Tiger Pelt by Annabelle Kim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”In the middle of the night, you hear a goddamn bugle. Then a bunch of commie chinks come swarming over the mountain like an exploded nest of fire ants. I’m not ashamed to say it. The sight of a million chinks coming at you with one purpose in mind, to kill you, is enough to make any man shit his pants. Every time a flare goes up, you see more of them crawling over the crest of the hill. They’re covering the earth like a goddamn plague of Egypt. You shoot till your ammunition is all gone, which don’t take long. You can see a bunch of them scattered dead all over the place. Bur more and more chinks just keep on coming and coming. There’s a freaking endless supply of little killer chinks coming at you with their goddamn rice pots strapped to their backs just running right over the dead ones. When your ammo’s gone, and you’ve thrown out your last grenade, all you can do is to dig into your foxhole. You just dig and pray, dig and pray.”
My uncle was drafted for Korea. What he remembers of Korea or what he chooses to tell about his time over there is about mud, frostbite, and blood. He told me about shooting at hoards of Chinese “soldiers” until he ran out of ammo or his gun barrel overheated and melted, becoming useless. So when I read this passage, it put me right back into my uncle’s living room with a glass of ice tea, dripping condensation on my fingers as I listened to him tell stories about the craziness of war... excuse me, policing action.
One story that he told me was about capturing some Chinese “soldiers.” They had no shoes, and their clothes were rags, so the Americans outfitted them with combat boots, clothes, and jackets. As the truck hauling them away moved down the road, the American soldiers watched as clothes and boots came flying out of the truck. The Chinese refused to wear the clothes, believing the Americans had poisoned/infected them.
That was the Korean War, but this story starts during WW2 in occupied Japan.
What many people may not realize is that the Japanese invaded Korea during WW2. Long before the Korean War conflict began, conditions in Korea were horrible. The Japanese were using a large percentage of the population as slave labor. They ”died like flies, and, like flies, they were not counted.” Young Korean girls were conscripted to be comfort women for the Japanese army. They led short, brutal, violent lives. The girls were expected to work 15 hours a day with a new “customer,” better described as the next rapist, every twenty minutes during peak times. No time for hygiene, no time for even wearing pants.
It boggles the mind that anyone could survive these conditions. These were beaten, stabbed, and abused by the Japanese soldiers in ways that would be considered inhuman. Lee Hana survived these conditions. Her chances were stacked against her; many girls committed suicide or gave up and slowly slipped away. She was also only 12 years old but big for her age and, fortunately, never lost her looks, or she would have been reassigned to the physical labor detail and would have perished quickly under those demands.
Not that dying didn’t seem like the best option.
She survived only because a soldier reached out a hand when she was mired in her deepest despair. Sometimes all it takes is one person telling us that our life is worth living. When she finally met up with her mother and told her of her trials and tribulations, her mother said: ”You should have killed yourself.”
Anger? Yes, anger. Sadness? Yes, sadness. I wanted to slap her mom so hard that she woke up in a different century, but the truth of the matter is that her mom’s response was a result of decades of cultural conditioning and brainwashing. All of us who don’t want to be dictated to by old rules, old beliefs, and old prejudices must fight our way through them and think about why we believe what we believe.
Truth is so elusive.
Lee Hana’s story was twisted and twined with the story of Kim Young Nam. He was an ambitious farm boy who wanted nothing more than to educate himself and be successful. His family, like most every family in Korea, was torn apart by both wars. His studies were interrupted as one superpower after the other made Korea their sandbox for war. ”When whales fight, shrimps’ backs are broken.” After the Japanese leave Korea, Kim Young Nam is salivating over books left in a farmhouse near his own home. His father finds his desires misplaced. ”Foolish boy. Can you eat a book? Can you wear a book?”
To those who don’t read, books have no value, even today. Maybe this is even more evident today because there is no excuse like illiteracy to stand in the way of someone being able to read. Everyone should be in the middle of a book every day for the rest of their lives. I can guarantee, people like Kim Young Nam never quit reading and never stopped valuing their ability to read. Through the wars, he made himself useful. He learned how to survive in the midst of chaos. The Korean War destabilized thousands, if not millions, of people. The fighting went back and forth as China and the United States fought a political war over the corpses of the Korean civilian population.
Fate brought Lee Hana and Kim Young Nam together at a critical point. They didn’t meet again until fate insured they intersected many thousands of miles away in America.
This is a novel.
It is a novel about life.
Novels are about real life.
My life is a novel I’m still writing.
Don’t tell me that Lee Hana and Kim Young Nam don’t exist. They do exist. They are buried in graveyards that stretch from Korea to the United States. If you start this novel, you will have to finish because the story is about resilience, about luck, about terror, about impossible conditions, but it is ultimately about triumph. Do their lives turn out the way the expected them to? No. Our stories are fluid, and the tracks we lay for our future are torn up and laid down again in a new direction, time and time again. Our prime directive is to stay alive, persevere, and never, ever give up on ourselves. Inspiration isn’t about throwing the pass that wins the Super Bowl or scoring a deal that makes you rich, but reading about two people who find a way to survive a war that is turning the rivers red, redefining the landscape of a nation, and leaving tears on the cheeks of every mother.
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