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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Dad instills key value in his girls

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By Keiko Ohnuma
Advertiser Staff Writer

The funny thing about my dad, despite being old-country Japanese in so many ways, is that he wanted us girls to be independent.

He didn't even want sons. He and Mom hoped for girls, because (they said) it meant less pressure. In Japan, everything depends on how your kids turn out, and for sons, the standards of success are pretty cut and dried.

For girls, the main thing is that they turn into good wives and mothers, and are obedient, sweet, etc. The rest is gravy.

It was the gravy part, I guess, that intrigued my dad. With boys, you're expected to try to mold them into doctors, executives and scholars. But it would be pure bonus if you managed it with a girl.

The burden of this project fell on me, the oldest. From the age of 8, he would show me cartoons in the New Yorker — with their urbane, understated wit — to see if I would laugh. Or beat me mercilessly at chess and go. Or explain the theory of relativity as I fought off sleep.

He wanted me to be smart. Not pretty, sweet and obedient, but independent-minded.

This came as a challenge at times when I wanted to be a baby and cling. I still remember bumbling home from a daycare center at the tender age of 3 because I wasn't quite ready to be booted into the world alone.

On many such occasions, my normally easygoing father would shake his head with disappointment. "We raised our girls to be independent," he would say — end of subject.

He sent me to nursery school before I spoke English. I started kindergarten as a 4-year-old runt. At 13, I was packed off to summer camp in a remote Canadian wilderness, cluelessly packing dresses and a blow dryer in my Samsonite luggage.

Not that independence of spirit served at school or at work. But it has often delivered me from slavishly obeying the dictates of either institution.

In fact, when I told my parents at age 27 that I planned to quit my magazine job and spend my savings traveling around the world, my dad nodded and said "Good." He showed some interest in the destinations. He and Mom dropped me at the airport and went off to the symphony.

I found it totally odd, like they were letting go of me forever. But in retrospect, it was their nonchalance that boosted my confidence those 15 months on the road.

Today, knowing how men are about their daughters, I think I was lucky my father did not give in to the urge to coddle and protect, or put his fears and need for control above my need to face fear and learn to control myself.

I guess there's nothing more I would recommend to a man who worries about his daughters than to develop their minds, their courage and their independence, with all the danger that implies.

If you lock up a girl, you protect her for one day. But unlock her strength, and she will protect herself for life.

Reach Keiko Ohnuma at kohnuma@honoluluadvertiser.com.