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(Editors’ Note: The introduction to the series on #everydaysexualviolence is here. It contains a detailed trigger warning.)
I grew up in a small suburban town called Pohang in South Korea. My family immigrated to the United States when I was in middle school. From the outside, we were a pretty average upper-middle-class family — my father was a mechanical engineer at a university research center and my mother was a stay-at-home mom with one daughter and one son. Where I grew up, it was conventional to use corporal punishment when the kids misbehave. The saying in South Korea goes that a child that grows up with the whip, grows into a wiser and better human.
My father strongly adhered to this notion. My earliest memory of getting spanked hard was when I was 7 years old. I had spilled a whole bottle of orange juice on the kitchen floor. I distinctly remember my father about to execute ‘corporal punishment’ and my mother pleading to him, “She’s too young. That stick is too large for her.” “She’ll learn to be more careful and gingerly, if she gets spanked,” my father said sternly.
The usual Korean spankings range from getting whipped on the hands, whipped on the back of the calves, spanked on the buttocks, to good ol’ slapping and hitting all over the body. My father’s method was quite unique. He used a wooden spatula in my younger years, but as my body grew, the spatulas would break, so he always had a 2 x 4 ready in the basement. It was too sturdy to break, no matter how angry he would get. His choice of body part was the buttocks. He would have me take my pants and underwear off and make me lie on my stomach or lean on a couch at an angle. He would start by hitting my behind with the 2 by 4, then when my skin got too red, he would turn me over and hit the front of my thighs, right underneath the crotch. Depending on the severity of the “wrong-doing” the number of spanks would range between 20-100 hits. I remember feeling humiliated and violated and I recall telling my mother I would so much prefer it if he let me keep my pants on.
I should explain about my mother. She too was a victim of my father’s temper and beatings from now and then, so all she could do in these incidents were to stand by and beg my father to take it easy. I do not blame her. She did her best. She was a petrified victim of domestic abuse and it had become all too normalized. Her sisters, her mother, everyone told her something along the lines of, “That’s what husbands do from time to time. Everyone’s husband has his demons. You have to endure it and calm him down, to keep your family intact. Endure it for your children.”
So yes, from the age of 7 to 15, I took my father’s ‘no-pants spanking’ as a normal rite of passage. I knew my friends were getting spanked by their parents too, and I assumed they were going through punishments just as painful and mortifying. During the ages 13-15, when we moved to the United States, the hitting became harsher, more frequent, and angrier. Around this time, my mother’s pleads became more and more desperate.
My father was an emotionally damaged man, who had very few outlets to communicate his soul and demons, so most times he used ‘corporal punishment,’ on me, he lost his temper and control. The times he would lose himself, the pain was more extreme, as I absorbed all of his aggression and toxic anger directly onto my skin. The bruises were darker and lasted longer.
The very last time I got a spanking was a month after I turned 15. After an argument with my parents, I had run away in the middle of the night and returned after two days. My father was engulfed in fury. I was having my period that day, and at that time I hadn’t started using tampons yet. I asked if I can keep my underwear on because of my bleeding. But my father said I had to take it off because in order to learn my lesson, I had to feel the fresh pain on the flesh. It was mortifying, humiliating, and disgusting. The 40 spanks that he promised turned into 70. By the end of that session, I looked like I had come out of a car crash. I remember being in pain for a whole month every time I had to sit down on a chair.
Now one might ask, “why didn’t I think to call child protective service or reach out for help?” I didn’t because I grew up with the notion that this was “normal.” This was a “normal” loving father using “normal” corporal punishment to bring me up as a “normal,” polite, law-abiding person. I couldn’t dare think about reporting my own father to the police. That would be the utmost disgrace that I would bring upon the family. I did not want to cause more misery for my mother.
But after the last spanking, where I could barely pick myself up, I decided to stand up for myself once and for all. The following day, I went into his room with a knife. I told him as calmly as I could that I would kill him the next time he laid lands on me, my brother, or my mother. He looked away with no response, but he certainly did not lay hands on me since then. I started living with my grandparents from the following year.
My childhood was not all dark and stormy. My parents gave me so many opportunities to learn and flourish. I always had food and a roof above my head. However, enduring violence from my father was a normalized and significant part of my childhood. Keeping one ear toward the bedroom door in the middle of the night, whenever I would hear my parents argue was normal — because I had to be ready to jump out and protect mom, just in case father started hitting her. Having an angry father had to be accepted as normal. Getting beaten with a 2 x 4 naked was normal, because it was for my own good.
Yet none of this should be normal. I should have been protected. I have no intention of demonizing my father, or painting Korean parents as anachronistic folks, who use corporal punishment all the time. Actually, there has been more awareness raised in the last decade, and new parents are using less and less spanking. But one thing is clear. One day, when I have a child, he or she will never have to endure any form of violence. Corporal punishment will simply not be an option in my family.
Myongsuk Shin is the author’s chosen pseudonym.