In Korean culture, there is a tradition called “doljanchi” that celebrates a baby’s first birthday. The baby is dressed up in elaborate traditional clothing (“hanbok”) and blessed by friends and family. Today, parents often try to one-up each other’s doljanchi celebrations with fancy venues and delicious buffets of food. Ironically, the baby does little more than be alive and look cute.
The cornerstone of the doljanchi is “doljabi,” a fortune-telling tradition that predicts the baby’s future. It’s one of my favorite Korean customs — the baby-of-the-hour sits at a table while objects are laid out in front of them. Said objects often include a dollar bill, a piece of string, a book, a ball, a bowl of rice and a pen (traditionally, a calligraphy pen, but a Bic will suffice). It is said that whichever object the baby chooses will predict their future. If the baby chooses a pen then they will be a good writer, choosing a ball means that they will be athletically gifted, picking the book means they will be a good reader, and selecting the string indicates a long life. (Nowadays, the hip millennial parents even put out a computer mouse, and if that is chosen, the baby will be the next Mark Zuckerberg.)
During my doljanchi, I steered very clear of the ball (which pretty accurately foretold my lack-of-athletic-prowess future) and picked up the book. And while some may say that a doljanchi is little more than an excuse to throw a party and dress your kid up in a ridiculously adorable outfit, that day saw some on-the-nose fortune-telling for me.
My childhood was filled with stacks of library books and subsequent overdue library fines. I probably drove my local Borders to bankruptcy (well, me and Amazon) by going there every weekend and spending the day reading the newest “Percy Jackson” or “The Hunger Games” without ever actually buying anything. I’m almost convinced that my legally-blind-adjacent vision today is a result of my stubborn insistence on reading books in the dark and in the car despite my parents’ warnings that it would hurt my eyes. They were right — I admit it now.
But out of all the books that contributed to the declining health of my eyes, there was one that always stood out to me — Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” Like many of my favorite things, it was passed down to me from my mom. So before I had even read it, it had become a part of my life — from watching the Winona Ryder adaptation to helping my older sister dress up as Alcott for a school project.
Like all readers, I revered Jo, loved Beth, was OK with Meg and despised Amy, the little prick. Most of all, I adored Laurie, which is why (150-year-old spoiler here) I was absolutely floored when Jo didn’t end up with Laurie at the end of the book. I mean, the relationship development was right there, and then Alcott has the gall to write off Jo with some stranger who only showed up in the last few chapters? And Laurie ends up with the little prick? What fresh hell was this? Because the “Cam Jansen” and “Magic Tree House” series had a tendency to wrap everything up by the last pages, this was the first book I’d read that left me completely upset with the ending.
As I grew older, my contention stuck with me, always ready to come out whenever I reread the book or watched a new adaptation. Now, with my uber liberal UC Berkeley education, I feel even more outraged at the fact that Jo ended up with anyone at all! A cornerstone of her personality was that she wanted to find success as an author. Part of the reason she rebuffed the golden retriever known as Laurie was because she was a goddamn independent woman who didn’t need a man to feel fulfilled. A great finale would’ve had Jo getting published and moving to New York, setting up a future sequel and an eventual E! reality show, “Little Women, Big City.” But no, despite all of Jo’s characterization, she marries some dude with a German accent and opens a school for boys! For boys! It’s as if, at the end of “Wonder Woman,” Diana marries Steve and they start a male-only warrior training program in Themyscira.
After “Little Women,” I began questioning the books I read and daydreaming about how I would have wanted the characters to develop. For a big part of my life, my cornerstone was being a nerdy reader, but books had started to make me restless. It was from this restlessness and desire to create the stories I wanted to hear that my love for writing was born.
So thanks, Louisa May Alcott, for inadvertently leading me to the path I’m on today. And damn, maybe I should have picked up the pen instead.
Julie Lim writes the Thursday column on how media shapes our perceptions of the world. Contact her at [email protected].