My dad grew up in the Midwest in the ’50s and ’60s. When everyone else was going to Europe to study abroad, he went to Tokyo in the ‘70s.
One year later, he brought his Japanese girlfriend back to my grandparents’ house. Many years after that, he married my South African mother - his was the first and only cross-cultural marriage amongst his eight siblings - and they moved to New York City.
Years later, when I was in junior high school, my grandfather passed away. As my dad was helping to go through my grandpa’s things, he found a box filled with papers and a medal that he didn’t recognize. He ended up dedicating years of research to what my grandpa never talked about: a photo taken during my grandpa’s military service.
That photo was the most reproduced in history: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.
My grandpa was a marine doctor and when he woke up from an injury in a military hospital, he was told that he and five other men had raised a flag and that they were heroes.
My grandpa never thought he was and never spoke about it. For his whole life he never accepted calls from journalists and according to my grandmother, cried in his sleep for years.
Following deep research in both the US and Japan, my dad decided to publish a book. Except he kept getting rejected. 27 times.
He kept going though and finally published what then became a New York Times bestseller for over a year. After that followed:
three more bestsellers
a foundation to fund American high school students to live with local families and study in Japan and later on China for intercultural learning and exchange
a movie directed by Clint Eastwood and produced by Steven Spielberg
During this time, he also befriended the Chinese-American author Iris Chang and when she tragically took her own life, he flew out to the West Coast to give the eulogy at her funeral. The research she’d done for her books was too much for her to handle, something my dad understood well, as he’d also spent many lonely and challenging years researching very difficult war-related details.
He’s now spent eight years in Vietnam researching the war between the US and Vietnam from the Vietnamese side. In between, he had a car accident and severe injuries which slowed him down significantly. But he got through it and found a way to finish this new book.
My dad and I in Ho Chi Minh City
When my dad finally published his first book, he framed one of the rejection letters and put it in his kitchen. For him, it was an inspiration that nothing is impossible.
Growing up watching the process of my dad realizing that he had to publish a book, getting rejected repeatedly, rising to fame, dealing with the intense book tours (the publishing world looked very different to now) and a new life, as well as establishing the educational foundation was not always easy for me. It wasn’t typical.
Now as an adult, I’m so proud of my dad. He did what everyone said he couldn’t do. Then he did it four more times. For two decades his focus has been on highlighting history as a path to intercultural understanding and tolerance.
Many years after my dad’s book on Iwo Jima was published, the US Marines admitted that my grandpa wasn’t actually in the photo, in fact, several of them hadn’t been. Much of my grandpa and my dad’s life would have been different if we’d known that earlier, but what’s done is done.
For me, all of this means:
My grandpa was in a war but never held hate in his heart. He knew everyone was doing their duty and fully supported my dad’s studies in Japan and a lifelong love of Japanese culture
My dad has been an interculturalist before that was even a term. His love of Japan, and later China then Vietnam has inspired him to bridge East-West cultural gaps since I was a teenager
Whenever I find the entrepreneur path or anything else challenging, I just think of all those rejection letters and remember my dad still going to the post office to send yet another proposal out
Both history and people are not black and white - there is always a lot of grey area to see in every situation. It's important to always see all sides and it’s not easy but is possible when you practice empathy and recognize your own faults at the same time.
How much of this historical family background has influenced my own life here in Asia (going on 20 years soon!) and work with CulturalEQ coaching and consulting is unclear, however, I know for certain that I am continually inspired by my grandpa’s humility and generosity as well as my dad’s resilience and passion.