“Picture Bride” is the title poem of Korean American writer Cathy Song’s first book, one that earned the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 1982 for its Hawaii-born author. It is a meditative poem in thirty-four lines of free verse.
To present-day Euramerican readers, the title may conjure up the vision of a stereotypically picture-perfect bride decked out with veil, lace, and train. If so, this vision would contrast ironically with the historical Asian American reality of the term. The title refers to a matchmaking practice common among many Asians who immigrated to the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As part of this practice, intermediaries and family members arranged a marriage between an Asian immigrant man in the United States and an Asian woman in Asia. Usually, the only contact between the bride and the bridegroom during the courtship, if it can be called such, was an exchange of letters and photographs—hence the term “picture bride.” Often, the wedding was solemnized by proxy in Asia, after which the bride proceeded to the New World to meet her groom in the flesh and to consummate the marriage.
The picture bride of Song’s poem is the grandmother of the poem’s speaker. The grandmother is the object of meditation for her granddaughter, a persona who closely resembles the author in age, gender, and ethnic background (Song’s father and mother are of Korean and Chinese ancestry, respectively). The speaker of the poem is thus a third-generation Asian American woman, a twenty-four-year-old who imaginatively projects herself into the thoughts and feelings that the now-matriarch of her family must have had when she first crossed the Pacific Ocean to establish a family with a “stranger” (line 26) she had never met, in an unfamiliar new land.
The speaker marvels at the notion that her grandmother was only twenty-three years old, a year younger than the speaker herself, when she left her family in southern Korea to assume her destiny in the United States. She wonders how her grandmother must have felt as she left the familial protection of her ancestral hearth and her native city, the port of Pusan, to set sail for the distant Hawaiian Islands, a place she had learned about only a short time before. She also wonders how her grandmother regarded the husband whom she had never met. All her grandmother knew was that he was a Korean immigrant laborer thirteen years her senior who worked for the Waialau Sugar Mill. The speaker is curious about how her grandmother felt and acted when this stranger took her from the dock to their new home, where she had to undress for the sudden intimacy of their nuptial bed.
Throughout, the poem maintains a tone of admiration for the grandmother’s upbringing and strength of character, which armed her with the acceptance and fortitude to undergo the shock of marrying a stranger chosen for her by other people. In different ways, her grandmother’s act is as extraordinary to the speaker as it was strange to the grandmother. The grandmother’s performance is seen as a paradoxically self-denying yet self-defining act; it is this act that bears fruit by giving life to her more freely choosing granddaughter, who now pays tribute to her grandparent. The grandmother’s act is also one that originates within a cultural and historical context vastly different from that of the speaker. Mingled with admiration, the poem’s tone also suggests that the speaker herself would shrink from an act as demanding and self-denying as her grandmother’s. However much the speaker may admire her grandmother, to whom she is connected by family, ethnicity, and gender, the two women are estranged by the gaps of generations, socialization, and implicit notions of individual freedom of choice—the grandmother’s generation and culture socialized her to disregard her individual prerogatives, whereas the granddaughter’s viewpoint has been shaped by her upbringing as...
(The entire section is 4,738 words.)