Robert Earle


Robert Earle has published more than forty stories across the U.S. and Canada in journals such as Mississippi Review, The MacGuffin, Inkwell, 34th Parallel, Main Street Rag, The Toronto Review, The Common, and Quarterly West. His two novels, The Man Clothed in Linen and The Way Home, are now available on Kindle, as is his collection of essays on contemporary writing, Tuppence Reviews. The Piker Press has serialized two of his novellas within the last year. He also is the author of NIghts in the Pink Motel: An American Strategist’s Pursuit of Peace in Iraq and contributing editor of North American Identities: The Search for Community. Robert Earle has degrees in literature and writing from Princeton and Johns Hopkins.

How Chung’s Sister Got Her Name

In 1951, when Ayako was seven, she and her mother Raku lived in the basement of a semi-abandoned building although only the top three floors were bomb-damaged. This was in Suidobashi. Big surprise that a husky young American officer and a young man he brought with him from Korea took one of the apartments on the second floor.

Ayako watched them move in. Suitcases, beds, some chairs, a sofa, bookcases. Then a record player and the American's favorite music, jazz. Everyone in Tokyo knew jazz, even Ayako.

She heard the officer say to a nosy neighbor from across the street, I'm Captain Temple. Chung here is my batman, takes care of me. He comes and goes as he needs to. Don’t worry about him just because he’s Korean, okay?

Captain Temple's Japanese was pretty good; he had the sounds right if not every word. But batman? What was this?

Captain Temple left early in the morning. Chung stayed behind. Sometimes he went out and came back with manga books in English. Ayako wanted to see these books. Who wouldn't?

Her mother said to stay hidden. No attention to us, please!

Mummy, I want to see those manga the batman has.

What is batman?

I don't know.

Ayako made the batman see her by sitting on the stairs when he came back one day.

What is that? she asked, pointing to his manga books.

The batman said something Ayako couldn't understand.

Don't you speak Japanese?

He shook his head side to side. Only little bit.

When he let her look at the manga books, she couldn't read the words, but there was a man in a mask with little ears and a cape and a bat symbol in the sky over his head. And look, he was leaping from one building to another! Look, he was punching someone! Look, he was in a cave and there was a boy in a costume, such a beautiful boy!

Batman? she asked.

When Chung laughed, his shoulders went up and down. Yes, Batman!

She turned the pages. Her eyes were like little mouths; they ate the pictures, every little thing and color and gesture. Then she looked at Chung and imagined him in his costume with the black mask over his face and the bat ears.

Robin! he said, pointing to the beautiful boy in his red shirt, green sleeves and yellow cape. I Batman, you Robin!

She laughed because he smiled. Had no idea what he said except maybe it was funny.

I am Korean, he said in Japanese.

I am Japanese.

He was a thin man with round tortoise shell spectacles. Had a long face and nice teeth and high forehead. Learn English from Captain Temple, he said.

She looked down the shadowy stairwell because again she didn't understand.

Name? he asked, pointing to her.

Ayako, she said. Name? she said, mimicking his English and pointing back at him.


Chung wore an olive brown uniform with brass buttons but no badges or special markings.They became friends. Shook hands. Bowed. Laughed, Ayako covering her mouth, Chung raising and lowering his shoulders.

Her mother had found a big sink that she connected to a water pipe behind the building. She knocked on doors everywhere. Said she would do laundry. Ayako followed and helped carry and wash and hang the laundry to dry on a rope between their building and the next one. The work was hard, especially when the laundry was wet and they could not let it touch the ground before they threw it over the drying rope. With their little money they went to shop at night in the little Suidobashi market, not the big one. If they could buy rice and beans, good. If they could buy fruit, good. A piece of fish? Good, good, good. But no sweets!

One day Captain Temple came home and saw Ayako on the stairwell. He said to her in Japanese, Chung tells me you are his friend.

Yes, I am his friend.

Do you think you can teach him Japanese while I'm at work? He doesn't have enough to do.

Captain Temple was a powerful man with thick glasses, bug eyes and a large head. Hair cut very short.

Where did you learn Japanese? she asked.

I started in college. Then I got sent to Korea because I also had studied Chinese. Now I'm here. My Japanese is getting better, don't you think?

You speak it well.

Where do you go to school?

I don't go to school. I help my mother. My father came back from the war but did not live.

You're down in the basement somewhere?

Do you want to see?

Captain Temple let Ayako take him down to where no bomb had ever hit and everything was solid and dry but dark. She guided him through corridors and doorways. In a faraway room she and her mother had their sleeping mats, their little stove, their supply of soap, and all the clothes they had piled up to wash, a little mountain for every customer.

Captain Temple said, What if you did our wash, too?

We would be honored.

And hey, what if I paid you a little money to teach Chung Japanese and when I come home at night, I'll teach you a little English?

Yes! Ayako cried. Then she could read what Batman said to Robin!

Captain Temple tousled her hair. They would start tomorrow.

Ayako's mother Raku would not keep a mirror where they lived or look in a window they passed by. She said it was to keep her spirit whole and not proud. She said Ayako's father went to war with a whole spirit but too much pride. When he returned, no spirit, no pride. So he died.

I don't know how we had you, she told Ayako. We shouldn't have. Look at how we live!

Her hands were chafed and cracked from the soap. She never combed her hair. Her clothes were clean, but she never let Ayako see her thin, sagging body, which Ayako saw anyway.

Eat! Ayako would command her.

I can't. You eat, little girl, and don't be so bossy. You get that from your father. You have his pride and see what happened when it left him.

It will never leave me.

They sat on the cement floor with their legs crossed and tried to use their candles as little as possible. When it was daylight, Raku reheated whatever they had not eaten the night before. Then they went out into Suidobashi and knocked on their customers’ doors. Some of them began to say things were better for them and they needed their clothing and bedding ironed. What was Raku to say? She didn't have an iron.

In the afternoon Ayako climbed up to the captain's apartment to see Chung. She taught Chung Japanese by pointing at things in the manga Batman comics in English. Lamp, floor, tree, window, cloud, girl, boy, building. So on and so on. Then Captain Temple came home and taught her and Chung the words for these things in English.

Very complicated! Sometimes she'd get so tired she'd fall asleep. When she did, Captain Temple would carry her downstairs to her mother. Captain Temple explained that he worked in the Dai-Ichi Mutual Life Insurance building for General Ridgeway, governor of Japan. He said he would bring them a bag of rice. When he did, the bag was enormous; he also brought an enormous bag of beans!

Then one day U.S. army men came to their building with boxes and rolls of wires. In the boxes there was a washing machine and an iron and ironing board. With the wires they connected the washing machine and iron to an electric plug that got electricity from the street. They also put electricity into the socket of the ceiling of their room. Light!

Kiddo, Captain Temple is your big buddy, one of the soldiers said. When he signs a requisition order, he gets what he wants.

Him and his batman, they'll go far, another soldier said.

Raku and Ayako began to make much more money than before.

Chung said to Ayako in English, You really like to make money, I see.

Ayako responded in Japanese, Yes, why not? Look at how happy my mother is now. Smiles. Not so mean. Doesn't need my help so much.

Captain Temple was never working for General Ridgeway so hard that he didn't have time to think. In fact he thought as fast as he learned languages. He asked Raku if he could take Ayako and Chung to the Dai-Ichi Mutual Life Insurance building one day to talk to a man.

About what?

Just let me take her. I have an idea.

So Ayako and Chung went and stood beside Captain Temple as he talked to one of the businessmen.

If you give this little girl and my batman Chung some sales packets, I bet they would knock on fifty doors a day for you, sell a bunch of policies, and collect the money, too. What do you think?

The insurance man was fat, merry, and doubtful. But he also was wary of Captain Temple, who worked for the most powerful man in Japan.

In two months Ayako and Chung had sold sixty-seven life insurance policies—very little cost, very big benefits, keep children safe if parents ever die. While they walked around Tokyo, they talked about how else they could make money.

Chung said, What if Captain Temple and I helped you and your mother buy the building we live in? Who else wants the building? The owners? No, look at it. But we could knock off the top floor or two, put on a new roof, fix things up.

Raku couldn't believe this idea, but Ayako said, Why not? We are Japanese, so Chung says we can own the building. He and Captain Temple will loan us the money and be our silent partners.

What does silent partners mean?

It means nobody hears them except us.

Raku said yes. What else could she say?

That was another big surprise for everyone in the neighborhood. Somehow the widow and her little girl who lived in the basement bought the whole building and then American soldiers brought trucks full of things and Japanese carpenters and painters and masons and electricians used those things. Slap, slap! Bang, bang! All done!

Raku and Ayako moved out of the basement into an apartment. Now the basement was only for the washing machine and ironing board.

One thing Ayako was sure of: With all this good fortune they would have to become a family. She knocked on Captain Temple's door one night and said, I have idea.

Oh, you do, do you? Tell me about it. Captain Temple always smiled at her even though his smile was tight and you could never see his teeth.

You marry my mother and I will marry Chung. He becomes my Batman, I become his Robin.

Captain Temple was drinking whiskey, smoking a cigar, and listening to jazz.

Chung was sipping tea. Afraid I'm too young to marry, and so are you.

What? How old are you?

Twenty-two. How about you?

Still seven but almost eight. After that, nine!

Captain Temple asked Chung what he thought.

Chung said, In North Korea I end up in prison. Get out of prison. End up in Seoul. Get out of Seoul. End up here. I thought next I end up in America, but how could I go to America with a wife so little?

I grow! Ayako protested.

Ayako, we're in business together, that's for sure, Captain Temple said. And we could do business for a long time without anyone getting married. Want to know what I was just thinking?

Yes, tell me, I always want to hear your thoughts.

I have a classmate in the United States who works for a company that makes washing machines like the one we gave your mother. What if we brought lots of washing machines to Japan and sold them?

My mother would lose her customers!

No, no, we'd sell them on the other side of the city, in Yokohama, Hokkaido, far, far away.

So instead of everyone marrying, that's what they did. American washing machines. After that? American sewing machines. After that?

Real estate's so cheap here and we know a thing or two about it, don't we? Captain Temple said. Here's my idea: We stop with the little stuff and try our hands at things that are bigger. We do the same as with this building, buy a few more. You and your mother put your names on the deeds.

Where we get the money to buy all this? Ayako asked.

Right, that's the first big problem, Captain Temple said.

What about our fat, merry friend at the insurance company? Chung asked. Get him to loan us money?

Raku thought this was crazy, but that's exactly what they set out to do because the man at Dai-Ichi Mutual Life had lots of money and wanted to be another silent partner.

They walked around Tokyo on the weekends to check on opportunities. To Bunkyo. To Chiyoda. To Shinjuku. The city was like a great beast beaten to the earth but not dead. New buildings grew out of its body, old buildings wore off like scabs. Captain Temple was excited. Chung, who knew? Raku was confused and unhappy. She wore nice clothing now, nice shoes, real stockings, but she was tired in her soul from the war and many years of desperation, and she knew Captain Temple would never marry her to see her through old age no matter what Ayako said. Being with these men was dangerous. Business partners to a widow in her forties with a little girl? And such a fierce little girl because she had no father to hold her back? She really believed these manga--Batman, Robin, Superman, Green Lantern. What couldn't she do just like them? Knock on people's doors and sell life insurance? Yes. Tell Captain Temple the building he liked was bad in its basement and take him in there and be right? How could Ayako know so much?

Ayako said, Don't just look at the building itself, look at the cracks in the sidewalk and the alley! All cracks lead to other cracks, everywhere in the world.

So what? We knock the thing down and build a brand new building, Captain Temple said.

No, bad deal, Ayako said. Whole neighborhood terrible. Bombs in the ground everywhere.

What's wrong with you today? he asked her.

Ayako said, Let's go to America and do these things. We've done enough in Tokyo.

Captain Temple said, It's not so easy in America. War didn't damage us at all.

Easy? Ayako asked. Nothing easy. Work, work, work!

Chung's shoulders went up and down for a long time. She tell you off, Clark. Who you think you are?

They were in a tea room being served. Raku ate and ate, cookies, pastries, little tarts. Ayako was embarrassed for her but knew she couldn’t help it. Once Raku started, she couldn’t stop. She had been hungry so long! Sometimes two things in her mouth at once.

I’ll go to America because I have to, but I like it here in Asia and I’ll be back, guaranteed, Clark said. I can see the place getting itself together for decades and decades. The 50s and 60s will just be the start and the whole time we’ll be part of it.

Raku listened without understanding. Ayako translated. Raku said this meant he didn't want to marry her. Her eyes wrinkled like crumpled pieces of paper and the paper grew wet.

Clark understood. He said he was very sorry, she was a lovely person, but no, he was too young and had to go back to home because of the service. General Ridgeway was only there to turn the country back to the Japanese, not stay forever.

Raku nodded. It's okay. I don't believe I live that much longer anyway.

Mommy! Ayako said.

Chung was wearing a beautiful suit, beautiful peacock tie, hair combed tight to his skull above his long sallow face. He looked at the mother and girl and said he wasn't sure for himself anymore. Go to America or stay in Japan or maybe return to Korea and try his luck there. What should he do?

Not back to Korea, Clark said. That's got to settle down. Besides, they might come get you without me around.

You mean North Koreans come get me and punish me? Chung grew afraid when he asked this. No more tea rooms...prisons?

Sure, Clark said. We pushed them back, but you watch, they'll keep sneaking in.

Okay, then it’s Japan or United States, what works best for me?

United States, Ayako said. Marry me and take me to United States.

The three adults considered her. A moment passed that meant Chung had to be the one to answer her.

He said, All my family in North Korea is dead. Clark is my family now. Maybe someone else we met in prison camp in Korea is family, I don’t know, but you already are my family, too. Look at us: We make money. We get along. But I am twenty-two, Ayako, too old for you. You are too young to marry anyone for years and years.

Ayako began to weep like her mother. It was the first time in years that both had allowed themselves to be sad at the same time. Ayako felt betrayed and angry, too. She had to do something about this; it couldn’t be; she had to have what she wanted somehow.

Captain Temple said, He's right, sweetheart, you're too young. Smart for your age but young.

Chung said, The girl I was going to marry became communist and died anyway. He reached into his wallet and pulled out a tattered picture of her that he had folded so often to hide it that the image was almost ruined. But no matter. Anyone could look at her and imagine how pure as porcelain she was, how beautiful her eyelashes were, and likewise her little ears. Chung began to weep, too. War is so terrible! he moaned. Oh, it tears us into nothing, pulls us apart, we are nothing, nothing!

So now only Clark could talk, the others choked with frustration, fear and grief. He said to Ayako and Raku, Well, I’ve got some news for you two: That's the first time I've seen that picture myself. He patted Chung on the back to console him. Hey, old fella, hey, I'm so sorry. So many dead all over the place. That's the problem, but it's our opportunity, too. There's more places we could go from here than we've got legs to get there.

Chung put the photograph back in his wallet. Next he surprised everyone. So I marry you? he asked Raku. Ayako become our daughter?

Raku gasped and lowered her face in shame and delight.

Ayako banged the table with her fists. No! Me!

Chung drew back and seemed to grow small. Little batman, not big Batman. Oh, Ayako, Ayako, I can't marry you. How can I marry anyone? What am I saying? Stupid, stupid me. I wanted to marry that girl, no one else.

Was he withdrawing his offer to Raku? He didn't know himself. He put his head in his hands, then tried to explain his quandary another way: Clark barely can get me into United States. Don’t listen to him when he says no problem. Big, big problem. But a wife, too? Oh, yes, I want a wife, a real woman, I am so lonely, I am so confused. What do I do?

Clark kept patting him on the back. Raku began to weep again. No one had suggested she was a real woman in years. Even when her husband came back from the war and they made Ayako, she didn't think she was a woman in his arms any more than he was a man. He died so pitifully and so fast.

I wish I could wave a magic wand, Clark said. I mean, I could talk to General Ridgeway about all of us, but Jiminy Cricket, step by step, guys. We've done some good things, and if we’re going to keep that up we need you two here. He meant Raku and Ayako.

Ayako cried out, If I’m not his wife, I won't be Chung’s daughter. I will be his sister!

What? Raku asked. How could this be?

Chung's Sister! Ayako insisted. She pointed at Chung. From now on, I am your sister. You must protect me and I must help you. Chung's Sister, you call me that now, she told everyone. No more Ayako. Ayako's gone. Listen to me, Chung's Sister is here!

She raised her arms like a new Power that had appeared in a manga book.

They were offered more tea. Clark asked for more thin brown cookies as well, the kind that would dissolve on your tongue. He gave Raku his handkerchief to dry her eyes. He gave Chung his napkin to dry his eyes, too. Chung's Sister wasn't crying anymore. She had made the tears go away with her two little fists.

Okay, Clark said. Then we have a deal. I am like Chung's brother. That's already settled, and now Chung’s Sister is Chung's Sister. So Raku, you're in this through Chung’s Sister, Chung and me. We're a knot, all tied together, nobody pulling us apart. I'm getting Chung into the United States, but he'll be back all the time to keep business going here, and I'll pitch for as many Japan tours as I can. Korea, too. Formosa, maybe, who knows? We'll do all kinds of stuff and never let each other go. Okay? Got that?

Chung's Sister loved what she heard. Raku couldn't say no. Chung said nothing because there was nothing to say. Clark was the boss, he was the batman.

Peace settled upon them. No one had ever been able to fix life before, but now life was fixed. The thin brown cookies were served. The tea room grew quieter, sheltered from the bustling street, all the people out there pushing past the big window, hurrying to get where they wanted to go, not at that very moment where they wanted to be like the two men and the woman and little girl at the table.

I was a diplomat for twenty-five years and became involved in foreign policy issues almost everywhere at one time or another. Obviously I love pondering cross-cultural dynamics, language barriers and doorways, and the weight of history on individual lives. ‘How Chung’s Sister Got Her Name’ was sparked by a trip to Japan and an encounter with a woman who must have been quite fierce even as a little girl. After World War II Japan was devastated. Only people like Chung’s Sister could have rebuilt it. The little girl of my imaginings simply enthralled me, and I had to help her get her way.