“And I do not live in broad infamy, nor hide from righteous pursuers or seekers of the truth. I do not mask my face or screen my doings of each day. I have not yet been banished from this earth. And though nearly every soul I’ve closely known has come to some dread or grave misfortune, I instead persist, with warmth and privilege accruing to me unabated, ever securing my good station here, the last place I will belong.”
For some, the past is a place of misery and deep regret. It prowls within the subconscious, preying not only on emotions but our very identities. Those memories have become a point to run from, to escape, forget, and bury deep within, never to revisit. But by avoiding such thoughts, we actually allow them to define us.
So, without further ado, let’s open the metaphorical door into the subconscious of Doc Hata, an ideal citizen of his small town Bedley Run, and reveal his repressed history in Chang-Rae Lee’s A Gesture Life.
At first glance, Franklin Hata, who goes by “Doc,” seems as if he is untroubled by life. A naturalized Japanese man of Korean descent, Doc Hata came to America sometime after World War II and settled in the small affluent town of Bedley Run. Doc Hata is a pillar of his community where he ran a medical supply store called Sunny Medical Supply, named after his adopted Korean daughter. But, unfortunately for Doc Hata, he had a falling out with Sunny and hadn’t spoken to her in years. But this detail is only a symptom of a much greater neurosis that has plagued the medical supplies shopkeeper.
Now retired, citizens of Bedley Run embrace Hata as the humble and respectable man who is known for swimming laps in his pool and tending his garden. The life of Doc Hata seems completely ordinary, albeit removed, until one day he sustains minor injuries in an accidental fire. This event is enough to trigger a series of past personal failings that overcome him.
This manner of stimulating a memory is reminiscent of Marcel Proust and his work In Search of Lost Time, otherwise known as Remembrance of Things Past. In the first volume of the novel, Swann’s Way, while the narrator tastes a lemon cake known as a madeleine with linden tea, he’s mentally transported to a time in his youth where he enjoyed the same treat at his aunt’s house. In doing so, he relives an involuntary memory triggered by the sense of taste.
According to Literary Expression of the Unconscious by Steven Hobbs, “Proust’s anxiety stemmed from what he termed involuntary memory. Through sensory response to an object or smell, he was often helplessly transported to memories of his childhood, memories that — in the eclipsing shadow of his mother’s death in 1905 — he was desperate to reclaim.”
But, where Proust sought out the past as a hallowed place to try and reclaim, Doc Hata’s memories of his own youth seem latent and abandoned. Such memories have escaped the inner workings of his mind leading to a more critical examination of the self.
Upon lifting the veil of Hata’s subconscious, a torrent of reflections recontextualize the mild-mannered man who we thought we knew. But before we explore the past, we must understand the present. As a retiree, Doc Hata exists in a place of habit, but without the responsibility of tending his store, he’s left with an abundance of time. This presents an ideal setting for self-reflection. And, like ghosts, he’s haunted by episodes from his past where he failed to act and others where his actions have reaped a particular form of horror.
This indecisiveness of action is exposed in a few ways. First, is through his tryst with widow Mary Burns, a neighbor of his who he dated when Sunny was just a girl. As a budding relationship grew more promising, Sunny’s disapproval of Mary eventually soured the whole affair. This is partly due to Mary’s own criticism of how Doc Hata was raising Sunny.
Chang-Rae Lee’s unraveling of the plot is careful to never reveal too much information. Through his cautious pen, Lee leaves you wanting to turn the page to learn more about his protagonist and his dilemma. When Doc Hata is in the hospital recovering from his wounds, he’s visited by the daughter of Officer Como. This association brings him back to Sunny and her troubled past. More specifically, how Sunny rejected the authority of Officer Como.
Sunny’s troubled youth is largely a result of her relationship with Doc Hata. An adoptee himself — Korean born with Japanese step-parents —it was his desire to adopt a young Korean girl, even going so far as to bribe an adoption official to ensure this. Sunny arrives when she is just seven years old. However, when Doc Hata first meets her, he feels the same reservations he once felt himself regarding his own step-parents. Not to mention, Sunny was uprooted from Japan, where she was already assimilating to its culture and way of life. So, unlike Hata, who perfectly adjusted to the United States and its norms, Sunny felt like an outsider in both her new home and country. Doc Hata’s bribery to serve his personal desires came at the expense of Sunny and her development.
Hata considers Sunny’s rebellious nature. Was it innate or entirely the result of his parenting? As a passive parent, he lacked healthy communication with his daughter. When she finally ran away from home, he placed all responsibility on Sunny herself. But after 13 years, the reality of his inaction had become more evident. His failure to provide emotional comfort for Sunny fed her resolve to seek a life elsewhere.
This unfortunate ordeal, however, only leads to yet another flashback. Back to the Second World War where Doc Hata served as a medic for the Japanese Imperial Army. His duties involved examining “comfort women.” These were girls and women abducted and forced into sex slavery by the Japanese military for its soldiers.
A young Doc Hata falls in love with one of the sex slaves, a Korean like him who goes by the name of “K.” At the time of the war, Doc Hata is known as Lieutenant Kurohata. It is his superior officer, Captain Ono, who shows special interest in K and orders Kurohata to keep her away from the comfort house and inform everyone that she’s ill. He does so by draping a black flag on her door. Interestingly enough, Kuro hata means “black flag” in Japanese.
During this time, since they both share the Korean language, K and Kurohata enjoy long talks where Kurohata learns how K comes from a prestigious family. Kurohata becomes increasingly infatuated by K and one day forces himself on her without her consent.
Later, when Captain Ono informs Kurohata that he will be having sex with K, the latter is devastated. He tells K along with his wish for them to flee and start a new life elsewhere. But she rebuffs him and his naive fantasies for them after the war. She begs him to kill her but he refuses. When Captain Ono shows up, K stabs him in the neck with a knife killing him instead. Again, she begs Kurohata to kill her, but acts decisively, taking Ono’s pistol and shooting his corpse, making his death appear as an accident. After this event, it is implied that K died — most likely by her own hand.
K manifests as a phantom within Doc Hata’s house in Bedley Run. On the exterior, Hata buried her along with his time serving in the Imperial Army. However, within the interior of his being, K held a significant impact on his life, from his adoption of Sunny to his failed romantic relationships and, ultimately, the projection of himself to the world, living in gestures as a means to rectify his past.
In many ways, the history of comfort women used by Imperial Japanese forces is still inadequately recognized by Japan. Apologies have been issued in the past with minor compensation; however, in 2014 the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stated that the Japanese government was reconsidering their apology. Just 7 years earlier, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that there was no evidence that the Japanese government had kept sex slaves, despite the government admitting that they had in 1993.
To this, K’s response to Doc Hata declaration that he will protect her seems to ring out in prophetic proportions:
“Do you think if any of us girls is still living they’ll let us walk out of here when the war ends? That we will go unharmed if they do? In my mind I didn’t give the doctor my life. All he really wanted was a last small concession from me. What was left of my will. So he has that. But the doctor has always had my life and my death. Perhaps now, Lieutenant, he has yours, too.”