Katherine Min’s short story, ‘Courting a Monk’ deals ostensibly with how the narrator, Gina, met, courted and married her husband, but Min uses the story to explore issues of cultural identity, the nature of Buddhist belief, the tensions between her and her father, and, ultimately, the meaning of life. The story might be said, very broadly, to deal with the problems of how immigrants to the U.S.A. assimilate and how we define national identity. Throughout the story Min uses images of stillness contrasted with images of rapid and movement, and also uses people’s attitudes to words and language, including silence, to convey her main themes.
I started to dance fast, swinging and swaying in front of the bed. I closed my eyes and twirled wildly, bouncing off the walls like a pinball, stumbling on my own stockings. I whirled and circled, threw my head from side to side.... (12)
Part of the reason for this is very simple: the narrator has enjoyed a promiscuous life-style at college and Micah represents a challenge because he will not sleep with her. Her movements to the music are a blatant attempt to get him to sleep with her. But the narrator’s constant movement might also be seen as an attempt to prove to her father that she is worthy of his respect and love, and her rapid movements represent her aspirational desires for a better life in America and her willingness to move away from her Korean heritage. At one point, after Micah has explained the Buddhist concept of the renunciation of desire, the narrator comments: “my life was fueled by longing, by vast and clamorous desires; a striving towards things I did not have and, perhaps, had no hope of having.” (4). Of course, what attracts her to Micah is his stillness and his sexual unavailability – both of which are part of his interest in Buddhism and in becoming a monk.
One trait of character that Micah shares with the narrator’s father is reticence, but for very different reasons. Micah’s reticence is because of his inner peace and the fact that he does not feel the need to chatter wildly. Her father’s reticence is because of his difficulties with the English language:
Unlike Micah, whose reticence seemed calming, so undisturbed, like a pool of light on still water, my father’s silence was like the lid on a pot, sealing off some steaming, hidden pressure. (2).
Because of this her father’s remarks to her are limited to commands and they hardly ever discuss anything. (3). He is also a scientist and feels that, “Language... is an imprecise instrument,” (2), unlike mathematical equations or scientific evidence. Gina attends the same campus as her father had done, and Gina reacts against her father and her upbringing, not only by being promiscuous, but by pursuing, “words. English words.... I studied Shakespeare and Eliot, Hardy and Conrad, Joyce and Lawrence and Hemingway and Fitzgerald. It was important to get it right, every word, every nuance, to fill in my father’s immigrant silences, the gaps he had left for me.” (3). Her rebellion against her father is partly against his scientific background, but also his Korean traditions. Gina fully embraces a culture and a language that her father has never mastered, and she confirms the rebellion by marrying a Caucasian – against her father’s wishes.
The pivotal scene of the story is the dinner that Micah and Gina attend at her parents’ house. The scene is tense, but reveals some importnat truths and changes Micah’s life, in particular. Micah’s interest in Buddhism is scorned by Gina’s father who calls it a “fad” (9) and he reveals his unhappiness that Gina ahs forgotten her Korean heritage: “She doesn’t want to be Korean girl. She thinks she can be 100 percent American, but she cannot. She ahs Korean blood – 100 percent.” (10). He also openly criticizes Micah’s obsession with Buddhism: “You think you can become Buddhist.... But it is not in your blood.” (10). Gina reacts to this outburst by calling her father a “Nazi” and by asserting, “You can say what you want, Dad, I’m American whether you like it or not. Blood’s got nothing to do with it.” (10). She goes on to accuse Korean culture of having an old-fashioned and narrow view of the role of woman: “In Korea, girls are supposed to be submissive doormats for fathers to wipe their feet on,” she tells her father. (10). The argument over dinner has two effects on the characters: it stops Micah’s obsession with Buddhism and it can be said to make Gina even more determined to marry Micah – her final rebellion against her father who does not attend the ceremony. The reader might, however, feel a twinge of sympathy for Gina’s father – the displaced immigrant whose own child becomes a stranger to him because she assimilates so well into American society. He says sorrowfully at one point, “I should never have left Korea.” (11). We sense his sadness at the distance that exists between him and his American daughter.
Min ends her story quickly, describing the married life of Micah and Gina now – a conventional American family in many ways. She ends the story with a koan – a Buddhist-like riddle which has become a standing joke between Gina and Micah during their courtship. A koan is a question that cannot be answered. The story ends with this sentence: “What is the sound of a life not lived?” (13). In the context of this story this invented koan can be seen to stand for Micah: if he had pursued his dream of becoming a monk, it could be argued that he would not have lived his life fully as a husband and father; and it applies to Gina too – had she followed the Korean way of being a “submissive doormat,” to use her words, she would not have become the independent American woman that she becomes.
Thus, this story, which states it is going to be about two people who falling love and get married, also explores the issues of cultural assimilation, leading a happy and fulfilling life and the emotional distances that can develop between parents and their children.
Min, Katherine. ‘Courting a Monk.’ December 22, 1995. Triquarterly. Web.