In Multicultural American Literature A. Robert Lee discusses the challenges of self image which one cultural minority, the Native American, faces as they struggle against the influences of their trivialized and stereotyped history:
"Has not a truly tribal mix of cultures and languages, histories and beliefs, stretching across all the Americas from the Bering Strait to Tierra del Fuego and from the Caribbean to the South Seas, been rendered down into the single trope or glyph? Actual geography, Pequot Massachusetts, or the New Mexico pueblos, or the Sioux Great Plains, Black Hills and North and South Dakota, largely transposes into tourist itinerary, out-of-time backdrop or romance. Little short of a diorama of cliché has come into being, ahistoric when not actually anti-historic."
Closer to Ik's own experience as an Asian American seeking a self image consistent with his own experience and culture, the Chinese American playwright, storyteller and controversialist Frank Chin is quoted with a laundry list of Asian stereotypes:
"The list includes Shangri La and Yellow Peril, Heathen Chinese and buck-toothed Japanese, China Doll, Tokyo Rose, the Picture Bride, Filipino/a laborer and house servant and Vietnamese bargirl. Model-minority or gatekeeper stereotypes . . . whether Asian American communities as models of good, or an attributed 'American' success-by-hard-work of Korean or Bengali storekeeper. Literature . . . has an obligation to offer fictions, precisely, of the real as against the fake, a restorative human complexity in the imagining of Asian America."
But despite the cultural emaciation of Asian Americans and the tendency of America as a whole to strip them (as well as other minorities) of their accumulative history's value, something still draws their native counterparts to migrate into this country. Perhaps this willingness to purposefully submit to such treatment speaks to the reason it could happen in the first place. Maybe their own feelings of cultural inferiority caused both their desire to migrate and their willingness to be stripped of a clear cultural self image.
On the other hand, a strong illusion about American seems prevalent among those who choose to migrate. America has been seen as the great hope of millions. Before they made the pilgrimage and immigrated to this land of hope people dreamed of what America would be. Again, this may be perpetuated by an already existing and underlying feeling of cultural inferiority. But whatever the cause may be the illusion seems real to these people, and it seems strong enough to make immigrants willing to forego their own concept of cultural self image and risk it against the illusion of a life they might lead in America.
In They Won't Crack it Open a charming soldier from the "hello" country plays hero to a school of blind children in Korea. He tells the children of television boxes and the great wealth of America; he has become a self-appointed spokesman for America. The children believe the images he shares, both of himself and of his native country. But when Cho, a representative of the school, visits this soldier on his way to college in America, the illusion is shattered.
Ik carefully walks us down the road from illusion to reality. At first we are charmed by how the children call the soldier "crown" because they cannot pronounce the word "clown". The soldier is seen as a kind man who brightens the lives of these impoverished children. He is happy, gregarious, and generous, promising gifts and promising hospitality if ever needed in America. But from Cho's first moments in America, it seems evident the illusion will be shattered. Dick does not greet him at the airport, he does not have the expected television in his parlor, and Dick does not live the lifestyle he has so vividly communicated to the blind Korean children.
Perhaps the illusion he had painted was more for Dick's own sake than for the children. They had no real reason to care if America was the "hello" land where everyone was happy and wealthy, and they had no stake in making it appear so; the illusion served them no purpose. But for Dick, the illusion meant he did not have a weak and weary mother back home, he did not live in poverty in the land of opportunity, and perhaps most of all, he did not need to experience the shame of such lacking in a land of plenty.
It also seems possible Dick represents anyone who calls themselves a citizen of America and finds the need to create a false impression when they go abroad.
Regardless of your race or creed, a certain amount of shame seems inevitable when you live in a place called the land of opportunity, the richest country in the world, and you do not seem to have access to the opportunity and you certainly do not feel you share in the wealth. In a foreign land, you might be able to believe the illusion yourself if you can make someone else believe it.
Ik utilizes the image of a coconut as a metaphor to represent Dick, as well as the illusion of America which he represents. The trick seems to be deciding if you should hold the coconut, preserving its exotic illusion, or crack it open to reveal what's truly inside.
After purchasing one of these exotic fruits to send back to Korea as a gift from Dick, Cho identifies it as the image of "Crown".
I could plainly see those blind children putting their round heads together, touching and hugging the strange fruit and even its shadow while they laughed about their Crown. "No, no!" they would say. "We will not crack it open to see what is inside. We want to keep it whole." My own lips moved faintly to form the words. "No, they won't crack the image of Crown.'"
To the Korean children, Dick was something both exciting and exotic, much like the odd fruit. But if they were to crack open the coconut, revealing the mystery inside, the coconut could not be kept much longer. Its milk would leak out and the meat would start to decay, then the token representing their American friend would be gone and its memory would eventually fade. Kept intact, they had something to hold in their hands and remind them of Dick's stories and antics. There was more joy to be had in the memories it would recall for them than would be found in cracking it open to see what was inside.
But Cho has been faced with another image of this coconut. Dick himself had always been something exotic and exciting, but Cho's trip to America had revealed another side to Dick's character. This side was like the opaque milk and the white meat inside the coconut, something soft and vulnerable. Kept intact, the memory of Dick in Korea would bring joy to many, but cracked open with its insides revealed to the world, the reality of Dick in America would shatter the joyful memories.
To some extent Cho's memories had already been shattered. Ik uses stark contrasts between the stories Dick told in Korea and the realities Cho faces in America. In Korea, Dick had said his home was also the home of "The Greatest Show on Earth" and he had shown them colorful pictures of the circus in Life magazine. In the minds of the children, as well as Cho, Dick had become synonymous with the circus' colorful images.
Everything at the home for the blind children of refugees was bleak, but that day I had heard for the first time their laughing shouts. Again I saw Dick's big, long nose that had almost touched the picture of a pink, laughing clown in the magazine as he described it for the children who could not see it and explained, "Clown!'"
But even though Sarasota, Florida, truly was home to the great and colorful circus, and even though the taxi did take Cho through neighborhoods of "shell-white houses . . . whose large glass windows seemed to hold an underwater richness" that isn't the sort of place Dick actually resided. Instead, it was down a bumpy road and through an orange grove, long past the lights and wealth of the city.
All the way until their eventual reunion, Cho had wanted to preserve his fading image of Crown. His hopes had not wavered too much when Dick didn't meet him at the airport, after all his exact time of arrival had not been announced. As a matter of fact, the entire visit had not been acknowledged; Cho reasoned Dick might not have even realized he was coming. But on some level, too much was at stake for Cho to believe Dick might not want the visit or there was anything to hide.
To some extent, in creating the character Cho, Ik perpetuates the stereotype Frank Chin describes as "model-minority or gatekeeper stereotypes . . . Asian American communities as models of good". Cho is the good boy who waits patiently and effervesces understanding and good nature while experiencing the systematic disbanding of his illusions about America. He does not express anger or resentment for the disappointment; there is no allusion to a feeling he has been misled. Instead, Cho not only accepts reality in silence but by sending the gift home to the blind children he keeps the illusion alive.
In Ik's story, it seems necessary the children should be depicted as blind. Blindness is perpetual, just as the illusions of the "Hello" country seem to be self-perpetuating. Because of their blindness the children have a false image of Dick from the beginning. The blindness could be seen as symbolic of the difficulty Asians as a whole might have perceiving the realities of America, and the cause behind much of the illusion.
Ik also uses language as another barrier and contributing factor to the illusion. Cho serves as an interpretator for the children and therefore ultimately a participant in the perpetuation of the illusion. He interprets not only the words, but the images and experiences as well. Dick describes things which may or may not exist in America and Cho interprets the words. Cho visits American and selectively describes what he sees and experiences there. Possibly inadvertently at first, Cho's interpretation colors the myth and makes the illusion real to the children. But his interpretation of the actual events in America skews the children's ability to see the reality, and because of this Cho keeps the myth alive.
But aside from the confines of this story, on a larger scale the tale poses a question about the illusion those in foreign lands often hold of the "Hello" land, America. For various reasons and to varied degrees some in other lands view America as something rare and exotic. They are faced with the decision to continue this illusion or look deeper to find what is true about it and what is false. Like the coconut in Ik's story, many choose to hold onto the illusion and never "crack it open". It may be because their experience and culture has bred an innate feeling of cultural inferiority; they may not have enough pride in their own culture's self image to venture a higher opinion of it. Or like Dick in the story, the illusion may have been forced upon them; like the blind Korean children they may not have had the resources, or been too naïve, to question the illusion's reality. The problem is further complicated and reinforced when those from their own cultures interpret the reality to fit within the established illusion.
Ik's story provided examples of these things which keep the illusion alive. The refugee children had little reason to find pride in their own existence, the foreign soldier Dick had sufficient shame to create an illusion of a land-of-milk-and-honey America, and Cho succumbed to the literary stereotypes of his race and played the role of good Asian, not daring to dispel the myth and as a result keeping his own people in blindness. Each of these motivations contained their own justification: the children needed to hope a better place existed somewhere, Dick may have wanted to bring joy to the children through his tales of that place, and Cho may have wished to avoid the pain which would be caused if such an illusion were shattered. But nevertheless, the illusion was not the reality, and none of them had the strength or desire to crack it open.