Courting a Monk is a distinctive example of the Asian-American short stories. It is one of the most recognizable works of Katherine Min, an author famous for her ironic depiction of the cross-cultural issues together with the deep analysis of the psychological growth and evolving of the characters in her prose.
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This short story by Katherine Min received the critics’ appraise and was awarded the Pushcart Prize in 1998 (Xu, 2012). Courting a Monk is the story of the relationships between two major characters Gina and Micah. Gina is the narrator of the story, and the first-person narrative creates the impression of sincerity, intimacy, and insight into the dynamics of their relationships.
Gina and Micah as two extremes
Gina and Micah met each other as young people, and from the very first sentence of the story, the readers know that two characters are deemed to become husband and wife. From Gina’s perspective, when she first saw Micah, he was a calm, cheerful young man, “with a tremendous capacity for stillness, his hands were like still-life objects resting on his knees; his posture was impeccable” (Min, 1996, p. 101).
His calm cheerfulness was the first thing in him she was attracted to, even though for other people, the smile on his face appeared so “wide and open as to seem moronic” (Min, 1996, p. 101). In many ways, she admired his stillness because it was very contrasting with her father’s temper, whose silence was “like a lid on the pot, sealing off some steaming inner pressure” (Min, 1996, p. 102).
They also had quite opposite world views, Gina’s father was the man of science, an academic who gave up his Buddhist heritage for the scientific worldview. Unlike him, Micah was raised in the United States, had no Oriental ancestry, yet he was fascinated by the Buddhist culture and decided to pursue the life of a monk.
At first, Gina doubted the depth of his beliefs since, in her experience, even her family, raised in this culture, eventually gave up such views. However, from the start of their acquaintance, Gina liked the fact that Micah saw that she was not impressed with his spiritual views, so he was not trying to impress her (Min, 1996, p. 103).
At this point in the book, there are two significant points; the first one is the irony of how the people, like Gina’s father, raised in some culture do not appreciate this culture, whereas someone like Micah, who presumably would not be impressed with it, can start deeply believing in it. The second major point is the immediate mutual understanding between Micah and Gina, how they were not trying to show off or impress one another.
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The relationships between characters in a cultural context
Later on in the story, it is revealed that Gina was suspicious about the genuineness of Micah’s beliefs and his attitude towards her because her father warned her and tried to bring her up in a way that she would think American young men only intend to take advantage of her (Min, 1996).
However, Gina did not feel threatened by boys from her college, and she ignored most of her father’s advice about going to bed bad early and keeping to herself. She was enjoying her life at college, yet did not let anyone but Micah to get to know her spiritually, the experience that is presumably autobiographic for Katherine Min (Ling, 1999).
Her relationships with Micah were not similar to those with her other friends. Gina tried to provoke him, saying, for example, that his monk devotion was only an “escape from this world and its messes,” but to her surprise, she could not disturb his self-possession (Min, 1996, p. 104). Micah saw the sense of the Buddhist philosophy as the renunciation of all the desires, and Gina’s life was full of different desires. So, at this point in the story, two characters are like extremes, but Gina started to realize and appreciate Micah’s spiritual ideas.
The turning point, the culmination of the development of both characters takes place during the scene of the dinner at Gina’s parents’. Gina’s father started a rigorous discussion about Buddhism with Micah, trying to prove to the later that the Americans cannot understand Oriental philosophy. Gina got very angry with her father’s behavior that seemed to ruin Micah’s calmness, and with the fact that she had to choose between being Korean and being American.
The main narrative of the story is the irony of how two characters changed each other’s lives. Before Micah appeared in Gina’s life, she was able just to ignore her father’s attitude, but now she faced all the feelings she had been trying to suppress, she could not have any more “the boys, the glib words and feelings, the simple heat and surface pleasures” (Min, 1996, p. 112).
For Micah, the change was even more drastic. The words of Gina’s father made him doubt the genuineness of his belief and think whether it was not just a fad. That is why his feelings for Gina remained the only thing he was sure of at the time.
In conclusion, the characters of Gina and Micah came a long way to realizing their existential problems of cultural belonging and admitting their feelings to themselves. At the end of the story, they are both settled down, adult people who helped each other to become who they are.
Ling, A. (1999). Yellow light. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Min, K. (1996). Courting a Monk. Triquaterly, 95(1), 101-113.
Xu, W. (2012). Historical dictionary of Asian American literature and theater. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc.