Reviews / June 2014 (Issue 24)

Between the Tiger's Stripes: A Review of James Dante's The Tiger’s Wedding

by Drisana Misra


James Dante, The Tiger's Wedding, Martin Sisters Publishing, 2012. 230 pgs.

There once lived a tiger that shared a cave under a sandalwood tree with a she-bear. Everyday, they would pray so earnestly beneath the tree that they impressed a Heavenly Prince. This prince presented the tiger and bear with a bundle of mugwort and a rope of garlic bulbs. He told them that if they ate only these meager offerings and nested in the cave for one hundred days, they would become human and be joined in matrimony. However, the tiger was a restless creature and soon endeavoured to flee, unable to endure the hunger and boredom. The she-bear, on the other hand, could not as easily abandon her circumstances and go away with the tiger, and thus, they parted ways. The she-bear was rewarded for her patience by becoming human. Meanwhile, the restless tiger was doomed to be alone forever, wandering beneath the sandalwood canopies in search of a mate.

This Korean fable provides the title and thematic backdrop for The Tiger's Wedding by James Dante, a novel that portrays the unravelling of an American expatriate due to his fixation on a married Korean woman. Jake St. Gregory (the tiger), and his love interest, Oh Jae-Min (the she-bear) know that they do not and cannot belong together, yet they gradually become more deeply enmeshed in each other's lives, even entertaining ideas of Jae-Min divorcing her abusive husband in order to marry Jake. Knowing that she must honour her familial and marital obligations despite her affair with Jake, Jae-Min recounts the fable of the impatient tiger as a warning. Jake, although battling impatience, realises the difficulties of Jae-Min's situation and does wait for her, albeit to an unfortunate end.

Jake's irrational pursuit of Jae-Min stems from a barren love, one that has no hope for consummation, for she is already married with children; it is a love that only yields a stream of misfortunes that border on the absurd, from the utter destruction of his home by Jae-Min's jealous husband, to his desperate move into a brothel and an empty classroom; from his narrowly escaping a fire and healing in a Korean hospital, to his short imprisonment in a Korean jail for overstaying his visa. His love for Jae-Min costs him everything, and yet, he is ultimately doomed to loneliness, just like the tiger. In this way, Dante's work quietly ripples with the bitter ironies, barrenness and the absurdities of early modernism, although it takes place in the emerging urban space of mid-1990s Seoul.

Adding dimension to Jake's demise, Dante's descriptions echo Jake's characterisations, flaws and all. It is through these descriptions that we begin to see the true incongruities in Jake and Jae-Min's relationship. Jake's eyes, although highly observant, reveal Seoul through adventures occasionally riddled with cultural misunderstanding and unintentionally insensitive jokes. Instead of breaking out of character to add authorial commentary, we feel Dante's frustration through Jae-Min's reactions and comments. Dante offers her as both shrewd businesswoman and submissive housewife; a Christian and an adulteress; a violinist and a teacher; but above all, Jae-Min is a mother, sometimes even to Jake.

Nevertheless, Jake doesn't seem interested in genuinely learning about Jae-Min's identity as a Korean woman. She attempts to teach him about her history and heritage, constantly taking him on excursions, the substance of which he does not find important enough to detail or record or contemplate for the reader's accruing of cultural information. Rather, he focuses on the outline of Jae-Min's breast under her shirt. Indeed, more than that, he seems far more interested in superimposing his Western mishmash understanding of Asian culture—that is, whatever he has appeared to glean from Cantonese Kung-fu films and the like—on the cultural patterns he encounters in Seoul for the sake of dry humour. This indiscriminate practice takes its toll, and, despite the great lengths Jake goes to win Jae-Min's love, his affair begins to die after she utters these words: "You still do not understand my country."

However, Jake's ignorance is not his affair's sole undoing. Dante impresses upon his characters the weight of an uncomfortable, liminal condition, in particular, Jae-Min's "half-freedom" of living at her sister's house and Jake's condition as a temporary, floating foreigner. These opposing liminal conditions are brought out through subtly detailed descriptions of their environment, from the constant appearance of McDonald's happy meals to the beer and buckets of live crabs served in seedy taverns. These details are reminders that, although Jake and Jae-Min straddle boundaries in many ways, the territories that they occupy in their lives are incompatible.

Upon first glance, Dante's work appears to recount the stereotypical white male foreigner's journey, in which he pursues and rescues an Asian woman, while coming to understand and gain the acceptance of his woman's people along the way. Not only does Dante break away from this hackneyed plot line by dooming his white male lead's ambitions, but he also makes a point to focus more on Jake's increasingly hopeless position as an ageing bachelor, rather than on his foreignness. In fact, Dante seems to prioritise the bachelor-married woman narrative over that of the foreign man-Asian woman romance, which allows him to refurbish and rework much of this over-trodden landscape, shattering the perfunctory trappings of this stereotype and fleshing out the complexities beneath. At one point, Jake muses:

It's tempting to break into the cliché about two people from different worlds. If I did however, I wouldn't necessarily be referring to her chopsticks and silk fans. Hers was also the world of cartoon lunch pails and little shoes that always managed to get themselves untied. My world, whether through honest blunder or subconscious design, had become frozen dinners ready in six minutes and the occasional phone number inscribed on a cocktail napkin.

It is along the boundary of the stability of family life and the instability of singlehood that the tension between Jae-Min and Jake builds and eventually helps rips them apart, an unromantic theme that is not usually present in cross-cultural romance narratives. In this way, although Jake's inability to understand Korean culture contributes mightily to the end of their affair, Dante presents his characters as, first and foremost, people, in all their complexity.

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