Waiting for Mama by Lee Tae-Jun, illustrated by Kim Dong-Seong, translated from Korean to English by Eun Hee Chun (NorthSouth Books, 2007; original text, 1938)
A small child, his nose red from cold, walks to the streetcar station.
He’s looking for his mama. Streetcar after streetcar come and go with no mama. So the young boy waits some more.
Kim Dong-Seong created nostalgic sepia-tinted artwork for this book that draws you in right away. Waiting for Mama is set in Korea in 1938 — when the original story first appeared in newspapers — with old fashioned shops, traditional dress, women carrying packages on their heads.
The last page has no words, only a picture of the child and his mother walking home together in the falling snow. I automatically interpreted this to be a happy Hollywood ending, but then I stumbled on an Amazon review that went much deeper.
At this time the Korean peninsula had already been occupied by Imperial Japan for over 30 years with no ending in sight (a rebellion had been put down brutally in 1919). Since 1905, the Japanese invaders were eager to erase any form of Korean traditions and assimilate the people to become second class Japanese. The Koreans had to take Japanese names and perform the Shinto rites. Korean was forbidden as an official language. Moreover, in 1938, Japanese began to compel Korean men to work in the factories located on the Japanese mainland and women as “comfort women” in military brothels.
The Korean intellectuals invented folk songs (e.g. Ommaya Nunaya - Mom Sis) and children stories in order to to circumvent censorship and demonstrate subtly the will of the people to sustain any hardship.
Seen in this light, the ending of the story is not so clear: Has Mom finally arrived to pick up her boy or is it just the boy`s dream? - Anyway, in Korean thinking snow is a symbol of hope.
(Image Source: Goodreads)