When I was younger, I had a lot of conflict with my parents due to cultural differences. They were raised in a conservative, strictly Korean culture. But they didn’t have enough time to raise me in the same way, so a lot of American values and cultural mores seeped into my mind.
Whenever they demanded that I conform to their Korean values, I balked. I didn’t understand why they were so adamant about preserving a culture in me that they seemed too busy to impart to me in the first place. I didn’t understand why they made such a big deal out of being Korean, or why they got so angry when I rooted for the United States to win more gold medals than South Korea in the Olympics.
Gradually, we kind of learned to accept each other despite our differences, but I still secretly thought they were being a little unreasonable when it came to preserving Korean culture in our home.
Reading Things Fall Apart helped me to see things a little better from their point of view.
Okonkwo is a powerful man living in the Nigerian village of Umofia. His father was a deadbeat, so he has dedicated his life to being everything his father wasn’t: rich, powerful, strong, respected.
Everything’s going great for him until a boy from another village is taken prisoner and sent to live with Okonkwo. Okonkwo’s family becomes fond of Ikemefuna, and the boy begins to think of Okonkwo as his own father.
The village then decrees that the boy must die, and an old man warns Okonkwo not to have anything to do with his death, since the boy is like a son to him. But Okonkwo, unwilling to seem weak, participates in Ikemefuna’s execution, inflicting the coup de grace himself.
It’s all downhill from there for Okonkwo. When his gun accidentally goes off during a funeral ceremony, killing another man, he has to flee and live with his relatives in another village, losing all of his wealth. When he returns to Umofia, he finds that white missionaries have arrived in the village, and that the village is being changed by their influence. Okonkwo’s attempts to preserve his village’s culture end in tragedy.
Achebe not only tells the story of a driven man of a dying breed, but also of what shaped him to become so driven. The context is specific to Nigeria, but the basic tale is universal: not wanting to repeat your parents’ mistakes.
I also appreciated that he was very fair in his treatment of missionaries. Instead of painting them as either saviors of a savage people or as Pharisaical monsters determined to destroy a culture, he showed both sides: a good, kind missionary who simply wanted to help people and share what he believed, and a cold, proud missionary who wanted to force his views on a people that he saw as inferior. There have been both kinds, and it’s not really fair to ignore one or the other.
Most of all, Achebe was able to draw the reader into Okonkwo’s dying world; I was able to understand his despair and frustration at not only losing everything he’d worked so hard to gain all his life, but even the cultural structure that made his goals worth attaining.
It’s true that change is inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any easier to adapt when change does come. I can’t go back now and make myself more Korean. But when I have children and they don’t understand some of my cultural values, I’ll think about my parents and appreciate a little more how hard it was to raise a daughter of a different generation and culture.