Cheryl Pallant, Ginseng Tango, Big Table Publishing Company, 2017. 211 pgs.
Ginseng: a slow-growing and energy-boosting plant found primarily in Korea and China. Oval-shaped with roots fraying along its edges, ginseng is often an indispensable ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. For the American Cheryl Pallant—author of Ginseng Tango, a memoir about her sojourn in South Korea—the root not only served as a spirit-lifting dose after a difficult divorce, but it also embodied the “Korean-ness” that saturated her body during and after her trip. Embarking on a spiritual odyssey, Pallant narrates how her American roots became entangled with newly-sprouted Korean ones.
As an outsider in South Korea, Pallant wrestled with numerous cultural misunderstandings. In her role as a professor at a Korean university, her American insouciance was received with a mixture of dismissive disapproval and awestruck applause. As a result of being put on a pedestal like “minor deities,” Pallant grew exceptionally self-conscious of and bewildered by her dehumanised and objectified status: “My ability to speak English and share it with others is a commodity as valuable as gold or oil, to be watched, traded and regulated.” Allergic to the deep-seated Korean patriarchy, Pallant, the “American feminist,” found it difficult to become fully immersed in the Korean way of life: “I can’t subscribe to a belief unless I question, understand and experience it as beneficial, only then integrating it into my life in a personally meaningful way.” Expressing her feminism in terms of tango dancing—a hobby she picked up in Korea—Pallant suggests that in tango, “the man leads, the woman yields. But the man must give her enough room to do her own thing and dance her pleasure.” It is in this mutual compromise that the couple can execute the steps in harmony and artistically express the passion of the tango.
Elsewhere, Pallant explores the cultural differences between Eastern and Western ways of thought. She recounts how her Korean doctor (with whom she has a platonic love affair) describes Korean and American cultures as binary opposites: Korea is yang, America yin. She continues to elaborate on the differences between Westerners’ “over reliance on reason,” which “has pushed away any trust in an inward, subjective experience of intuition, self and body which bares the interconnectedness of all life”—a characteristic trait she ascribes to Easterners. Although Pallant poignantly portrays the struggles of being a foreigner, I wonder whether Korean and American cultures—or any other culture—are as different as she suggests. Obviously, different cultures share different ways of life as manifested in traditional customs, food, religious practices and social norms. Yet, beneath our cultural trappings, we are all human beings in a universal search for happiness.
The search for happiness is a theme that Pallant addresses directly in Ginseng Tango. Comparing the life of North Korean prisoners and South Korean’s concept of “happiness,” Pallant wonders: “Are we responsible for our own mental captivity or freedom?” This philosophical question soon arrests her amidst a bundle of ideological confusion:
Most know, though may be reluctant to admit, that the partitions (in train stations) […] are meant to deter desperate individuals from throwing themselves into the path of an oncoming train. Were those who ended their lives not feeling free? Or am I confusing freedom with happiness? To what propaganda have I succumbed?
Her meditation ends on a dissatisfactory note. She argues that “S. Koreans, for the most part, boast happiness,” but also that they perceive “freedom” as a synonym of “happiness,” which their northern counterpart lacks. Finding herself infected with the South Korean ideological slogan—”freedom is happiness”—Pallant turns to tango to find her own definition of happiness:
Deeply embodied, taking advantage of the axis of my spine, I’m in familiar territory, comfortable in reaching my arms to the side, overhead, poised in the rawness of the moment, its burn and blows, rises and falls, its ineffable stillness.
This “tangotic” sensation is a response to Pallant’s earlier declared passion for “beauty”: “I’m finding out how important beauty is to me … Not as essential as food and water, beauty sets into motion soulful satisfaction.” For Pallant, the importance of “beauty” is not only a personal, but a universal form of happiness. In the end, her vividly raw accounts of her tango/Korean experiences paint a universally “happy” condition that one does not have to be a dancer/Korean to relate to:
Follow your breath. What arises each moment, your awkwardness, your ease, a slip toward the floor, your hesitation – all of it is your material. Use it. Feel only this moment.
As her pilgrimage to Korea exemplifies, Pallant has uncovered certain truths about her “American self.” When asked: “Who is self? Who are you?” she responds: “Now?” She then continues: “Certainly I’m not who I was yesterday or a year ago. Now a temple sitter and tea drinker in conversation with you.” As tangoing demands the dancer to be “in the moment,” she realises that the self, like the dance, is only identified in successive and ever-changing moments of “now.” She has become a “Korean spirit,” who sits in temples and drinks tea, and yet she is also irreducibly American. As for “tomorrow,” she confesses that she “do[esn’t] know.”
When leaving Korea for a teaching position at Tulsa University, Pallant concludes that despite her physical departure, she has irrevocably grown roots in Korea:
[…] but now my feet set our roots groundward while additional roots turn skyward like a tillandsia plant that thrives on the air and absorbs nutrients from whatever mist or insect happens by.
Pallant’s new Korean roots complement her American one. Yet she also sees value in not becoming too rooted: “Do not attach … Not to feelings, not to circumstance, not to love, not to fear. Like the wind. Koreans aim to be like wind.” Simultaneously attached (rooted) and detached (wind-like), Pallant finally achieves the poetic balance in life that she envisioned in her writing: “I want to demonstrate balance in poetry, how I partner rhythm with syntax, sound and meaning.” Partnering her American rhythm with Korean syntax, and tangling/tangoing her Western and Eastern roots together, she finds herself no longer afraid of the unknown, being exquisitely alone in her new home in Tulsa.
Chloe Leung is currently an MPhil student of English Literary Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include modernist writings (especially Virginia Woolf), postmodernist writings (especially Sylvia Plath and J.M. Coetzee). She is also interested in contemporary writers such as Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith, and Penelope Fitzgerald. She is currently working on a thesis focusing Virginia Woolf and early 20th-Century ballet, exploring the portrayal of physical gestures and bodies in stylising self-expression. She graduated from the Master of Arts (Literary Studies) in 2017 and completed her BA in English at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.