4 out of 4 stars
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Glen Shakwon Choi is a Canadian, born to parents who immigrated there from South Korea. He grows up with the disconnect that many second-generation immigrants feel: his mind is Canadian, but his body is Korean. Raised a Buddhist, Glen travels to Korea to study East Asian religions and philosophy while learning more about his heritage. Except, once he's in Korea, he finds himself with a similar problem. People see him as a Korean man, but his Korean is stilted and he doesn't know any slang. Unlike in Canada, he fits in physically, but his mind is another matter. What was meant to be a Bachelor's degree and short stay to improve his Korean turns into so much more. Glen finds himself on a Bachelor's course in English, not religious studies, but somehow manages to train at a monastery before finding a job as a journalist after a brief stint in Korean opera lessons. He was only planning to stay for four years, but somehow spends more than a decade in Korea before going back home to Canada.
Beginning, Middle & Zen, which spans most of Choi's adult life, walks the reader through some of the highest and lowest points in Choi's life. Following the Buddhist theme, every story he mentions is important in the cycle of things. Everything he experiences is part of what molds him, even if those experiences seemed like a flop at the time. In Canada, when he is getting his Ph.D., Choi struggles to reconcile everything he has learned in order to write the culmination of his experiences and knowledge. It is a mind-opening time of meditation for not just him, but the reader as well. Even as Choi struggles and throws his hands up in defeat, the puzzle pieces are slotted together.
I picked this book up for multiple reasons. I am an American who has immigrated to Japan, so one day my children may have the same experiences as Choi -- not fitting in physically, only to visit America and come back with a broader sense of who they are, but less space available for them in Japanese society. I also love stories of people who aren't afraid to go out and try new things. Choi definitely has the gung-ho needed to challenge a wide variety of subjects. I loved how he gave everything his all before losing energy and interest. That may sound crude, like I enjoyed his suffering, but on the contrary, I enjoyed that he was honest with his readers and depicted the loss of interest in a very realistic way. As he was gearing up to find something new in life, I was excited to see what might happen next.
As expected of a man who spent years in journalism and even longer writing his Ph.D., I only found two or three minor errors in the entire book. Choi's writing was humorous and conversational, funny without even seeming to try. As mentioned earlier, I loved how honest he was, almost to the point of being self-deprecating. The book had great pacing, and the descriptive text helped the reader imagine the kinds of places he found himself in. I honestly couldn't find anything in the book I thought needed improvement.
I would rate Beginning, Middle & Zen 4 out of 4 stars. I highly recommend it to readers with an interest in East Asian studies and autobiographical stories. Don't be frightened by the overarching Buddhist themes, even if you believe in another religion. Choi's teachings are not "in your face" or lectures on how amazing the religion is. He briefly covers some of the lessons he learned and shares stories from Buddhist texts, all of which relate to something he learned in his own life experiences. I personally would like to read some of the books he mentions, as the stories and the way Choi connected his own life experiences to the teachings is something that really got me thinking. Honestly, I highly doubt someone could pick up this book and read it at face value, not comparing it to their own experiences or thinking deeper on the subject matter.
Beginning, Middle & Zen
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