A Gesture Life

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A Gesture Life
Book Cover of A Gesture Life.jpg
Hardback cover
Author Chang-Rae Lee
Country United States
Language English
Genre Novel
Publisher Riverhead Books
Publication date
September 6, 1999
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 356
ISBN ISBN 978-1-57322-146-7
OCLC 41488613
LC Class PS3562.E3347 G4 1999

A Gesture Life is a novel written by Chang-Rae Lee, a South Korean author who has been living in the United States since 1965, which takes the form of a narrative of an elderly physician named Doc Hata, who deals with everyday life in a small town in the United States called Bedley Run, and who remembers treating Korean comfort women for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. He once owned a medical and surgical supply store and he has an adopted daughter named Sunny. The relationship between these two is quite disturbed and leads to certain problems. All the problems which Doc Hata has to deal with stem from his experiences in the Japanese Imperial Army in the World War II.

Chang-Rae Lee won the Asian American Literary Award for the novel.

Plot summary[edit]

The whole story, told by the first person narrator Doc Hata, consists of flashbacks. The main story line reaches from the time he gives up his store in Bedley Run until he meets his adopted daughter again. The sub story lines show the reader about his time during the war, and about his time with a teenage daughter and how he dealt with times when raising his daughter was very difficult.

At the beginning of the story, Doc Hata describes his current situation and place of living. He lives in a small town called Bedley Run, where he is from the first accepted by the other inhabitants as a decent shopkeeper, although he sold his store to a young couple from New York and is now retired. He has difficulty leaving his old life behind him and visits his old store nearly every day. At this point, i.e. very early, he mentions that he has a daughter who comes from Japan as well.

Then he describes his house and the area he lives in. He also introduces Liv Crawford, who is a real estate agent and wants him to move and sell his house. Doc Hata thinks a lot about his past in Bedley Run but also about his past experiences in Japan. He gives many insights into his daily routines, such as going to his old store and going to swim every day in his pool. He thinks a lot about Sunny and how she arrived when she was a little girl. Later on, it becomes clear that Sunny was adopted and that Doc Hata specifically wanted to a girl, and even bribed the relevant person to get what he wanted. He remembers Sunny playing the piano and the initial problems he had with her.

In the first flashback we can see how he remembers his time with Mary Burns, one of his neighbors. He remembers meeting her the first time during his gardening. She quickly becomes a kind of girlfriend for him and spends a lot of time with Sunny, who does not accept her at all. Although Mary Burns works a lot on her relationship with Sunny, the young girl does not get along with her. In her first conversation with Doc Hata it becomes clear that he is not a real doctor, but that everybody calls him 'doc' because of his store. Mary Burns is very impressed by him because of the fact that he lives in a house that would fit a real doctor and his salary. At the beginning, the relationship between Doc Hata and Mary Burns is very close but they soon start to argue about Sunny and how Doc Hata treats her.

Doc Hata gives one piece of information about his daughter after the other, never giving all the information at the same point. While the story is going on it becomes clear that a big fight between Doc Hata and Sunny took place a while ago and separated them. During a stay in the hospital, where he has to stay for almost burning his own house, Doc Hata remembers what this fight was about. In hospital Officer Como's daughter visits Doc Hata and he begins to remember which problems Sunny had with Officer Como. Sunny was in trouble and she did not accept the authority of the police officer. This is just the beginning of the tragedy which is going on between Sunny and Doc Hata. At this point of the story, in the flashback situation, it becomes clear that Sunny runs away from home and that she meets with dubious persons.

Going on in the story, Doc Hata goes back in time a lot; he starts to talk about his time in World War II. He explains that most of the soldiers and also some officers had fun with abducted young women, who were brought there for the pleasures of the soldiers. He talks in particular about one girl he thought of the whole time.

Before he comes back to the war situation he tells the reader about how he finds Sunny again and how this situation goes on and he also gives more background information on the conflict with Sunny. Then, he meets Sunny again on a regular basis. She has a son, named Thomas of whom Doc Hata takes care, but he does not tell him that he is his grandfather, because Sunny does not want her son to know that. For Sunny it is quite a comfort that her dad takes care of her child, because she can apply for a new job and does not need to find a new baby sitter or nanny.
When he speaks about his war time he talks most of the time about K and about their relationship to each other. K is a girl who was arrested by the Lieutenant Kurohata for special services. She was a sex slave (comfort woman), and forced to have sex with the soldiers. The young Franklin Hata tried to protect her from the treatment of the others. It seems that Doc Hata fell in love with K and he wanted to protect her from everything. While Captain Ono tried to rape her, she killed him, and she asked Hata to kill her too, but instead, he told the others that Captain Ono killed himself in an accident. In the end, Doc Hata does not say explicitly that K died after she is raped by 30 or more soldiers, but implicitly it is clear that she is dead.

At the end of the story, Doc Hata changes a lot. He stops following his rituals, he sells his house and he gets along with Sunny. So, it can be seen that he begins to handle his war experiences and that he is able to change.

The characters[edit]

Doc (Franklin) Hata[edit]

The figure of Doc Hata functions as the narrator and tells every part of the story through his eyes. So, we can understand how he sees the events and not how the other characters see them. He tells us not only about his time in Bedley Run, but also very briefly about his childhood, then about his time in World War II, and also about his time with his daughter Sunny. He does not tell all these events in chronological order but every time he thinks about his past, he talks about it. So, the novel is full of flashbacks which tell us more about Hata's life and his rituals.

Hata lives in Bedley run, owned a medical store and was a soldier in the World War II. His name is Japanese but originally he comes from Korea, was adopted by a nice childless couple and lived his youth on the south-western coast of Japan. He tells us that he was not a nice but a difficult child who was not generous to his foster parents who treated him as well as a real son.

During the war, in 1944, he is stationed in Burma. He is there as a paramedical officer who is field-trained but not formally educated. He is called Lieutenant Kurohata which is his Japanese name and not his Korean one. Both names, Hata as well as Kurohata mean black flag which could be seen as his symbol for the war and the happenings over there. In Burma, he is responsible for the girls, who are there for the men's happiness and 'health'. Not only is he responsible for them, he also falls in love with one of the girls, K. At this time he thinks that K is in love with him, too, but following all events Hata is telling us about, it becomes clear that this love was unilateral. He loves her so much that he shoots Captain Ono to protect her.

In his first years in Bedley Run he owns a store, named after his daughter "Sunny Medical Store". He adopts Sunny when she is a young girl. He always wants a girl and is therefore happy to get one from a Christian Adoption Agency. He tells everybody that he is a happy father but in reality he has a lot of problems with Sunny. In the end he sees that he made a lot of mistakes with Sunny. He is for example, like every Japanese father, too overgenerous. He tries to have a happy family when he meets Mary Burns but this does not work with Sunny. All these things induce Sunny to leave her dad.

After a while, and after selling his store to a youngish couple from New York he meets Sunny after thirteen years without any contact again and gets to know her son, Thomas. He changes a lot and spends a lot of time with his grandson and also with his daughter. Doc Hata is a man who lives his life through rituals. He swims every day, he goes out for a walk to his old store but the retirement lifestyle does not immediately draw him, so he has never gone fishing or played bridge. He has never taken photos but of Sunny as young girl. His life motto was: Routine triumphs over everything. He lived his whole life in Bedley Run according this motto and first changes towards the end when he sells his house and when he changes his daily routine.


In the story Sunny changes from a young girl to a woman with a son and runs through different stages during the story. We do not get to know what she does while she has no contact with her father.

She comes from Korea and is adopted by Doc Hata. As young girl she looks skinny, has wavy black hair and dark-hued skin, and she likes word games very much. She does not like the house and does not like to play the piano. As a teenager she becomes very difficult. She does not treat Mary Burns nor the police with respect. She spends her nights in a disreputable part of town with hoodlums. When Doc Hata becomes aware of her behavior, the two of them get into a fight that leads to her moving out. After she is sexually assaulted and her assailant is stabbed by another, she revisits her home with Doc Hata. It soon becomes clear that she and Doc Hata cannot repair their relationship as father and daughter. One event which makes their relationship complicated is that Hata forced her to have an abortion after 28 weeks.

As an adult, Sunny works at the Ebbington Mall as a shop manager. She is 32 when she and Hata meet again. Sunny also has a boy, named Thomas, who is almost six years old. She accepts that Hata and Thomas spend a lot of time together but she does not want Thomas to know that Hata is his grandfather. The situation between Hata and Sunny improves towards the end, and they talk a lot about things they both did wrong.

Mary Burns[edit]

Mary Burns is a neighbor of Doc Hata. She spends a lot of time in the country club of Bedley Run. She is socially active and she organizes a lot of dances in the country club. She has two daughters who do not live at home and who rarely visit their mother.

She first meets Doc Hata when he was working in his garden. She told him about her dead husband who was a cardiologist at Deacon Hospital. She thought that Doc Hata was a real doctor as well. After their first meeting, Hata and Mrs. Burns meet a lot and she also tries her best to connect with Sunny. She spends a lot of time with her but she fails in coming closer to Sunny. This and the fact that she is not happy about how Hata treats his daughter ends their relationship. She dies before Sunny and Hata meet again.


K, whose real name is Kkutaeh, is a Korean girl who is brought with her sister as a sex slave (comfort woman) to the camp in which Hata works as medical officer. At home she has two more sisters and one brother.

She is, like all the other girls, placed under Hata's care. Her sister is mercy-killed by a soldier that takes pity on her. The soldier is then executed. A senior officer, Captain Ono, takes special interest in K. Captain Ono isolates her from the rest of the camp. When K is not with Captain Ono, presumably servicing him, she is with Hata in the infirmary. Both men pretend that she is sick during this time so that she can avoid servicing the rest of the camp. Hata treats her differently from the other girls. He falls in love with her. Seeing this as her opportunity, she asks him to kill (to shoot) her. He refuses to do so, naively believing that she will be able to survive all of this. He is also unable to kill Captain Ono whose attentions and intentions toward K are base in nature.

The love Hata has toward K is one-sided at best. He consummates his love for her while she is sleeping, which he clearly does not view as rape. However, he does hear her cry after he leaves her.

See also[edit]


Lee, Chang-Rae (1999). A Gesture Life. London: Granta Books.

External links[edit]