In 2009, a trip to Asia would change 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 World War II in Asia—specifically, the institutionalized sexual slavery system that held captive more than 200,000 girls and young women. When I asked the elders in my family to tell me stories about the past, what it was like during the war, they would shake their heads slowly and somberly say, “没有什么好说的, 不好听 (Mei yoa shimo hao shio de bu hao tin)” which means, “There’s nothing good to say, nothing good to hear.” And that was the end of my history lesson.
As a “CBC” (Canadian Born Chinese), I often felt conflicted culturally. The North American approach is to speak out against injustice, while the Chinese way of dealing with hardship is to “吃苦 (chi ku)” which literally translates to “swallow the bitterness.” And of course, one must always “save face” to preserve pride and honor. I was first confronted with this dilemma at 8 years old, after being sexually assaulted at home by a so-called family friend. I was paralyzed by the choices I could make, but either way, I felt that my world had already been shattered. I chose the temporary comfort and safety of keeping silent and, like the women of generations before me, I just learned to swallow the bitterness.
Fast-forward 17 years, when I would meet the remarkable women in my film The Apology. History refers to them as “comfort women”—a term used by the Imperial Japanese Army to describe the girls and women they forced into sexual slavery. But to me, they are the grandmothers. What started off as a journey to uncover this dark history of human atrocities soon turned into an exploration of perseverance.
When Korean survivor Kim Hak-sun first spoke out publicly in 1991, nearly five decades after the end of World War II, she set off a domino effect. Other women in their respective countries started to speak out, too, and the world would hear testimony after testimony from hundreds of women describing unimaginable crimes against them with the hope that justice would soon follow. Twenty-seven years later, their fight still continues.
After the first few years of spending time with Grandma Cao in China, Grandma Gil in Korea and Grandma Adela in the Philippines, it was clear that there was more to this chapter in history, more than just the sexual slavery, more to these women that people weren’t seeing. I came to learn about their lives after the war and how they survived. The grandmothers had incredible resilience, made tremendous sacrifices and ultimately displayed the true power of the human spirit.
Over the course of six years, each of the communities that we filmed demonstrated the importance of camaraderie. Knowing that you aren’t alone and that you will be supported after disclosing your past can make the difference between speaking out versus living the rest of your life in silence and carrying the burden and pain of what you experienced as a victim. Society has perpetuated a culture of shame that has resulted in decades, or even lifetimes of silence for survivors of sexual violence.
These days the Me Too and Time’s Up movements are sparking a global dialogue that de-stigmatizes and reframes what it means to be a victim of sexual violence. The grandmothers have taught me that although my past does not define me, the journey to come to terms with my past makes me who I am today. Discovering why I wanted to make this film was extremely difficult, because I thought it was a story I wanted to tell, when, in fact, it became a story I always needed to tell. It’s a story for the 8-year-old girl within me that struggled to tell her own family about the abuse. It’s a story for all the courageous grandmothers who survived months and years of sexual slavery. It’s a story for all the survivors who never had the space to be known outside the ugly crimes committed against them. It’s a story that brings to light the millions of untold stories of sexual violence that continue to go unheard.
Director, The Apology