One at a time
One day in May some years ago, Janny rushed to me and exclaimed, "Sook, a Japanese girl is coming here to work!" Janny, an Indonesian student, could not hide her excitement at having another Asian at the training school.
"That's good," I said, but was disturbed that a Japanese was going to be here and I would have to deal with it.
Since my childhood, I've not like Japanese. In schooldays, I never failed to attend the March 1 Celebration, when the Koreans observe the big anti-Japanese Movement which took place one March during the Japanese occupation. Early in the morning of every March 1, my sisters and I got up, took the Korean flag out from the storage, and hung it on our gate. After breakfast, we ran to the school, with small Korean flags in our hands. During the ceremony, there was always a speech telling of experiences during the Japanese occupation, and how our grandparents fought for our independence. We, the students, listened to the speech fervently. We tightened our lips, and the Korean flag in my hand became even more endearing. At the end of the ceremony, the students shouted with one voice, "Long Live Korea! Long Live Korea!" All this made a strong animosity toward Japan and Japanese grow within me.
Then Tamako arrived. She was tall and good-looking. One day she came to me and introduced herself. I was uneasy; I was abrupt with her and avoided her in every way I could. But one early morning after I had worked all night, I went out for a walk. There was Tamako in the garden, reading her Bible. The sky was pale blue, the sun was wiping out the gray darkness, the morning dew was glittering with the light. The Breeze was soft and cool.
Tamako saw me. "Hello, Sook." Her voice was deep and friendly. Her eyes were intent. Between the rising sun and deepening day, Tamako was there, bringing a sense of loving nature, at peace with herself. I went away without a word. But the serenity of Tamako in the garden, the freshness of the morning, the sounds of the birds, followed me all the day.
Another morning, I saw her at the school cafeteria. She was with two other friends, having breakfast. I sat with them, but during breakfast something went wrong. I excused myself, hurried off to my room. That afternoon, Tamako came to see me. "Were you angry this morning?" she asked in her mild voice.
"No," I said.
Tamako gazed at me and gave me a handful of white lilies of the valley.
"I'd like you to have this," she said, looking a little embarrassed.
She went away almost immediately, but her mildness remained, rebuking my narrowness. However, I was not ready to forgive a Japanese nor try to accept Tamako as an individual, free of Japanese history. But a light had come in my mind, dim but steady, and it could not be ignored or denied.
One day I was lonely. I thought of Tamako and knocked on her door. In her room, some plants were on the window- sills. Her father's paintings and her sketches were on the wall. A small bookcase was beside the desk. There were a thick English dictionary, the Bible and other books on religion. A radio and an alarm clock were on the beside table. The room was tidy and bright, receiving the setting sunlight. Tamako told me on that day how she loved art, how much she enjoyed going to museums, how much she loved to take a walk in the woods, how much she loved going to the city and meeting people. She was friendly. She knew how to discover a person's interests and develop conversation with a stranger. "I try to understand people. After I understand them, strangeness becomes uniqueness. I try not to make a fence around me," she said.
She left the school after her training, but came back to work for a short period. She had been to an American college, studying "American government." She seemed to be more independent, more sure of herself, more happy with her life. One day she invited me to her apartment. There were some crafts she had made in her design class. I praised her work. She said, "It's nothing. Very simple and easy." Tamako laughed away my admiration, trying to ease the embarrassment. There were not many things in her room; this simplicity seemed to define her philosophy of life. Later she spoke of how pressured she was to be married. That was a problem I, as a Korean, was facing.
"I do not want to marry for marriage's sake. I don't want to be just a housewife. I'd like to meet someone who can appreciate my talents, my thoughts, my interests. He must be confident, independent, unworldly, and open-minded to people. I like to live as an equal being, rather than as a servant." She said that her parents were worrying about her. Her sisters were anxious about her. She herself at first was agitated by the situation, but knew what she wanted and would not compromise herself.
"To live either in Japan or in America, it is a challenge for me. As a Japanese I think differently from Americans. With my experiences in the States and my travels, I've become different from many other Japanese girls who never left home. There are many challenges for me in both places." She was silent for a moment, then laughed. "Without challenge, life can be dull, no progress." There was vitality, love, expectation, in her voice. while sharing our problems , our deepest thoughts, our aspirations, I realized that the wall between tamako and me has been torn down.
Her beauty, her goodness, her excitement, began to shape her in my mind as a unique and interesting individual. I saw her as a gentle, healthy, adventurous person, rather than a "Japanese." Now, I no longer see Japanese or people of any other nationality as en emy or stranger, but as individuals capable of friendship.