Synopses & Reviews
Susan Choi's story of improbable love brings together a displaced Korean student and a rebellious young American woman, two outsiders who seek solace and escape from the afflictions of their pasts. Chang Ahn has experienced first-hand the horrors, political turmoil, and betrayals of the Korean war. Hoping to leave behind his nightmarish memories, Chang escapes from his war-torn country and arrives at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, in August 1955. Unprepared for the totally different world of Sewanee, Chang--nicknamed Chuck--takes pride in his carefully guarded " compact self-sufficiency, " practicing his English with the charismatic Professor Charles Addison and deciphering the rules of college life, where he does not quite fit. Then he meets Katherine Monroe, who quickly becomes the unsettling center of his attention.
The brilliant and impetuous twenty-eight-year-old Katherine is something of a figure in Sewanee. The daughter of a well-to-do Southern family, she has rebelled since childhood against the conventions of family and society, settling in her family's old summer house in Sewanee and into an obsessive affair with Charles Addison, who seduced her when she was fourteen. Estranged from her mother and unhappy with Addison, Katherine is as much a loner and outsider as is Chang. As Katherine and Chang struggle with their respective histories and move toward love and mutual understanding, alternating chapters reveal the details of their pasts. Harrowing accounts of Chang's experiences in Korea are juxtaposed with troubling revelations of Katherine's childhood and young adult years; both contribute to our understanding of who they areand where they may be going between the autumn of 1955 and the summer of 1956. And as their stories unfold, we gradually come to understand both the seemingly impassable differences and the surprising affinities between them as well.
Topics for Discussion
1. How are Katherine and Chang similar in terms of family, education, social class, and other factors? What kinds of experience and influences do they have in common? In what way is each a refugee?
2. What losses do Chang, Katherine, and other characters suffer? How does each deal with his or her losses? How do their losses affect their subsequent lives and expectations?
3. Choi writes that it was his past " against which Joe Monroe defined himself, and which in Katherine's family set the standard for everything." (pg. 24) To what extent is this also true of Katherine, herself, of Chang, of Addison, and of other characters? How does it relate to Chang's being " used to the constant pressure of the future" ? (pg. 41) At what point do Katherine and Chang, in fact, permit the present and possible futures to provide the standards for their thoughts, feelings, and behavior?
4. In what ways are Katherine and Chang independent? In what ways are their lives constricted or determined by society, other people, and other outside forces? What does each learn about independence and dependency?
5. Through his work as a translator, Chang learns that " you wanted one thing to equal another, to slide neatly into its place, but somehow this very desire made the project impossible. In the end there was always a third thing, that hadn't existed before." (pg. 67) To what extent does this also apply to culturaland personal issues confronted by both Chang and Katherine? To what extent are Chang and Katherine each " the third thing . . . Translation's unnatural byproduct" ? (pg. 84)
6. Katherine tells Chang, " In my family you never could move a muscle without it being a declaration of loyalty to somebody and war to somebody else." (pg. 150) What loyalties and betrayals, actual and imagined, are important in Katherine's and Chang's lives? What is the impact of each? To what extent does a fear of betraying and of being betrayed hinder each of them in their relationships?
7. What borders and boundaries--for example: geographical, emotional, cultural--are crossed or transgressed? What are the consequences of each crossing or transgression?
8. To what extent is the " total, irresolvable uncertainty" that Chang carries with him after his release from torture characteristic of life itself? How do Chang, Katherine, Addison and others deal with the " total, irresolvable uncertainty" of life?
9. What are Chang and Katherine each looking for that each finds in the other?
10. What are the implications of Choi's setting her story of an interracial love in the American South of the mid-1950s? Why do you think she makes only muted and indirect references to racial prejudice and condescension?
About the Author:
The daughter of a Korean immigrant father and a Russian-Jewish mother, Susan Choi was born in Indiana and raised in Texas. Her father's stories of life in Korea and of his experiences as a newly arrived immigrant in the American South would later inspire her own stories and her first novel. She attended Yale, where she was a literature major, andwent on to earn her M.F.A. in fiction at Cornell University. She now lives in New York City, where she has worked on the staff of The New Yorker. Choi's short fiction has appeared in Epoch, Documents, The Iowa Review, and Writing Away Here: A Korean-American Anthology. "The Foreign Student, her first novel, was chosen by Richard Eder of the Los Angeles Times as one of the Top Ten Books of 1998, and it won the Steven Turner Award for a First Book of Fiction.
"A novel of secrets that unfold like the leaves on an artichoke. The Foreign Student is a mosiac of betrayal in peace and war that marks the debut of a gifted young novelist wise beyond her years." John Gregory Dunne
"Susan Choi's first novel, The Foreign Student is a richly detailed exploration of a young man's escape from the nightmare of a country torn by war. During a stint as a translator for the American information services in Seoul, a young Korean named Chang Ahn is caught up in the political turmoil and forced into a life on the run. By August 1955, two years after the cease-fire has ended the war, Chang has managed to emigrate to the United States, where he attempts to settle into the life of a scholarship student in the university town of Sewanee, Tenn. Yet he is unprepared for the smallest shocks of a vastly different world: even the realization that people in Sewanee go to sleep at night without locking their doors is unnerving. Choi (herself the daughter of a Korean immigrant father) catches such moments under a very clear glass, wisely resisting the urge to embellish. Instead, she allows the story to blossom slowly after Chang (renamed Chuck) makes his first real friend in America: Katherine Monroe, his 28-year-old neighbor. Caught in a poisonous relationship with a popular professor, begun while she was only 14, Katherine is nearly as wounded as Chuck. Together they begin to heal, not with the dreamy pleasure of romantic young lovers but tentatively and painfully, mindful of all that has gone wrong in their lives-and all that might still go wrong." Kimberly B. Marlowe
"While these powerful images may be, by now, gross stereotyping, their core truth feeds Southern writers on a rich diet of subtlety, profundity and irony lacking in other American fiction, say, the Updike school of high WASP suffering or the McInerneyesque chronicles of People
magazine partygoing. So it's good to report that Susan Choi believes in the old-time religion of William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison and Eudora Welty. Her first novel is a strong, graceful piece of prose that stirs war, love, class and culture together in a strange and beautiful alchemy.
The opening of The Foreign Student conjures the sort of mythic dream time Faulkner raises in Absalom, Absalom or Welty evokes in her Morgana stories, the never-never "before the war" when rich families closed up their townhouses and moved to their country estates. Only this is not Jefferson or Jackson but Seoul, and the war is the Korean War. Chang "Chuck" Ahn is the child of privileged Koreans who lose everything in the conflict.
Barely surviving the ravages of the civil war, in 1955 Chuck manages to escape on a church scholarship to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.
There he meets Katherine Monroe, the child of privileged Southerners who is trapped in a destructive relationship with a dilettante professor. Chang and Katherine are hurt, haunted people who manage, almost blindly, to come together and heal each other." Cox News Service
"An evocative romance set in the 1950s about the love bonding a Korean student and a young American woman." People
"Beneath the threatening summer skies and low-swaying emerald leaves of Sewanee, Tennessee, baroque romantic etiquette and indelible lines cleaving insider from outsider strip-mine the 1950s social landscape. The result? A Southern Peyton Place, but one as sophisticated and absorbing as the best of Mary Lee Settle. At its center Choi details the inexplicable comings and goings of the uncommonly beautiful yet troubled 28-year-old belle Katherine Monroe, who develops an unlikely relationship with Chang Ahn, a young Korean refugee. Enfolding Ahn's memories of war-torn Korea into lushly self-enclosed Sewanee, the novel shares with its characters the allure of an undiscovered country; their attractions are charted in deftly contoured prose, so lyrical at times it approaches incantation. At her best when driving Katherine and Chang apart, Choi only stumbles in an all-too-expected ending that is less convincing than the secrets that preceded it." Elizabeth Haas, Book
"Set in Sewanee, TN, this first novel unravels the stories of 28-year-old Katherine Monroe and her friend "Chuck" Chang Ahn, a 25-year-old Korean-born student. Both characters have complex histories. For instance, at the age of 14, Katherine became involved with an English professor, a college roommate of her father's during his days at Sewanee. Equally poignant is Chuck's experience during the war in Korea, when he served as a translator for the United States. These tales, and a few others linking minor and major characters, are loosely woven together in a fashion reminiscent of the writing of Amy Tan. However, the reader is unable to gain a strong sense of a single character before being moved to the next. Hence, when the story lines shift, the individual reader is left with a sense of confusion and disconnection. A good effort, but not recommended." Shirley N. Quan, Library Journal
Highly acclaimed by critics, The Foreign Student is the story of a young Korean man, scarred by war, and the deeply troubled daughter of a wealthy Southern American family. In 1955, a new student arrives at a small college in the Tennessee mountains. Chuck is shy, speaks English haltingly, and on the subject of his earlier life in Korea he will not speak at all. Then he meets Katherine, a beautiful and solitary young woman who, like Chuck, is haunted by some dark episode in her past. Without quite knowing why, these two outsiders are drawn together, each sensing in the other the possibility of salvation. Moving between the American South and South Korea, between an adolescent girl's sexual awakening and a young man's nightmarish memories of war, The Foreign Student is a powerful and emotionally gripping work of fiction.
About the Author
Susan Choi was born in Indiana and grew up in Texas. Her short fiction has appeared in journals, including the Iowa Review and Epoch magazine. She lives in New York City.