Erasure in Change-Rae Lee’s “A Gesture Life”

Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life tells the story of a man of slippery character. Known by his neighbors as “Doc,” Franklin Hata is a friendly face around town, always maintaining a respectful, purposeful distance. He assimilates with the people of Bedley Run quietly and gracefully, but his peers can tell that there is more to his background, where and from what he comes from, than he lets on. Between flashbacks and reflections, Lee weaves together a narrative that explores the experiences and actions of a humble Japanese immigrant in America. In an attempt to move forward, Hata must erase parts of his past, his origins, and his identity.

Upon leaving his birth parents, Hata dissolves any evidence of his Korean-ness, abandoning the language and his Korean name – given to him by “the tanners,” as he refers to them – and adopting the name and way of life of his new, Japanese family. He works hard to prove he deserves their sponsorship and immerses himself in their culture and education, reborn into a new life, one where his past never existed . In a setting where Koreans are treated as second-class citizens, Hata renounces his native-born identity, burying his origins beneath his complacency with his new culture. When he enlists in the Japanese Imperial Army, he becomes a servant of the nation; his identity becomes synonymous with that of the troop, no longer his own, though he maintains the Japanese facade – because it presents him as more “acceptable,” offers more credibility to his peers. Similarly, after settling in Bedley Run after the war, he tries to epitomize the “normal,” nuclear American life as best he can; moves into a beautiful home, adopts a daughter (whom he hopes will pass for his own), and tries to complete his family with a wife, Mary Burns. His painful experiences during the war fall to the wayside, any history with the Imperial Army wiped from his being as outwardly as he can manage. It is in this way that Hata finds himself systematically and thoroughly shifting and changing his character with each new phase of his life. He shapes his being to better fit the expectations and intentions of the people around him, erasing any parts of him that trail behind – the ones that don’t fit the mold. It is the only way he knows how to be.

Hata’s desire to erase parts of his being extends to others as well, when their histories seem to impede on his; when their interactions with him reflect badly on his character. Lee crafts several parallels in Hata’s life that revolve around conflicting ideas of abortion and rebirth that exemplify his swiftness to rid himself of reflections of “ bad” character. Erasing something before it begins, or perhaps before it realizes it exists, and returning to creation, born again, different – like Hata, beginning his life again by rescinding his past. The most striking example lies in the parallel between Sunny and K, and Hata’s role in each of their lives. During the war, passivity is Hata’s defining characteristic; he is a mere bystander in the middle of a conflict that very much hinges on his stance. Because of his lack of action when action is called for, K is tragically mutilated; her small fetus, full and perfect, is ripped from her belly and tossed aside on the grass, never to be born. Years later, he pushes Sunny to have a late-term abortion despite her hesitance and reconsideration; he actively convinces the doctor to do the procedure, even acting as the surgeon’s assistant and invasively operating on his daughter. He never speaks of K to anyone, nearly erasing her from any part of his history, and aids in erasing a massive part of Sunny’s life, taking her unborn child from her. Tying up loose ends, as he believes is the right thing to do. Taking it upon himself to make something happen when he should not.

In his old age, Hata tries to reconcile his deeds. Walking through Sunny’s bedroom – which has been totally stripped of all its contents except the bed, symbolic of his purposeful removal of any evidence of her from the house – and then into her bathroom, he crawls into her old bathtub to reflect. The dirty, red-brown water that initially comes forth “with a violent spew” (289) spills unto him, a reminder of both the menses that K hadn’t had in the months he knew her and the blood let by Sunny during her abortion, birth and abortion opposing each other in his daughter’s cramped childhood bathroom. The water returns to its normal transparency as he lets it run, of course, the memories swirling down the drain, pushed out of his sphere of being once more. Curled into a fetal position, almost suspended in the hot water, Hata tries to make peace with his mistakes. The scene evokes an image of a fetus in a womb, motionless in a quiet stasis – another parallel by Lee. Reflecting on his life, wondering how to atone for his actions (or lack thereof), Hata seems to disentangle his being from the body that has committed them. He thinks about returning to a time before his creation; for once, rather than erasing his past and beginning again, he wishes he could backtrack as if starting fresh for the first time, free of any identity or even origin. Never to be born, never to cause any damage, never to taint or stand by or erase.

The idea of dissociation – from one’s life or one’s self – weaves itself between and within, almost as a product of, his need for erasure. So much of his past has been swept under the rug, boxed up, locked, shoved to the back of a top shelf of the closet – he can’t remember who Franklin Hata is anymore; so many parts of him have been erased that he struggles to present a complete identity even inwardly. “Now and then,” he says, “I somehow forget who I really am… I lose all sense of myself.” (285) He sometimes feels as though his self is projected not just out of, but in spite of, his body; changing tenses from “I” to “he” when describing himself, like he exists on adjacent planes: the world where Hata does his morning laps in the pool, and the world where he opens his mouth and breathes below the surface, letting water rush into his lungs.

Ultimately, Hata cannot escape the conditions of his past. In attempting to preserve the facade he has so carefully crafted, he loses his true self.

Exploring the Reality of Being an Asian Immigrant

The accusation that the character “Doc” Franklin Hata lives “a gesture life” gives title to Chang-rae Lee’s novel about the Asian-immigrant experience of displacement and identity when assimilating into American society. A Gesture Life explores the many layers of Asian-immigrants and their pursuit of the American dream, away from their very different lives back home, but Lee introduces and explores a character who, despite his efforts and the adversity he faces, cannot achieve this dream. However, even with this obstacle, Hata has a comfortable lifestyle and a beautiful coveted home in Bedley Run, glossing over and in contrast to this fact. While on the surface, Chang-rae Lee presents Franklin Hata as a well-respected and successful member of the Bedley Run community, the misnomers of Hata in A Gesture Life point to his ultimate failure as an immigrant embodying the American Dream.

The differences between Hata’s assimilated American identity and his true identity mix of Japanese and Korean are highlighted throughout A Gesture Life, providing an insight into a warped version of what it means to be an Asian immigrant. In order to show a clear contrast between his American identity and his Asian origins, Lee uses “Franklin” to contrast a very American-sounding name with a Japanese last name. In Keith A. Russel’s study on Lee’s use of etymology in names, he discusses the name “Franklin” and its association with Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers and the face of the 100-dollar bill (Russel 7). The allusion to American icon Benjamin Franklin acts a misnomer and shows a contrast between his Japanese last name, “Hata”, which is later revealed to be a shortened, subtly Americanized version of his original last name, “Kurohata” (Lee 101). His name, “Franklin Hata”, attempts to separate the two identities and create a public appearance of a successfully assimilated Asian immigrant, but the later revelation of his original full name, “Jiro Kurohata”, alludes to an identity and a past that Hata is trying to hide (Lee 101, 106).

Hata’s secrecy manifests itself in his numerous titles; from “Doc” to “Poppa”, Hata accepts or manipulates certain roles for himself within the community, which later appears to give him a persona worthy of everyone’s respect. Like many other things in this novel, this respect is manipulated and doctored rather than earned, representative of his inability to be genuine and line up with what is defined by the American Dream for an Asian immigrant.

Towards the beginning of the novel, unlike Hata, James Hickey does not keep his feelings a secret, expressing his anger towards Hata in questioning his title as “Doc Hata…when it’s obvious [Hata] is not a doctor”, (Lee 11). Mr. Hickey even goes as far as the assumption that Hata revels in the satisfaction of easily possessing a title he did not earn. This trend of Hata attempting to become personally involved in peoples’ lives and being rejected is introduced with the Hickeys and revisited when Hata recounts his time with Mary Burns. Upon their meeting, Mary Burns notes that Hata lives “in a doctor’s kind of house” and has “the movements and gestures of one”, pointing out which aspects of Hata’s life reflect this identity of assimilation he is trying to claim as his own (Lee 46).

Furthermore, Hata’s doctor-type, “special property…two-story Tudor revival” personifies its owner through not only its appearance that differentiates itself from the rest of Bedley Run’s housing developments but also in it being in high demand (Lee 16). Liv Crawford’s pestering attitude in A Gesture Life is a privacy-prodding, yet vital component to the revelation of Hata’s displacement in the town he calls home. In addition to his daily swimming routine and his walking route, his house remains generally unchanged until the house fire, prompted by the burning of old documents and items. As stated by Crawford, “Doc Hata is Bedley Run” (Lee 136); this is revealed very early in the novel, and the house becomes an object that grows alongside Hata in the novel. Not only is the house a symbol of Doc Hata himself, but also his attempted (and ultimately failed) assimilation. While externally, Hata and the house are both desired, internally, they do not line up with the expectations held up by the community. The immigrant’s successful integration of their identities and cultures with American society is not seen here, again pointing to Hata’s failure as an Asian-immigrant fulfilling the American Dream.

In departure from Hata’s gesture-driven interactions with minor characters during the novel, the exploration his relationship with his adoptive daughter Sunny acts as the backbone of A Gesture Life, providing the best insight into his present-day “gesture life”. Chang-rae Lee gives a glimpse of Hata’s relationship with Sunny from the adoption process to their present-day. Much like Hata himself, for the most part their relationship remains unchanging; even from their first in-person encounter, “[Sunny] was clutching a rough canvas bag…I tried to coax it from her, she wrapped her arms tightly around it…endearing and pathetic,” (Lee 55). Her distant and defiant attitude too, remains unchanging, and follows her into her teenage years, as her increasing independence and distancing from Hata furthers, passively accepted by Hata.

When reminiscing about his mistakes with Sunny, Hata recalls the rarity of single men to be granted an adopted child, let alone with his personal preference for a girl. His convincing case for a girl in addition to a few underhanded bribes grant his request, clearly showing how his relationship with Sunny was manipulated and false from the beginning (Lee 73). He sees in Sunny, “a mixed Korean girl”, himself as a transracial adoptee (Jerng 41). Lee does not explore Hata’s childhood and development as much as he does with Sunny, but Lee talks in depth about his mixed origins: Hata’s ethnicity as a Korean but his upbringing under the care of a Japanese couple. As further explored in Mark C. Jerng’s essay on the transracial adoptee, “the inability to define race…between two persons within a single person” is an issue that Hata encountered in his own experience, which resulted in him carrying a desire to overcome this disability over to his fatherhood with Sunny (Jerng 42).

While Sunny was not an exact mirror of Hata’s experience as a transracial adoptee, in her developmental years as a teenager, she is seen living that same “gesture life” that she accuses Hata of later on, the origin of her relentless dissatisfaction and anger towards this behavior of Hata’s (Lee 95). The two arcs of Mary Burns and the Gizzi House within A Gesture Life are placed next to each other, provided a clear juxtaposition between these two very different areas in Sunny’s life.

In describing Sunny’s routine outings with Mary Burns, Lee uses a very objective and systematic way of listing their activities, “…weekend outings, after-school activities…the soccer matches, the Brownie meetings…and the piano lessons and recitals”, representative of the complete lack of any connection between the two (Lee 55-56). Mary Burns endures this gesture-only relationship not just with Sunny, but also eventually with Franklin Hata as well. Similar to the anger later seen in Sunny and seen earlier in James Hickey, Mary Burns joins this array of accusations; her back-and-forth angry banter with Hata exposes his passive nature and tendency to only react in a way that does not implicate him in any fault, his “always having to assent” (Lee 60). Again the trend of rejection in the wake of personal involvement for Hata is revisited, not only through the falling out with Mary Burns and Hata, but also his inability to be with her in her last moments and attend her funeral (Lee 43).

On the other hand, the Gizzi House is placed directly in opposition to Sunny’s once gesture-filled routine outings in Bedley Run and shows a more genuine and erratic part of her life, showing the increasing distance between Sunny and her adoptive father. It is not until Sunny leaves the vintage home in Bedley Run that her character is able to depart from the restrictive limits of the life Hata brought her into. On one end of the spectrum is Hata’s “impressive herb garden and flagstone swimming pool” (Lee 16), while on the completely different end; the Gizzi House with its “waist-high weeds and saplings”, filled with intoxicated strangers (Lee 112). Sunny finds refuge among this completely opposite environment and not only physically distances herself from her adoptive father, but is also allowed to develop into a radically different person from who Hata intended for her to be.

Encapsulating both Hata’s failure to fulfill the American Dream as an Asian immigrant as well as his complete inability to form genuine relationships is Hata’s experience in the Korean War as the overseer of comfort women. The dual narrative and use of flashbacks in A Gesture Life shows the interconnectedness of Hata’s present day and his experiences during the war. Lee again uses titles; however, these are not misnomers in order to highlight the genuine nature of Hata, or rather, Lieutenant Jiro Kurohata, in his younger years. Lee focuses on revealing Hata’s true nature and the origin of its brokenness and failure in his later years.

In contrast to the picturesque descriptions of Bedley Run, the details of the Korean War and the comfort house spare no grotesque image or visual as to show the true extent of the war’s effect as well as Hata’s direct implications in its horrors. Hata is addressed as “Lieutenant Kurohata” during the war, showing him not as a completely blind follower, but a leader in this cause. While this title directly implicates Hata in the crimes of the war, he remains to accept it passively, despite his morals. Even when Kkutaeh’s young, innocent sister is in a situation with Corporal Ishii, soon about to be raped, Hata stands by, avoiding being the source of rage and inconvenience for anyone else, a passive behavior that is embedded into him due to the war (Lee 172).

At the heart of the novel lies the relationship between Kkutaeh and Hata and its irreparable impact on Hata’s character, which acts as the origin of the lifestyle that gives title to Chang-rae Lee’s novel and the factor in Hata’s life that causes him to completely fail in his pursuit of the American Dream. It is to Kkutaeh that Hata says his name “Jiro” to, only once, in this novel (Lee 254). When Kkutaeh, or K, realizes that Hata is Korean, a fact unknown to his comrades, it creates a unique bond between them. Their shared Korean culture sets them apart and draws out this hidden identity of Hata, similar to how she drew out his birth name (Lee 232). During the war, a very intimate side of Hata is revealed, but his implications in the war and the death of K’s sister leads to her revenge: bringing Hata to his most vulnerable state and then devastating him completely. Before Kkutaeh, “as a young man, [Hata] didn’t seek out the pleasure of women,” making Kkutaeh Hata’s first love (Lee 153). However, looking further into the etymology of Kkutaeh’s name, “meaning ‘bottom’ or ‘last’” (Lee 173), Keith A. Russel points to Kkutaeh being the first and last time Hata has ever been able to feel genuine emotion and be his vulnerable self (Russel 7). His failure to form lasting relationships in his present day community as well as the conflict he holds with numerous people, especially his own adoptive daughter Sunny, stems from this.

The many names and titles of Franklin Hata are used as misnomers to show the two sides to Franklin Hata: who he has been formed into due to the war and who he presents himself as to those who know and respect him. Hata’s displacement presents itself in his interactions and residence in Bedley Run, but it finds its origins in his experience in the Korean War, especially in his connections with Kkutaeh. The irreversible effects of the war on Hata come to light as Lee’s dual narrative connects the two stories to explore the many layers and depth of Franklin Hata.

Works Cited

Jerng, Mark C. “Recognizing the Transracial Adoptee: Adoption Life Stories and Chang-Rae

Lee’s A Gesture Life.” MELUS, vol. 31, no. 2, 2006, pp. 41–67. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30029662. Accessed 19 March 2017.

Lee, Chang-Rae. A Gesture Life. Riverhead Books, 2000.

Russel, Keith A., II. “Colonial Naming and Renaming in A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee.”

Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 268, 2009, pp. 7-9. Gale, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GLS&sw=w&u=biretonhs&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CH1100089956&asid=443fbee5b1c50b1c94378386785028ad. Accessed 5 February 2017.