2017 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior third place
A Heart Hidden Beneath

Dr. Yi is a study in contradictions: a virulent xenophobe who latches onto every passing foreign power, a surgeon without a heart, a man of ambition without the will to act, and a family man living the solitary life of a narcissist. By highlighting the hypocrisies of Dr. Yi in "Kapitan Ri," Kwangyong creates an immediately detestable character, who--on an initial encounter--seems irredeemably flawed. Kwangyong's true artistry, however, comes with subsequent reads, where the reader's perception of the miserly M.D. softens as his narrative forces them to reflect on their own insincerities and faults; Yi's motives gain new importance, his choices become nuanced, and suddenly the demonic doctor becomes slightly less despicable. We cannot help but reconsider his merit, lest we become critics using the same contradictory double standards that molded our initial perceptions of Yi.

Undoubtedly, Dr. Yi is a greedy, weak-willed, superficial misanthrope with a superiority complex, yet that is not all that defines him. Although his actions and statements are generally deplorable, Yi's underlying motives are admirable. Throughout the story, Yi remains devoted to producing what he considers a model life for his family, one that will secure them the maximum happiness and prosperity. This desire to improve the prospects of his "warm family circle," is blatant in some areas, but also buried in every seemingly cowardly and selfish decision he makes (53). The quintessential examples of Yi's filial care are his efforts to provide his children with educations that will prepare them for the future, whether that be in a Japanese colony, Soviet satellite, or an independent--but United States-influenced--Korea. Dr. Yi's constant jumping from allegiance to allegiance is not dishonest, but rather a means of "being in keeping with the times" (54). By adopting an utterly pragmatic philosophy, Yi sacrifices his personal standing with his neighbors to ingratiate himself with the regime, and thereby further his family's means, even when his wife and children do not know of his intentions. He makes judgments based on the moment and sometimes comes to regret them--as with choosing to have " only son sent into the jaws of death" in a Russian university that Yi had predicted would prove the only way for his son "to overcome the limitations of his social origins and ideology"(61-62). Dr. Yi is always quick to recognize when he makes miscalculations, and rapidly adjusts to changing circumstances, whether that means removing the Japanese element of his daughter's name after World War II, or altering his attitude towards his daughter's prospective marriage from hostility to utilitarian acceptance.

Have physical and temporal distances given me rose-tinted glasses that turn Yi into a saint? Hardly. I fully recognize his faults, but also see inherently positive traits that I believe even Koreans who could have been Yi's (theoretical) contemporaries would recognize if truly made to think about the character.

Dr. Yi is painted as a "doormat," "pig," and "sellout," by his fellow Koreans during the early post-colonial years, a corrupt physician forsaking his own people for their oppressors (64). Today, these same citizens might immediately brand his attempts at working with and accepting the Japanese regime as duplicitous, but were his misdemeanors exceedingly unique or egregious, or does memory merely alter our perspective? Most of the harm Yi directs at others merely takes the form of racist and classist snap judgments, which--although admittedly atrocious--do not ultimately impact those he stereotypes, for Yi's critiques, mostly remain unsaid. Beyond these mental abuses, Yi actually does very little harm to others. Most of the behavior that rewards him with the title "lackey," involves fervently accepting the status quo over joining a nationalist movement, a choice that would potentially put his family in major peril (63). That was simply the reality for millions of people living under Japanese rule, and is almost always the case for everyday living under oppressive states; more often than not, individuals decide "it's safest to keep a low profile" (62). After the time of strife has passed, those people (often unintentionally) distort their memories to give themselves more active roles in the opposition movements, and to place blame on a select few individuals. Looking back, Koreans who experienced the horrors of colonial rule would likely understand the desire to protect one's relatives and bury national pride within one's mind during dangerous times, and therefore allot Yi a kinder appraisal than he received from his fellows during the chaotic transitory periods following the Second World War. Dr. Yi never hopes to sabotage other citizens, just to guard those closest to him.

"Kapitan Ri" operates on numerous levels, each of which generates a vastly different message depending on a reader's outlook. Although the notion that Yi is merely a self-centered fortune seeker seems logical, it ignores elements of his character that lurk throughout the story. Acknowledging and examining these aspects opens up a host of alternate themes. Now, Dr. Yi forces us to consider whether one's actions justify the end result, whether people have the capacity to transform over time, and to whom in society one's ultimate obligation is towards: oneself, one's family, or one's nation. Kwangyong displays how pursuing one's magnanimous goals can actually be misconstrued as selfish, and how firmly standing with one's values can have concrete, permanent consequences to one's reputation, and even to one's character. While Dr. Yi is not a role model to be strictly imitated, he does reveal a meritorious identity beneath an abhorrent exterior, conveying the ultimate idea that so long as one's motives remain true, not everything is lost.