I had a little crush in high school named Freddie Tanaka.* He was not my usual type, and that’s precisely why I asked him to Sadie Hawkins. I liked his glasses and hair. He looked preppy and intelligent with a pleasant smile. He was a senior in my chemistry class and I was a junior.
He came to my house on Christmas Eve to give me a gift.
My dad was getting into the spirit with Mr. Kang, and two other besties: Jim Beam and Virginia Slims. I cracked open the door, smoke creeping outside. “Who’s at the door, daughter?”
“What’s his name?” He asked, with Freddie clearly in his line of sight. All he had to hear was “Tanaka.”
“Sounds Japanese?” he said, in Korean.
“He is, at least half,” I said, thinking he could pass, and maybe if I said half, he could come in?
“Japanese are not welcome here,” Dad muttered.
I quietly accepted his gift, my bare feet on the cold concrete of my walkway, and shrugged. Beyond awkward in so many ways, I had nothing to give in return except, “I’m very sorry, my Dad says no boys allowed in — he’s old-fashioned.” I told the truth but omitted the rest because I was still processing it. In all my youth he had accepted my diverse crew of friends.
Slumped in a chair by conflicting thoughts of identity and loyalty, I waited for my Dad to finish his cigarette and say goodbye to his drinking buddy. I wondered how my father could flaunt his prejudice like that. By this age, I’d already seen cracks in his pious veneer, but not like this. Growing up in Korea, he wasn’t familiar with distinct races. He did not have a diverse crew like me. When we first moved into our neighborhood, he asked me what those dots were on my friend’s face. (They were freckles.) He asked around to make sure they weren’t contagious.
He’d let my American guy friends in the house as long as I kept the door open. But not Freddie.
I asked him “Why being Japanese — that makes zero sense!” I stumbled for the words of how indignant I felt, freezing out in the cold to get a childhood token of friendship during Christmas of all the seasons! I attacked him on being a Catholic man — and how Monsignor LaVoy would not approve.
My face burnt red hot trying to explain in broken Korean how much shit I got up to that point for being Asian. I wanted to tell him how much it sucked being a 16-year-old searching for a rebuttal to Papillon Soo’s famous quote in Full Metal Jacket: “Me love you long time…” and getting questioned in middle school if my “vagina was sideways,” etc. but I didn’t go there. #Metoo was not a thing back then.
“You’re being a hypocrite, Dad!” I yelled and ran into my room. Normally, he’d interrupt me and tell me how disrespectful I was for arguing with him. Not this time.
“One day, when you’re older, I’ll tell you what happened to the girls in Korea,” He said, shaking his head as if he was reliving a moment, similar to the look he had when he came across chunks of potatoes in his soup. Forced to eat only potatoes for a long time in Korea, he avoided them in the states. “I will tell you only that Japanese men did evil, unforgivable things to our women, and I’d rather you marry any color or creed of man as long as he is not Japanese.”
Whoa. I guess he was thinking of what could happen if my Sadie’s crush became more long-term. That was how it was back then when he was in Japanese-occupied Korea, I guess. I never put it together. Dad could speak Japanese, write Japanese. I didn’t even realize that Suh-San was his nickname growing up from 1937-on. Back then, unmarried girls who were not well off or married could be kidnapped or conscripted into being sex slaves for the Japanese military. They were euphemistically called “Comfort Women.
Traditional boundaries of what my father deemed appropriate to discuss with me trounced all the opportunities to engage with our history as descendants of occupation and war. It is something I recognize other occupied and dispersed people have done a much better job of. Korean women I know to this day carry that ethos upon their burdened backs. Their memories are painful and as Korean women who have remained quiet for so long, they die of old age over the years as ex comfort women but one might never know it.
Some years after Dad passed away, I realized I had to know more. My uncle had visited Saipan, where there is a Korean memorial. He told me of how some traditional Korean hairpins and other accouterments were discovered amidst bones laid in caves later identified as belonging to Korean women.
Freddie gave me a Fossil wristwatch that day. I don’t have it anymore. I have instead many hours researching the National Archives, books, and the internet writing what I learned into a historical fiction novel called Creatures of Comfort that I wrote many years ago. I’ve linked to this book and made it very affordable in an effort to make it go wider and educate people: my fever dream of a narrative culled from all the testimonies I could find, written late at night when my own daughters were in bed. I found it on a floppy disk and finally released it throwing fear to the wind on whether it is “good enough”. I once queried an agent who sent it back to me with the words: this is horrifying in red ink. I’m tired of waiting for approval; just because it’s based on true accounts doesn’t make it something inappropriate to discuss anymore.
It is horrifying, but that is the truth of war. It’s also about sisters and family. It is good enough. My only regret is that my Dad didn’t live long enough to read it so he would know I understand so much. He is not so much an enigma to me today. I failed to mention he had a Japanese boss who would visit and they’d discuss work and they’d hang out. His name was Toy, (short for Toyota). I don’t think he could fake that he liked him. He always said that he was the one good Japanese man. I know it seems ridiculous today. It’s not just the older generation vs. the new. People of all ages are complicated folk.