Reorientation is author JS Lee’s monthly column about reclamation & actualization as an unwilling Korean import to the US.
CW: While this article does not contain graphic depictions, it discusses war and sexual violence towards women, which may be triggering to some readers.
I was entering my teens the year my adoptive mother forced me to take my white adoptive brother to see Casualties of War. At the time of my protest, all I knew of the film was that it was a war flick set somewhere in Asia. I wasn’t able to express that these war films were triggering for me, let alone understand why.
This brother was one of six of my adoptive parents’ biological children, the first-born son. Given that I was adopted after a series of miscarriages, he was The Miracle Child, arriving two years later. He was restless and violent, unafraid to use racial slurs. My adoptive mother dealt with him by turning a blind eye to his abuse and obeying his wishes — often at my expense.
We were dropped off at the cinema in the small Maine town of our summer home, where — except for staff at the waterfront Chinese restaurant that the locals referred to as ‘Chink by the Drink’ — I was the sole Asian face for miles. All eyes were on us as we entered the ticket line. It wasn’t that we were too young for the movie rating, as that was never an issue. My face drew onlookers wherever I went. Not appearing as siblings, I feared our relationship was misconstrued, which was further upsetting.
In a sea of white faces, we sat in the dark, illuminated by larger than life visions of white soldiers hunting the Asian enemy. Once it was revealed that their plans were to kidnap a Vietnamese woman named Than Tai Oahn, I braced myself, but nothing could prepare me for the scenes that followed. She was captured, passed around and repeatedly violated, pushed to the brink of what felt humanly possible. I’ll never forget how she fought on, desperately clinging to life, before she was shot to her death.
I left my body and disappeared up and out of that room. Dissociating was my usual way of coping through difficult times. I couldn’t have told you what happened next because I wasn’t there for it. I remember the credits, people stepping on spilled popcorn, and me blindly following them out.
Nearly two years later, I was stranded in an unfamiliar part of Boston, at a loss for how to get home after a male friend tried to corner me into sex. When I told another male friend my predicament, he laughed and offered a ride home — in return for sex. Stepping out onto the balcony, enraged and betrayed, a familiar face came forth. He recognized me from a music showcase, empathized with my situation, and promised safe passage. He was the one who succeeded in altering the course of my life. He nicknamed me Yum Yum — the name of a neighborhood Chinese Takeout. When I thought he was done, he called up some friends and passed me around. Like in Casualties of War, there was one half-decent guy who wasn’t on board, but to spare his own harm, kept it between us.
During my violations, I alternated between dissociation and praying for death. I didn’t have the will of Than Tai Oahn.
An After felt impossible but somehow I found myself in it, thanks to the ringleader tiring of me, and a much older acquaintance picking me up and driving me home without any demands. I deified him for doing the least because when expecting the worst, scraps look like gold.
My adoptive parents, and the few who found out, responded terribly. Gone was the girl who stayed up all night writing music, the honor roll student, and college plans, as my grades plummeted. I barely scraped by, unable to focus in class. Observing my decline, a teacher sent me to the principal — whose genuine concern had me confessing the sins done to me. My high school graduation might have been due to his sympathy.
In her beautiful memoir, Know My Name, Chanel Miller explains how her family and community helped her through the aftermath. For better and worse, she wasn’t a witness to what she survived. And while there’s never a good time for rape, when she expressed gratitude that hers occurred after college, that acknowledgement of my extra loss of education and crucial years repaired something inside me that was long-neglected.
Miller’s retelling also shed light on what I avoided: being dragged through the public eye. As a kid without support, I doubt I would’ve made it through the grueling process. My rapist’s parting words were threats to me and my family. Already feeling like a burden, I wasn’t about to make things worse. Besides, from what I overheard, a conviction wouldn’t result in much time for him. I feared it would only add fuel to his fire.
I spent the rest of my teen summers working at a small boutique in Maine, when I wasn’t getting blackout drunk to numb the pain and counter the lies I was living: that I wasn’t raped; that everything was fine. An older couple was browsing the store one night. They couldn’t take their eyes off me. The usual question came up: Where are you from? When I told them Korea, the woman put on a big smile and nudged the man beside her. “My husband always said the Koreans were the most beautiful women in the world. He was in The Army.” He nodded, shyly. I knew this was supposed to be a heartwarming moment. Perhaps I was to thank her for the non-compliment, and thank him for his service. Maybe he felt good to see me, a Korean, supposedly thriving in the West. But there I stood, awkwardly basking in their beaming faces, until they purchased something and left.
Through the years, I’ve thought of that couple. I’ve wondered how she felt, as a white woman, knowing her husband thought Koreans were the most attractive. I’ve tried not to imagine what he might’ve gotten up to over there. I’ve tried to forget how the year before my teen rape, my adoptive father blurted out how he felt about us “Chinese-looking girls.” I’ve examined why I had the number of that much older man who drove me home on that pivotal night. And I’ve contemplated how much the cinematic depiction of Asian women has contributed to the way we’re still objectified and harmed today.
In one of Louis CK’s Netflix episodes of Horace and Pete, Alan Alda’s character was shocked when another admitted to having never been with an Asian woman. He said something to the effect of, “That’s what they’re for!” While his character was purposely vile, it still struck a deep nerve.
There’s a very real history of Asian women’s bodies being used for violence and male release. As I dove deeper into the politics of my adoption, I learned how the U.S. was involved in dividing Korea, and of the rapes that occurred during wartime. Going back further, I stumbled across the term Comfort Women, in reference to the sex slaves enforced by the Imperial Japanese Army. The camptowns during and after the Korean War weren’t only inspired by these Comfort Stations, but U.S. military authorities transferred some of them to Korea.
While I’m not against sex work, time has revealed what these camptowns were like, and that they were not always consensual. In February of 2018, the Korean government was ordered to compensate for the human violations caused upon those coerced to serve U.S. soldiers out of patriotism, for the country’s political and economic gain. Many found themselves trapped in the system, raped and abused. The U.S. and Korean governments interned sex workers they believed to have STDs, overmedicating, which sometimes resulted in death.
Just as military prostitution benefited a political alliance off the bodies of women, the resulting offspring provided economic relief as they were adopted to white, Western countries. Korea exported their problem, rather than employing social services to keep families together, creating paper orphans — well beyond necessity. Appalling reports of the government’s connection to the Brothers’ child-trafficking and horrific abuse was released this past November, supporting the increase of baby exports throughout the 70s and 80s. It’s ironic to see how Korea’s now concerned about the country’s decreasing birth rates.
But, there it is: war, Asian women, sexual violence, and adoption — tied up in a big, ugly bow.
It’s now easy to understand my instinctive aversion to war films set in the East. Even before the viewing of Casualties of War, I’ve had nightmares of war scenes that chilled my body with paralyzing anxiety and fear. Perhaps this is my intergenerational trauma. I’m not privileged to the truth of my family lineage, but it feels likely my history of sexual violence began with my ancestors. Their wars live in me, compounding the impact of my own.
I recently attended a survivor’s healing event that asked what reconciliation would look like. While there’s dire need for systemic reform, financial support, and change in social behavior—I personally don’t believe all things can be reconciled. My life was forever changed through rape and transracial adoption. My losses, immeasurable. Perhaps what needs to come first is validation of the perverse history and patterns, and for our trauma and PTSD to be recognized and honored as much as war veterans’. We never volunteered to enlist in this battle and not all survive.