Interspersed in Michael ByungJu Kim’s captivating first novel Offerings are delightful Korean proverbs called sajaseong-eo. In the old days, these wise words written in Chinese characters were recited by scholars and noblemen, and eventually many of these sayings were adopted into the everyday vernacular of the common folk. Sajaseong-eo literally means four character proverb, and there are hundreds of these pithy wise sayings that still exist in modern Korean language.
If the author’s name sounds familiar, it might be because Michael Kim is best known as the founder and owner of the largest private equity fund in Korea. The fund is called MBK Partners and with assets under management of $22 billion, you might be surprised that Michael Kim had the time to write and publish a novel. But before Michael Kim became a titan of finance, he was an English major at Haverford College who grew up in New Jersey, and whose father dreamed that his son would one day become a scholar.
The fictional story of a Harvard Business School educated young man who finds himself at the epicenter of the Asian financial crisis, very much seems to echo Kim’s own life, and many might think this is a thinly veiled memoir. The protagonist Dae Joon Lee, like Michael Kim, is as an American investment banker who somehow ends up playing a critical role in rescuing Korea from the IMF financial crisis of the late 90’s.
Also mirroring the author’s real life is Dae Joon’s marriage to a beautiful daughter of a Korean chaebol. Nonetheless, Kim maintains that the book is a novel. “I thought it more compelling to let the reader make the connections,” Kim said in an interview, “and figure things out in their personal way.”
Novel or memoir, Offerings recounts a wonderful story of a journey back to the homeland where a Korean American young man lays the foundation of what may one day become a billion dollar empire.
Here are 12 Korean proverbs (Sajaseong-eo) we learned from Offerings:
- Chun-jae il-woo, 천재일우
Once in a thousand year opportunity. In Offerings, the protagonist Dae Joon Lee reflects on the opportunity to save Korea from ruin during the IMF crisis and realizes he may be looking at a chun-jae il-woo.
- Pal-bang mi-in, 팔방미인
Pal-bang means eight direction, and mi-in means beautiful person, usually a woman. The phrase refers to someone who is multi-talented and good at many things. Dae Joon is on a first date with his future bride, Jee Yeon, who teasingly calls him a pal-bang mi-in.
- Sam-jung ji-do, 삼종지도
This phrase refers to a woman’s three duties of obedience to her father, husband, and finally to her son. Old world Confucian Korea firmly put women below men in a strict hierarchy from birth to death.
- Bu-chang bu-su, 부창부수
A wife follows the husband’s song. Another Confucian teaching that sounds rather comical today but was quite the accepted way of life not too long ago. Dae Joon remembers his mother using this phrase at home when he was growing up in New Jersey.
- Kwa-yoo bool-keup, 과유불급
Too much is worse than too little. During one of many meetings between the American bankers and the Korean government, a Korean official notes that the Americans speak too much when they should listen, and teach when they should learn.
- To-sa ku-peng, 토사구팽
To use hunting dogs for hunting then discard them like garbage when they can’t hunt anymore. Dae Joon’s wealthy friend Wayne laments that students protesting the chaebol are enjoying all the modernizations and developments achieved by the chaebol but now want them out.
- Koon-joo min-soo, 군주민수
Sea’s strong waters will lift a boat but an angry sea will turn it over. The people lift up the government but can also turn it over.
- Binik-bin booik-boo, 빈익빈 부익부
The poor get poorer and the rich get richer. Not four characters but a classic maxim that deserves mention. Dae Joon’s wealthy friend uses this phrase as he recalls a time when private tutoring was outlawed in Korea to level the socio-economic playing field, but sadly the ultra rich found ways around this law making the disparity even worse.
- Sok-jun sok-kyul, 속전속결
Fast war, fast victory. Lightning warfare where speed is of the essence. Genghis Khan’s cruel but glorious conquest of Asia is a good example of sok-jun sok-kyul. Dae Joon contemplates the quickly building momentum of anti-chaebol sentiment that looks like it could topple the conglomerates who dominate South Korea.
- Woo-yuh gok-jul, 우여곡절
The ups and downs of complex business deals which can be compared to the vicissitudes of life. Dae Joon’s business deal on behalf of his friend has gone off the rails and he ponders woo-yuh gok-jul as a way of explaining the mess.
- Dae-ma bool-sa, 대마불사
Dae-ma means large horse, and bool-sa means does not die easily. This phrase means too large to fail, which in the book refers to a chaebol in distress.
- Sah-pil kwee-jung, 사필귀정
Justice prevails in the end. Newspapers smelling the downfall of a corrupt chaebol declares sah-pil kwee-jung.
Offerings, by Michael ByungJu Kim, is available on Amazon.