To the left of the timeline, up the family tree, stories I’ve heard about the generations before.
The Japanese were sweeping down Malaya. My mum was just a baby then. In the hurry to evacuate the town, there wasn’t even enough time to carry her downstairs. She was tossed from the upper storey of the family home and, by the mercy of God in whose hands all of creation is held, she was caught by my sainted second aunt. Thank you, dear Second Aunt, for the sureness of your blessed embrace.*
My maternal great-grandfather was head of the family then. For some reason — or did there have to be a reason? — he was hauled in by the kempeitai and ended up undergoing water torture. His stomach was pumped full of water, then he was beaten up. I don’t know if only fists and feet were involved. He didn’t last for more than a week when he was allowed to go home. Water had gotten into his lungs.
Once, I took my first aunt, one of the most warm-hearted persons I know, to the Surrender Chamber wax museum at Fort Siloso. Her revulsion at the reminder of the war was palpable. It wasn’t just that my great-grandfather had suffered like that — after his death, the family fell into excruciatingly hard times.
And of course the Japanese reached Singapore. My paternal grandfather packed all his worldly belongings in a wooden cabinet that is now nestled in my parents’ bedroom, and ran off somewhere safer at first. But life had to continue and a new rhythm obeyed. Every morning, he had to queue up and register his existence, or something along those lines. There were two queues to choose from. You never knew which one meant life, and you knew the other meant death — being taken somewhere like Changi Beach.
One time, someone kept urging him to jump to the other queue, and he decided to listen. Thank you, mystery uncle — or an angel? — for speaking up and saving all who came after my grandfather, though I never got to know him.
Ask the right questions when the right people are still around, and you might unearth a family history that makes a fool think an atom bomb is a good thing.
To the right of the timeline, 50 years that painted anything Japanese as mostly good and sometimes perverse (when it comes to history or schoolgirls), the personal encounter with the other.
When I was a student with not much to do, I fell into mucking about as a volunteer and got to know some students on an exchange trip from a social work college in Yokohama, Japan. Just knowing that they’d chosen to serve as social workers awed me, and they were such lovely souls. I remember one of the girls I was closer with spraying her fringe with so much hairspray that it stood straight up. She looked 18 shades of awesome. The bloody past depicted in my history textbook could only be left as that — history.
The first time I watched a Japanese drama, I was entranced all the way up to the last episode, when a twist scuppered the happy ending I’d expected. Feeling betrayed when you’re an adolescent really sucks. I was weeping from the shock, I think. Happened again with at least two other J-dramas. Why do people have to be so repressed? It was only when I started watching Korean dramas and came face to face with their relative exuberance that I realised that was the word I was searching for. History doesn’t matter when you’re watching a love story.
The first and only time I’ve been to Korea was on a family trip. The guide was a local who turned out to be ethnically Chinese but who was raised in South Korea after her parents escaped the Cultural Revolution. We found this out when, at the grounds of a palace, she suddenly stopped her introduction to the place, and signalled for us to gather some distance away. It turned out a Japanese tour group had come quite close to us, and she couldn’t stand to even hear the language being spoken. She had been brought up to detest everything about them.
I don’t remember all this when I see what is supposed to be a proud people, vaunted for their stoicism and strength, sobbing on their knees, tiny beside impossibly immense wreckage that thousands and thousands of elderly folk, too weak to run or dodge or climb, lie buried under. I don’t remember all this when I hear of children huddling around a gas lamp, or of colleagues in Sendai having had nothing to eat for days, or of another colleague in Tokyo who’s desperately trying to get in touch with his father in the earthquake area. I don’t remember all this when I read about the Fukushima 50 and the many others who have gone into the zone to help out, yakuza included.
But I did start remembering and wondering when I began praying for a people who have come to the end of their tether. Then I remembered that we are to forgive as we have been forgiven, and would want to be forgiven. Praying became an opportunity to remember, to confront, and to forgive (for whatever that is worth from me), and then to pray again for deliverance with a more honest heart.
A thousand-fold more so than for me, perhaps this could be a time in which the many, many, many who have indeed been woefully wronged have the opportunity to forgive and thus released from the burden of hate, and then the choice to extend a hand in succour and true friendship. A chance for another way to think about a past set in stone.
Peace be unto you. Better yet, may the peace of Christ be with you — not the kind of peace that exists only when all is ‘right’ with the world, but the kind that means our hearts needn’t be troubled and we don’t have to be afraid (John 14:27) no matter what befalls.
* Have realised upon reflection that the reason for the evacuation couldn’t possibly have been the Japanese invasion of Malaya — the dates just don’t match up. The aunt who told this to me might have mixed it up with the communist uprising! Still, it’s a good story.