Fishing for Inspiration

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For centuries, artists, writers and philosophers have been struggling with the concept of identity, the idea of individuality within a group and the search for one’s true self. In his autobiographical essay “Coming Home Again,” Chang-Rae Lee explores these themes by investigating his relationship with his late mother. As he describes his childhood and his evolution by recounting stories that revolve around the theme of food, which is highly symbolic of his family’s Korean culture and the strong bond that unites him to his mother, the author reflects on his own transformation away from his family when he was sent to a prestigious boarding school, and on how immersing himself in a new culture and set of values made his relationship with his mother change. Without ever formulating it as such, the author raises the question of our ability to grow in a new environment while staying true to our roots. The most peculiar feature of “Coming Home Again” is not its central theme itself, but rather the way the author explores this theme. Chang-Rae Lee uses food as a connection to his mother, and therefore to his origins, and most of his interactions with his mother revolve around this common heritage of food culture. He remembers that “when [he] was six or seven years old, [he] used to watch [his] mother as she prepared [his] favorite meals.” (264) He also describes the first time his parents visited him after he started school by depicting the traditional food his mother had brought with her and how he ate it “so fast that [he] actually went to the bathroom and vomited.” (268) Finally, he even uses the memory of the last meal he made for her to highlight the severity of the cancer that killed her, describing her “swallowing hard, as if to quell a gag.” (265) Towards the end of the essay, the author shows us once again how food was an important bond between himself and his mother in a strikingly beautiful paragraph. He writes: “During the following days, it was always the cooking that started our conversations. […] After her death, when my father and I were the only ones left in the house, drifting through the rooms like ghosts, I sometimes tried to make that meal for him. […] But nothing turned out quite right – not the color, not the smell.” (268) This passage shows not only how much his mother was missed and how important her role was in the family, but also how deeply food was linked to her own presence. As he grows up and is eventually sent to a prestigious boarding school, the relationship between the author and his mother changes: even after only a few weeks spent at the school, his mother, who can barely speak English, starts to behave in an awkward and unnatural manner around him. It is only when her son comes back to live in her house that she acts normally again, as if she is relieved to have him around her, where he grew up. In other words, this essay is also an account of how the author wandered away from his origins during the time he studied at the boarding school, somehow unconsciously, but not really involuntarily either. He is happy to savor his mother’s special meal, “always the same,” when he visits her at home, but as he is drifting away from his family, he is never depicted as regretting doing so, even when he realizes that his mother’s behavior around him is changing. (268) It is only later, when his mother confesses her regrets about sending him to the boarding school, saying that she “made a big mistake,” (268) that the author starts to question his past choices and to remember how lonely he felt when he left his family, “missing [his] parents greatly, [his] mother especially, and much more than [he] had anticipated,” how hard the separation was, and how “overwhelmed” he felt during the first weeks (267). Thus, Chang-Rae Lee’s experience with his academic education is dreadful and negative. This experience stands in stark contrast with that of Frederick Douglass as it is recounted in his essay, “Learning to...
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