I have brown hair. This would not be noteworthy, but for the fact that I am Korean and Koreans always have jet black hair. When I was little, my dad would tell me that my hair reminded me of his little sister, who also had brown hair. In those days in Korea, brown hair was so freakish and unnatural as to be considered bad luck. My superstitious grandmother kept shaving her daughter’s head in the hope that the hair would grow back black, but of course it never did. I always felt connected to my dad’s little sister and felt sorry for her, but all I ever knew about her was that she had brown hair like mine and that she died young.
Today as I was sitting with my parents on the last day of our Thanksgiving break, the sun was streaming through the window. My dad stared at my hair lit by the sun and started talking about his little sister again. He told me again about how his mother would shave the little girl’s head. The poor girl hated this, but her mother insisted on doing it over and over again.
“It looked terrible, and she would have to go to school looking like that,” my dad said with pity.
For the first time, I began to ask questions about her.
“What was her name, Dad?”
He hesitated and I held my breath. I was afraid that it had been so long ago that he might have even forgotten her name.
“Her name was Yunja, but the Japanese gave her the name ‘Toshiko.’ My brothers and I thought that was such a fancy sounding name, we decided we would all call her that. She was rather tall for her age and good looking. She would have grown up to be a beautiful woman.”
“How old was she when she died?”
“She was in second grade.”
“How did she die?”
“Sunstroke. During the Japanese invasion, they made us all work outside for hours in the sun. The boys wouldn’t wear shirts and we would get so badly sunburned that all of our skin would bubble and peel off at least twice a year. My little sister was healthy and strong. She should have survived. I don’t know why she didn’t.”
“She died at school?”
“She got sick at school, but they brought her home and she died there. I was already working in the watch factory in Seoul, so I never even got to see her. I just heard about it through a letter.”
There is not a single photograph of the little girl whose name I have only just learned. And though her life was fleeting, she is remembered over seventy years after her death with abiding love.