In the airport parking lot, my father loaded my luggage into his new car. He cared thoroughly for this Subaru station wagon—it was tricked out with gold rims, a special exhaust system, and a customized paint job. I read the vanity plate out loud—BALISTIC—but didn’t get an explanation. I also didn’t get an explanation for the bucket of golf balls sitting on the passenger floor. My dad had never played.
I was visiting during a college vacation; I hadn’t seen him in a year.
My dad drives aggressively, as he does everything else. We accelerated through curves so that the force of the speed pushed me against the leather seats; he shifted up through the gears as quickly as he could after stoplights, a sound of building and building and then a release.
When we came to a four-way stop, the woman to our right didn’t understand it was her turn. My father honked, but she didn’t move. Then, when he finally eased into the intersection, she started as well. “Hag!” he said. In seconds, he was digging in the golf-ball bucket. Then he was chucking balls at her car. The woman put her hands up to cover her face, terrified, though the balls bounced off her windshield. We sped through the intersection, up through the gears. His anger disappeared into giddiness.
“You’re going to get arrested,” I said.
“Get it?” he said. “Ball-istic.”
“She wasn’t looking for a fight.”
“The enemy must not know where I intend battle,” he said. He was quoting Sun Tzu. He was mostly joking, but partly he wasn’t. The pale-faced woman in the sedan who didn’t know the rules of a four-way stop was my father’s enemy.
For my thirteenth birthday, my father gave me a carved jade stamp, the handle in the shape of a dragon, with the words warrior poet inscribed in Korean characters on the bottom. He also gave me a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the inside already marked with the red ink of the stamp. My brother and sister received the same thing for their thirteenth birthdays, though the bottoms of their stamps were inscribed with different words. Neither of them read the book.
Written in China in the fourth century bc, The Art of War is the first of the martial classics, a ninety-page general philosophy on fighting, in thirteen parts. The book mixes short, numbered pieces of wisdom with quotes and anecdotes by other famous Chinese generals. It reads disturbingly like the Bible, and my dad’s personal copy is worn and beaten and dog-eared. Why is this book so important to him? “Estimates,” chapter one, point one: “War is a matter of vital importance to the state; the province of life and death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.”
Although he is only half Korean, my father looks almost 100 percent. Shortlimbed, thick, and muscular, he has the stance and stride of a pit bull or another low-lying dog. He is almost sixty, but he shows few signs of age—his hair is as thick and as black as in my earliest memories of him. He is embarrassed by his height, and makes up for it by going to the gym, playing sports, throwing his weight around. One Christmas, the two of us picked out a tree together at a local farm. At the cash register, the farmer asked us how tall the tree was so he could charge us the right price. My dad said, “About as tall as me,” and the farmer said, “A five-footer?” My father exploded. We ended up paying for a six-foot tree, though the one we strapped to the top of our car was a five-footer. “Maneuvers,” chapter seven, point twelve: “War is based on deception.”
My dad has two problems. First, he has an uncontrollable temper. Second, probably because of his uncontrollable temper, he has a need to control everything else, especially the cleanliness of his surroundings, especially the people around him.
I remember knowing these two things from the time I was very young, knowing them before I could articulate them. When I was a toddler, I understood that if I dropped food on the floor while eating, he would explode. If I were sick and threw up, he would explode. If his shoes were not lined up in his closet, he would explode.
Of course, I couldn’t hate him. I am my father’s favorite child. My sister is too much like him. My brother is too much his opposite. I am the middle child in more ways than age, an equal blend of my mother and father. I have a few of the Asian features that my father detested in his early life and then embraced as he became older—I have thick, straight hair, though it is brown and not black; I have eyes that aren’t round or almond, but vaguely “ethnic.” I am short and slight like my aunts and grandmother, but not as short and slight. My sister looks like she could be half instead of one-fourth; my brother looks completely like my mother —they both have round, green eyes.
My father and sister fight whenever they are in a room together. They are loud, stubborn, and hotheaded. They both hate those things about the other. My sister does not fight according to the doctrine of Sun Tzu. She fights because she is overcome with emotion. Like my dad, she fights to fight. She suffers from what my grandmother calls “The Asian Flush”—when she is worked up about something, or drunk, her face turns bright red, red enough to come through her deep yellow brown skin. My dad has the same problem. Together, they yell, throw things, stomp so that the light fixtures rattle, swear, speed off in their cars. Together, they turn darker and darker shades of red, starting in their cheeks and spreading outward toward their foreheads, ears, and necks. It is not a chess match, it is not something to write a book about, it is a brawl.
My brother isn’t a fighter, much to my father’s disappointment. He has a round, gentle face and a gently rounded belly. With just a hint of our father in his features, he looks like a white Buddha. He never went out for football, though my dad was coach of a team; he only went hunting with my dad once, though he never fired the gun. When I picture him, I picture him cradling someone—my mother, his girlfriend, his cat. It thoroughly embarrasses my father. A pacifist— probably because of my father—he takes my dad’s warring words quietly. If my dad tells him he should go to the gym, to try and look decent, my brother will say, “I should.” There is no argument, and there is a nobleness there.
I wonder if it is fitting or not that my father gave me the manual from which I learned to wage war against him. I find many of Sun Tzu’s lessons extremely helpful in my everyday struggles; I found them priceless when I was growing up in my father’s house. I used them to keep my sister and father from butting heads; I used them to protect my brother. I used them to comfort my mother, who was secure in every part of her life except the part with my father. They divorced when I was seven, though neither of them moved out of the house, nor did either of them move out of their bedroom. My father and sister raged, my mother and brother watched, and I studied terrain and calculated casualties. A package came in the mail from my dad. It contained a knife and a note that read, “Keep to the shadows and stay off the crests of hills.” No signature. I wasn’t sure if it was a bit of ancient martial wisdom or an original, though I knew he had immersed himself so deeply that it could have easily been either. The knife was a nice one, a Spyderco, with a three-inch curved and serrated blade, flat ground and completely stainless. I knew because my dad taught me. It wasn’t the first one he had sent. He has also sent them to every boyfriend of mine he has met, though the note is different: “Don’t get any ideas. I have a bigger one.”
I grew up like this. When I was very small, I thought it was normal; as I got older I assumed it was Southern; when I got to college, I figured out that it was neither. Lessons with the .22 in my backyard when I was eight, shooting at twoliter Coke bottles filled with water dyed red to look like blood. Learning to swing open a butterfly knife with one hand in three swoops. Practicing with the throwing knives I got for Easter until the tree trunk was scarred and barkless.
When I was twelve, my father took me to the shooting range so I could learn how to use a shotgun. He watched without comment as I rested the butt of the gun against my cheek, aimed, and fired. The gun kicked back into my eye socket, making me cry. Ignoring my tears, my dad made me fire the gun again, this time showing me how to steady the gun against my shoulder. “You won’t forget that,” he said.
Sun Tzu’s ideal war was one without battles. For him the importance was in using power to avoid the fight. He said, “To win one hundred victories in one hundred cities is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” In my relationship with my dad, I embraced that idea. Not showing my anger was my way of angering him; ignoring him hurt him deeply. One of the shortest lines in The Art of War: “Anger the general.”
Once when my mother was away, I cooked a vegetarian dinner for the family. My father wouldn’t eat it because there wasn’t any meat involved. I told him that if he was going to complain, he should have cooked dinner himself—something that he would have said to someone else. He opened every one of the kitchen cabinets and threw their contents onto the tiles—plates, cereal, cookie sheets, hollowly bouncing Tupperware. He walked over to the bathroom and slammed the door without entering it, shattering the door frame. I stood watching him.
“You’re a child,” I said. Again, it was something that he would have said to someone else. He left and didn’t come back until the next day. I cleaned up the mess, thinking that he would get back expecting I had left it for him, and then feeling guilty when he saw it was gone, that everything was back to normal without him.
I had won the battle, but I felt awful about it. I saw the honor in the way my sister fought—she was passionate and truthful, and she was fighting for her own protection. I saw the honor in my brother’s tactics as well—calm, loving, and pliable even in the face of my father at his worst. My strategies—the strategies of Sun Tzu—were full of coldness, tricks, calculations, and masks. Do what you don’t mean; mean what you don’t do.
My mother saw it. In an offensive against my dad, who had recently embarrassed me in front of my friends by demanding that I call him sir, I had stopped talking to him. I had stacked the books he had given me outside of my bedroom door (all with the red stamps on the inside cover). I had told him that he was selfish—not wholly true, but very effective; not shouted, but spoken. When my aunt came to visit, she commented on how quiet and accommodating I was, how well behaved compared to my sister. My mother told my aunt in front of me that I was much worse than my sister. I was cruel. I was deceitful.
My father and I stole from each other. It started because of his obsession with order—if I left something out of place, he would take it and hide it. If he thought I hadn’t been taking care of a gift he had given me, it would disappear.
I copied him. At first I only stole my things back. I found the fake bottom in his chest of drawers that smelled like leather and old bills and gun oil. Then I took it to the next level. Once he said something hurtful to my mother (“I hate your fucking brownies”), and I went into his chest of drawers and stole his love letters. The oldest one was from a girl named Debbie who wrote him when he was at boot camp during Vietnam. The most recent was from a woman in his Tai Chi class. I tore them into little pieces and put them at the bottom of the trashcan, below the brownies my dad had thrown on the carpet. I fantasized about the moment he found them gone, knowing it could be months before it happened, knowing that he wouldn’t know what he did to deserve it, but that, certainly, I had done it, and he had deserved it.
I started giving things back to him, too. When I discovered he gave the woman he was dating the same necklace as he had given to my mother and me, I returned mine by secretly placing it in his shaving kit. A week later, I found a new necklace hanging from my bedside lamp—in gold, it spelled my name in Hawaiian, Kala. I put the second necklace in his chest of drawers and stole back the throwing stars I found there—he had taken them from me when I accidentally left them outside in the rain.
Once, my dad and I didn’t fight, but we didn’t not fight, either. We both let down our guard and had a conversation. It was during my senior year of high school, and I didn’t come home until two in the morning—my first boyfriend had taken me out to dinner and then to the Catholic church parking lot for an ironic makeout session. When I walked up to the house, Dad was still up, moving all of my belongings out onto the driveway. I was usually much more careful and secretive; I hadn’t acted out so blatantly before. (“Offensive Strategy,” chapter three, point seventeen: “And if in all respects unequal, be capable of eluding him, for a small force is but booty for a more powerful one.”) I started moving things back to my room as he moved them out, up and down the stairs, until we were both tired and sat down together on the couch in the living room. If equally matched, says point fifteen, you may engage your enemy.
He told me about being a Jap on the playground, even though he wasn’t, and how he beat up a drunk homeless man outside of a grocery store when he was fourteen, because the man had called his mother a gook whore. I had no idea. Of any of it. Sun Tzu said:
Know your enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning and losing are equal. If ignorant of both your enemy and yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril. Such people are called “mad bandits.” What can they expect if not defeat?
“Know your enemy and know yourself.” My dad is the product of a war. My grandfather met my grandmother at Pearl Harbor, where he was stationed during World War II. She was an Asian beauty who sold fish sandwiches and tropical flowers to sailors. He hid under a bulldozer when the Japanese attacked. They were married before VJ Day.
After the war, they moved to the mainland, to my grandfather’s hometown of Monroe, Louisiana. They were the only Asian family in town, and, with World War II fresh in the minds of the people there, everyone assumed that my father and his family were Japanese. On the playground, the war wasn’t over.
“At recess, you could play on the swings, you could go on the see-saw, or you could beat up the Jap,” Dad told me. “Even if I won, they would bring their older brother the next day.”
I asked him if his situation improved as he got older. He told me that as soon as everyone understood that he was Korean and not Japanese, the Korean War broke out. “Somebody’s dad or uncle had always been killed by some Korean,” he said. “I fought on my way to school, at school, and on my way home.”
“Dispositions,” chapter four, point two: “Invincibility depends on one’s self.” Dad read The Art of War for the first time in junior high school. If I had to guess, I would say he was thirteen. He started lifting weights, and then he started winning fights. He told me, “I stopped being the Asian kid who got beat up. I started being the guy with the reputation for fighting.” He began to wear a hunting knife strapped to his calf. He joined the football team, where he was an offensive lineman. “I didn’t care where the ball was,” he said. “I concentrated on hitting guys on the other team.”
“Know your enemy and know yourself.” As he grew older, my dad embraced Asian culture. He took Tai Chi lessons, learned to meditate, studied Eastern religion, philosophy, and history. He started to collect Asian art, kimonos, and Japanese netsuke. He did some research and made a trip to Hawaii, where he was born, and Seoul, where his mother was born.
In both places, he was still an outsider. In Hawaii, where he tracked down some older relatives, he was called happa haole, Hawaiian slang that means “half white.” In Korea, the people saw his white half instead of his Korean half. If my dad was fighting a war, he didn’t even have a side to back him up.
“Know your enemy and know yourself.” My father got a chance at a real war once, when he was drafted during Vietnam. He became a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne. One guy told him they would shoot him while on guard duty, because they would mistake him as the wrong kind of chink.
His unit was shipped to some of the worst fighting in Camron Bay after training was over, but he never went. His name was called over the intercom during breakfast at Fort Gordon, and he boarded a plane, thinking it would land across the world, in the jungle. It landed in Texas. Someone had typed his Military Operational Skill number incorrectly—13E2P instead of 43E2P—and when he stepped off the plane, they were expecting a .50-caliber-machine-gun expert. They saw his wings, his hat, and his jump boots, and told him that despite the army’s mistake, they needed a parachute rigger. He stayed until his time ran out. The name of the place was Fort Bliss.
I wonder if a part of him was upset that he didn’t go, was disappointed that he couldn’t put his years of training to a real test. Or if he was simply relieved that for a short time in his life, he could stop fighting.
I flip through my book, the book with the red stamp, the book that is becoming dog-eared and worn, for a quote about retreat. The only ones I can remember are about retreating to lure or trick the enemy. Finally, I find one in “Terrain,” point nineteen: “The general who retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thoughts are to protect and do good service, is the jewel of the kingdom.”
I retreated to college. Time and space led to peace. We stopped stealing from each other. Now he mails me books and knives; he mails me book lights for my books, sheaths for my knives. They come with strange notes—in one, written on the first day of the war in Iraq, he takes on the broken English of a Korean, as a joke:
I in Charlotte-land with Joy and Mom. We sit and watch the war and cuss the announcers . . . jackasses! Re-dickaless! Damm Saddam! Drop another guided missile, and let me push button! I know you commie damn pinko round-eye liberal fag (too bad) but I try my best to raise you to be true blue American like me. I love you anyway, judo chop. That my girl.
Sarah Aswell recently earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana. Now she doesn’t know what to do or where to go. According to other author bios she has read, she should be working on a novel and living in Brooklyn. This is her first publication.
“The Art of War” appears in our Winter 2006 issue.