1)” Yet I find these passages more a traditional kind of comfortable identification by Cho, and given that Dick’s mother seems to “get” what it takes to get into the greatest show on earth, it is difficult to see how a critic could place the genesis of Dick’s intransigence in his mother’s culture: It may be old, but it is flexible at least.
The mother admits Dick is ashamed of her, but Dick’s own birthplace is never explicitly mentioned, and seems likely from context (“down here from Iowa”) that it was in the United States. Perhaps it is this shame that shackles Dick, yet in the context of the story it seems to be the result of how Dick approaches the world and not enforced by the world. This is the unspoken puzzle of the story – how Dick came to a state in which he thought he could only fit in on the far outside, because at home he felt inferior. There is certainly no interior Horatio Alger here. But in the end it doesn’t matter, because Dick is precisely the person “the greatest show on earth” is aimed to accommodate – The white wage earner (sort of) with army experience. Dick should fit in and doesn’t, instead consciously not accepting offers which could get him into the “show.” He has defined himself out.
Dick does have a moment of self-recognition in which he bares his soul and explicitly discusses the issues Kim writes about. After the argument with his mother, and before he drops Cho off at the bus station, Dick unburdens himself with confession before unburdening himself with alcohol. It is only with respect to the Korean children that Dick can honestly assess that the problem he has with the world is located within him and not necessarily in the world itself. Dick admits that “It is strange that I seem to feel more concerned about what they should think about me, those children I shall never see again, than about what people here think. (Kim 55)” Kim is too delicate a writer to let it end like this and the final scene between Cho and Kim is one of bathos as a passed-out drunk Dick, twitching at Cho’s attempts to wake him, reprises some of his less successful moments in life.
“They Won’t Crack It Open” ends with Kim’s final symbol, the coconut and its imagined reception in Korea. It is here that we finally come to understand the title of the story as well as the essentialist aspects of Dick that more or less doom him. First, just as the kids with the coconut/crown, Dick refuses to try to open his personal coconut. More specifically, Dick refuses to open “the image” of the coconut/crown/show and this internalized essentialism is in fact what keeps him from the inside. The fact that the Korean children will never crack the coconut may mean that they will never taste the liquor within, but also that they will never be disappointed by contents they might not understand. The difference for Dick is that he knows what is inside the coconut, but he lacks the will to attack it. An essentialist view of the world keeps him forever a spectator at the circus and not a participant in it.
This may be the greatest pundan munhak work that was ever sited in the United States. 😉
Baraka, Amiri, “The Death of Horatio Alger.” Imagining America Stories From the Promised Land. Eds. Wesley Brown & Amy Ling. New York: Persea Books, 2002. 153-157.
Cheng, Anne Anlin. The Melancholy of Race. New York: Oxford University Press. 2000.
Ghymn, Esther Mikyung. The Shapes and Styles of Asian American Prose Fiction. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. 1992.
Knippling, Alpana Sharma. New Immigrant Literatures in the United States: A Sourcebook to Our Multicultural Literary Heritage. Westport CT: Greenwood Press. 1996.
Pai, Hyung Il and Timothy R. Tangherlini. Nationalism and the Construction of Korean Identity. Berkeley: University of California. 1998.
Park, Yong Ik, “They Won’t Crack It Open.” Imagining America Stories From the Promised Land. Eds. Wesley Brown & Amy Ling. New York: Persea Books, 2002. 47-57.
Oh, Seiwoong. “Cross-Cultural Reading versus Textual Accessibility in Multicultural Literature.” Korean Studies. 25:2 (2002) 3.