Retired family therapist and Korean immigrant Wondra Chang has proven at age 75 that it is never too late to write that long contemplated novel or memoir. While achieving such an inspiring accomplishment herself, the San Antonio author has done much more.
Sonju (Madville Publishing, 2021, Dallas), Chang’s debut novel, was recently selected as one of the Best Indie Books of 2021 by Kirkus Reviews, a striking accomplishment for a first-time author.
Sonju chronicles the life of a young Korean woman born into a prosperous and status-conscious family in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The cruel Japanese occupation has ended after 35 years, but the destructive and divisive Korean War is soon to be ignited. It is a time when profound social, political, economic and cultural change is beginning to take shape. The brief peace of 1946 allows a 19-year-old young woman in Seoul to dream of attaining a university education and imagine the power of equal status with her brother and, someday, in marriage.
Sadly for Sonju, she is caught in the stifling confines of the family’s Confucian traditions even as the onset of modernity encroaches on the long-existing social order in the capital city of Seoul.
Sonju stubbornly resists her own family’s values. But her father’s authority can never be questioned, and her mother submits blindly to the patriarchy and insists her daughter do the same.
While pursuing her short story and poetry writing, Sonju falls in love with fellow university student Kungu. The two hope to marry after graduation when Kungu can land a good job. But his family’s low social standing makes such a union taboo in the eyes of Sonju’s parents, who believe her marriage should preserve and promote the family’s social advancement and economic standing. Fearing the young couple will elope, they hurriedly arrange Sonju’s marriage to someone the family does not know and has not met, a contract negotiated between two families of approximate rank and resources.
Sonju is exiled to her husband’s clan village far from the bustling capital, living under the control of her husband’s father. Her husband is a remote, unemotional figure, always traveling on business, and Sonju learns, bedding other women.
The Korean War, with Chinese and U.S. proxies backing the North and South Korean forces, soon envelopes the country and the future clouds even more. Sonju eventually plots her desperate escape from marriage and village, which causes both families to banish her in shame.
Her first job in Seoul as a hostess at a restaurant and club turns out to be a solicitation to work as a prostitute. She flees again.
Chang crafts a number of well-executed twists and turns as Sonju navigates the opportunities and limitations of freedom as a single woman adrift in 1950s Seoul. The pain she endured in a captive marriage strengthens her to survive the pain she endures living on her own. In the end, she finally finds genuine love a second time in life.
I resisted opening Sonju for months after a copy arrived in my office. My expectations were low, not knowing the author, who was gentle in her periodic urgings that I read her work. I never imagined I would be taken on such an engaging learning journey into Korean culture by a Korean American writer living in San Antonio.
I had been to Korea twice in the 1980s as a journalist, and while I remember the quiet and restrained hospitality of the people and the distinctive, somewhat fiery cuisine I experienced in Seoul, I was preoccupied with visits to the DMZ, the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a tense no man’s strip of land dividing North and South Korea.
Now, decades later, I found myself seated at Seoul Food restaurant, one mile from the gates of Fort Sam Houston. Chang had asked to meet there for our interview, assuring me it served the best Korean cuisine in San Antonio.
It is no coincidence that Seoul Food and the Korean enclave of modest restaurants, groceries, salons and shops found on Harry Wurzbach Road and nearby Rittiman Road is located so near the fort. Many U.S. servicemen returned from the Korean War with Korean brides. Most of the city’s Korean and Korean American community is rooted in that time. Families settled near Fort Sam and opened small businesses.
The local community’s size and prosperity surprised me. Many successful small business and commercial retail strips are owned by Korean families, including 10 of the stores in North Star Mall. The estimated 9,000 Korean and Korean American residents — considered an undercount — who live in San Antonio can choose from more than a dozen Korean-owned restaurants, 15 Korean churches, two language schools, and various cultural institutes and celebrations, according to the Korean American Cultural Center of San Antonio.
The sound of the Korean language echoed through Seoul Food as I waited for Chang to arrive. Hyun Suk Lee, a formal, soft-spoken woman welcomed regulars and shuttled to and from the kitchen while her husband Ho Lee tended to the register.
Ashley Bellitt, who came to the states from Korea at the age of 2 and now works at Seoul Food, offered me a running commentary on local Korean culture and cuisine, and later enjoyed watching my eyes widen after sampling jjampong, the spicy seafood soup she recommended.
“That is the basic version I served you, which lacks the intense flavors of the spicy version we eat,” Bellitt said. When I protested that I was no stranger to eating jalapeño and serrano-infused dishes, she laughed.
“Mexican food isn’t hot,” Bellitt said.
Chang and I settled into our conversation and I wondered aloud if Sonju was autobiographical.
“I am not Sonju,” Chang said, “but there are elements in the book from my own life and experience.”
“My father was a banker educated during the Japanese occupation,” Chang said. “A whole generation was forced to speak Japanese and even change their names as Japan sought to make Korea a second-class annex of its country.”
Chang benefitted from a family that valued education and parents that treated their two daughters and one son as equals.
“In the circumstances of that time, my parents had a very hard time, but they were very progressive,” Chang said. “My mother said, ‘I am going to treat the girls and the boys equally.’ My brother did not like that because my grandparents told him he should be the head of the household.”
Chang won a regional writing contest in Korea at age 10 when she was producing short stories daily. She studied journalism in high school, admiring from afar First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, herself a former journalist. She enrolled at the prestigious Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, which translates to Pear Blossom Women’s University, which at the time only accepted unmarried women.
“At the time we didn’t mix races in Korea, although U.S. military men were everywhere, but most of the women meeting military men in those days were prostitutes,” Chang said.
Chang’s English studies in Seoul led her into her first marriage with a State Department employee who was her teacher in a U.S.-sponsored language program, interrupting her university studies as the couple moved to Augusta, Georgia. A second marriage would take her to New Orleans and, later, stints in Houston and Corpus Christi. She became a U.S. citizen along the way and earned an undergraduate degree in Augusta and a graduate degree in Corpus Christi.
Chang then returned to Korea to work as a family therapist with U.S. servicemen in the Second Infantry Division and their families in the DMZ. After a few years, she returned to Corpus Christi but was soon recruited to work at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health in Victoria where she met Bernard Rauch, her present husband and a retired civil servant. They moved to San Antonio in 2008 in the wake of Hurricane Rita.
One of Chang’s sisters lives in Georgia, while her other sister and brother live in Korea. Chang has a daughter, Suanne Chang Soon-Jee, who lives here, and a son, Dennis Bilbe Jr, who lives outside Houston.
As she was finding her voice as a writer, Chang enrolled in Gemini Ink classes, where she met published and unpublished writers, and she joined the San Antonio Writers Guild. That support system, she said, proved critical to her completing the book and finding a publisher.
Now, while Chang stays busy promoting Sonju, she also is at work on a second novel set in Korea, although she hints it will not be a sequel.