"Tough times are the times when one gathers one's pearls."
Gathering of Pearls is the last book in Choi's three part series about a young woman's life in Korea and her journey to America.
It is September, 1954 and Sookan Bak has just arrived at Idlewild Airport (now known as John F. Kennedy International Airport) in New York, after a lengthy plane trip across the Pacific. Sookan has achieved her dream of coming to study in America where she will be attending Finch College, an all-girls Catholic college in New York. She feels tired, overwhelmed and nervous. Everything is so much larger and busier than Seoul, Korea. Sookan is struck by how tall and openly affectionate Americans are. Adding to her worries is the fact that the students who were supposed to meet her at Idlewild are not there. Anxious, Sookan calls Sister Casey at Finch College and gets instructions to the college. So begins her four years in America.
When she arrives at Finch College, Sookan's self-consciousness over her black hair and yellow skin is not eased by Sister Casey's request that she wear her native dress, called a hanbok to dinner. However, the girls at the college are delighted and Sookan meets her roommate, Ellen Lloyd, a tall, blonde outgoing girl. Sookan and Ellen get acquainted, with Sookan telling Ellen how her older sister who is a nun did not want her to come to America and Ellen showing Sookan a picture of her boyfriend, Lyle who is a student at Princeton. Sookan is impressed by Ellen's plans for her life, to marry Lyle and have four children, two boys and two girls.
Sookan plans an ambitious academic schedule, selecting world literature, world religions, Greek and Roman culture and early European history. She knows this will be challenging but she is determined to succeed. Sookan also meets another girl at the school, Marci Gannon, who is very different from Ellen. Marci is quiet, loves to read books and has a somewhat boyish look. Marci believes she looks and sounds awkward but Sookan reassures her that she is just fine.
Sookan receives her first letter from her mother which makes her feel homesick but she also discerns that things are difficult for her family in Korea. Her mother both encourages her, having faith that she will succeed and also tells her not to worry about the family back home.
As the term wears on, Sookan finds it increasingly difficult to keep up with her heavy course work and manage her outside commitments. For scholarship work she is assigned to serve the evening dinner shift and she's also asked to speak about Korea to the Girl Scouts Club. She also agrees to babysit the children of Professor Bennett on weekends.
As Sookan becomes better friends with both Marci and Ellen, she begins to realize that they have similar problems with family expectations despite the difference in their cultures and traditions.
In Ellen's situation, her problems center around her growing relationship with her boyfriend Kyle, whom Ellen is convinced she will marry. Possibly knowing her parents will not support her decision to become involved with a boy so young, Ellen keeps her relationship a secret.
Marci tells Sookan that her father wants her to study science and eventually take over his chemical company, Gannon Chemical, something she has absolutely no interest in. Marci feels disconnected from her parents who seem to adore her older sister, Susan, who is outgoing, popular and who shares similar interests with their parents.
Sookan especially understands Marci's predicament because it mirrors her own feelings, especially towards her older sister Theresa, although she is shocked to hear Marci voice them. Letters from Theresa who is a nun, seem to highlight this disconnect the Sookan feels too. Instead of encouraging her as their mother had done, Theresa chides Sookan for neglecting to send her the pages of her personal journal so she could read them, as she agreed to do and for neglecting their goal of helping people. Theresa, whom everyone looks up to, considers Sookan's dream of studying overseas to be a waste of time. All this leaves Sookan conflicted and feeling as though she has neglected to do her duty and has disobeyed her older sister. Although she has assumed she would one day be a nun like Theresa, now she is not so sure.
Before leaving for Christmas holidays at Marci's home, Sookan receives two letters from home, one from her mother and the other from her sister, Theresa. The two letters bear different news and opinions. From her mother Sookan gets a letter that encourages her to patient, that trying to do everything according to both Korean and American tradition will not be possible. On the other hand, Theresa's letter tells about her unending hardships at the convent, criticizing Sookan's behaviour and questioning her maturity to be away from home. Sookan must struggle to fit in at school while at the same time try to retain the values that her family back in Korea value.
Gathering of Pearls while telling an interesting story about a young woman who comes to America to follow her dream of getting a good education and breaking free to some degree of the restrictions her culture places on her, is more a coming of age story and about recognizing the wisdom parents have to offer their children, and about acceptance.
Like Marci and Ellen, Sookan is faced with a family member who does not understand her or what she might want in life. In Sookan's case it is her older sister, while with Ellen and Marci it is their parents. How all three girls deal with this timeless problem is a major theme in the novel. Marci rebels violently against her father who wants her to study chemistry, a subject she is neither good at nor enjoys. She believes her father hates her, but Sookan, an outsider sees that he merely wants her to enjoy what he can provide for her. Ellen on the other hand feels her parents won't let her make her own decisions about her life despite the fact that she is only eighteen years old. Sookan eventually comes to her own realization about her sister through her mother.
When Sookan returns to school after Christmas break, Sister Reed meets with her to change her schedule, telling her they are very impressed with all her accomplishments. She also gives Sookan a beautiful pearl necklace, a necklace her aunt wanted to be given to an extraordinary young woman. Later on when the pearl necklace breaks, Sookan is reminded of something her mother told her.
"She used to say that women are like oysters. Just as an oyster takes an irritating grain of sand and creates a pearl around it, a woman can take a painful experience and enrich herself by creating something precious from that pain. We take in the misery and bitterness, but instead of letting it poison us, we turn it into a precious pearl....When tragedy strikes her family and Sookan learns of the death of her mother, she is utterly devastated. Father Lee travels from Korea and tells her a particular strength that her mother possessed.
I cleaned each pearl and thought of my mother. She had suffered so much, and she had made herself richer for it. She was rich in understanding and love...."
"'You know, Sookan, what made your mother so special was her ability to accept people. She firmly believed that one was born with one's nature. One could try to change but would ultimately remain the same. Because she believed this so firmly, she appreciated people for their strengths. She managed to overlook their weaknesses and never criticized them. She also believed that each person was born with a destiny. She never tried to impose her will on any of her children. She wanted each of you to pursue your own path.... She wanted you to live your own life and, most of all, to be happy.'"
Later on her younger brother, Inchun, sends Sookan their mother's reading glasses. She also receives a letter from her sister that reeks of resentment that she is not there for their mother's funeral. Sookan recognizes this but also remembers her mother's way of thinking. Inchun's gift of their mother's reading glasses to Sookan is a symbol for Sookan looking at people the way her mother did - with understanding, acceptance but also realizing that she must make her own choices and her own life and not necessarily do what her sister or others might believe she should do.
"I realized I must accept my sister, as my mother had done. Nothing would change her, not even Mother's death. I saw now that she had her own shortcomings, insecurities, and anxieties. It was my responsibility to try to understand her as a human being."Sookan recognizes that her sister does care for her but that she need not obey her. This allows her to accept her sister and to love her.
Gathering of Pearls is a wonderful conclusion to this beautifully crafted autobiographical trilogy. Readers will learn a little about the history of Korea and its culture, the values placed on family responsibility and duty. Sookan is gentle, thoughtful narrator who realistically conveys to readers all of this.
Gathering of Pearls by Sook Nyul Choi
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company 1994