Op-Ed

A fond farewell to ‘Grandma Cao,’ a survivor of an atrocity the world largely didn’t know about until 1991

Filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung forged a tight bond with a fiercely independent and charismatic woman who had a remarkable will to persevere

In 2009, a trip to Asia changed my life forever. That’s when I first met “the grandmothers.” Prior to that trip I knew very little about the atrocities that occurred during the Second World War in Asia — specifically, the institutionalized sexual slavery system that held captive more than 200,000 girls and young women. Two years ago we premiered our film The Apology, produced by Anita Lee from The National Film Board of Canada, at Hot Docs International Film Festival and have since played around the world winning more than a dozen awards.

Last month, I received a message in the middle of the night that one of the grandmothers featured in the film, Grandma Cao, had passed away. My heart sank to my stomach, and I sat in disbelief. While filming the grandmothers, I knew this would happen, that I would one day lose everyone that I’ve spent almost a decade getting to know. I still have vivid memories of the years when they were able to walk, crack jokes, and teach me how to do the waltz. It makes Grandma Cao’s passing that much more difficult to accept and what saddens me even more is that 80 years after the war we still haven’t learned anything about victimization.

It has been almost a decade since I first met Grandma Cao, and some other survivors of World War II. History might refer to them as “comfort women,” a euphemism given by the Japanese Imperial Army. But to me, they are “the grandmothers” and what started out as a journey to uncover these atrocities, soon turned into an exploration of one’s perseverance.

Tucked away in a small village on the side of a mountain in Shanxi, China, lived 90-year-old Grandma Cao. She would pat on the empty seat next to her (my invitation to sit), hand me a cigarette and light it up for me — even though I don’t smoke. But it would have been rude to refuse. There was something endearing about a grandma-like figure encouraging a cigarette break. We spent countless afternoons after lunch, smoke in hand, staring out the window. She stood on bounded feet, which only brought her to 4 feet 10 inches tall. But she was fiercely independent and charismatic and had a laughter that would fill your heart.

Even though they didn’t live together, Grandma Cao and her adopted daughter, Ms. Li, were very close. All they had was each other. I witnessed their day-to-day routines and rituals. Very few words were exchanged between them, and when they did speak to one another, it was all very pragmatic:

“Did you eat?”

“Stop collecting firewood or you’ll catch a cold!”

“Don’t forget your breakfast for tomorrow is in the pot.”

And yet there was something so strong about their quiet bond. It wasn’t until we started talking about the details of Grandma Cao’s past that I very quickly realized that Ms. Li didn’t know anything about her adopted mother’s past, or even how she herself came to being adopted.

Their relationship taught me that discussing one’s personal experience with sexual violence — even with people you are closest to — isn’t without its complexities.

It wasn’t until 1991 — 47 years after the end of World War II — that the world first learned of the “comfort women” issue. A Korean woman named Kim Hak Sun spoke out publicly, and demanded justice. She set off a domino effect. Other survivors started to speak out too, and we would hear testimony after testimony from hundreds of survivors describing the horrific crimes committed against them, all with the hope that justice would soon follow. That at the very least, they would get a formal apology from the Japanese government, but 28 years later, their fight still continues.

The grandmothers I interviewed told me that back in the old days — and even today — people will say things like, “Well, if it really happened then why didn’t you say something sooner?” Or, “The only reason you are saying this is because you want money and attention.” Sadly, this rhetoric is still often heard today as a defense when a woman publicly discloses her experience with sexual violence.

Eighty-nine-year-old Grandma Gil of Seoul, South Korea, never planned to talk about her past. In fact, she had initially even criticized other survivors for speaking out about their experiences. But eventually, after watching the weekly Wednesday demonstration on TV (where survivors of military sexual slavery in South Korea gathered to protest in front of the Japanese Embassy), she realized that she couldn’t just be apathetic while other survivors were protesting for justice — a justice that she too was seeking. So she decided to join their fight, and if not for herself, then it would be for the next generation of young women. For many survivors, the decision to speak out is a daunting one. The thought of negative repercussions can be worse than burying it deep inside of you forever.

I remember a hot afternoon in Roxas City, Philippines. I was sitting with Grandma Adela in her bedroom. She told me that she had regrets about disclosing her past. Had she known that nothing good would come out of it, she would have kept her mouth shut. Grandma Adela waited until her husband passed away, and all her children were out of the nest, before joining a support group for survivors of sexual violence in her community. She hoped that by telling her story she would feel some sense of justice, but she immediately felt like a social outcast, and was even looked down upon by former co-workers.

Maya Angelou wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” For victims of sexual violence, the biggest fear about speaking out is not being believed and, thereby, being re-victimized. Society has perpetuated a culture of shame that has resulted in decades, or even lifetimes, of silence for survivors of sexual violence. Something has to change.

As the remaining survivors of military sexual slavery continue to fight for justice, even in the last few years of their lives and as the ‘Me Too’ movement continues to be a cultural transformation encouraging millions to speak out about sexual violence, the legacy and strength of Grandma Adela and Grandma Cao continues to inspire me. Despite it being hard to come to terms with never being able to physically hold space with them and share a bowl of noodles. I am forever grateful for their relationship, wisdom, and courage. Thank you grandmothers.

Below, watch the trailer for The Apology, which premiered Monday, October 22 at 10 p.m. ET on PBS , and stream it here.

Tiffany Hsiung is an award-winning filmmaker based in Toronto. Her debut feature-length documentary The Apology (2016) has won more than a dozen awards internationally, including top 10 film at Hot Docs (2016), best documentary at Busan International Film Festival and Oslo International Film Festival, to name a few. Hsiung’s passion both for filmmaking and education sparks a unique energy to change the status quo and bring critical stories to audiences around the world. Follow her on Twitter here.

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