Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Distance heals historic wrongs

On July 7, 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army attacked the Marco Polo Bridge - a crucial access point to the city of Beijing, marking the beginning of the Japanese invasion of China and the start of the Second Sino-Japanese war.

The war lasted more than eight years, with 35 million Chinese casualties - four-fifths of them civilian. Ninety-five million refugees were created as the Japanese Army swept through Eastern China.

My grandmother lived in a village on the edge of the fighting, the provider for her younger siblings. When the Japanese army was sighted near her hometown, the residents fled to the mountains and so my grandmother buried her savings in silver coins beside a tree. For weeks the villagers hid, scavenging for food until the Chinese army retook the area.My grandmother still recalls arriving at her home where everything of value was either looted or broken.When she found her life savings gone she wept.

To this day she maintains "Japanese people are very wicked, very cruel", a view shared by many Chinese.

Where does that leave me, a 16-year-old born in China five decades after the end of the war, who immigrated to New Zealand aged 1? A teenager in multicultural New Zealand whose only obvious association to China is the colour of his skin? How do those long-ago events affect my life? How does my grandmother's animosity affect me?

This is my fourth year of learning Japanese at college. The songs on my playlist are a mixture of English, Chinese and Japanese.

I eat sushi at least three times a month and I have more Japanese friends than Australians. I think that speaks for itself.

That's not to say that I don't feel anger when hearing about the atrocities of the war. Some things still cause an involuntary shudder. I can empathise with those who feel resentment towards Japan, and I don't condemn them for feeling that way.

Nevertheless, I find it difficult to connect the Imperial Japanese Army of the 1930s with the courteous island nation of today. The ones responsible for the war are long gone - is it fair for their descendants to inherit our hatred? Is it appropriate for me to inherit my grandmother's?

I've chosen not to. Or perhaps "chosen" is not the right word. I'm just not inclined to.

Maybe it's the environment I've grown up in, as well as the generation gap. Could it also be the technology we have access to, where information is a mere click away and foreign people are more than nameless hostile faces?

Is it what we see and hear that determines the way we feel about these things, not any innate disposition? Could it be my grandmother's stories, and the lack of any outside influence that gave my uncle the views he has today, which stop him from eating at Japanese restaurants? Is it because I grew up in New Zealand that those same stories have had less of an impact on me, that in some ways I have inherited less?

I think in many ways, yes. I do not have all that much in common with my relatives in China. I've taken less from my grandmother's stories than they have. However, less is not the same as nothing. The way I see it, it's the value of what you've gained that matters.

When my grandmother told me about the war, I doubt her anti-Japan sentiments were what she wanted to impart. Rather, I believe there was something more important for me to grasp, something I am very glad to have inherited - a love for the nation.

More than the money she lost, I'm sure it was the loss of her home, her heritage, which underlies her ire. In all the stories I've heard about the war and life in China of old, I have always sensed a love for the country.

Whether it was in the form of anger and protectiveness when the Japanese desecrated the land, or of fondness when recounting games in the street as a child, my grandparents loved their home. They taught me to love mine.

And for me, it's not just one nation. I love both New Zealand and China. When people ask what nationality I am, it's a toss-up, so I usually stick with saying: "I was born in China but moved to New Zealand when I was 1." New Zealand is my home - the lush green landscape with its ever-changing weather and ever-present sheep.

But when I visit China, walking out of the airport into smoggy air and stifling heat, or standing on a rocky hill in the countryside, I'm overcome by a sense of nostalgia. I never miss China, not like I miss my home here when I'm overseas, but sometimes, even if it's hearing an old Chinese song, there's a feeling of belonging.

That's how I know I still recognise myself as Chinese. Even if my Chinese language skills are sub-par, even if my way of living is decidedly Westernised, I feel there is a place for me there.

At times when I find myself getting lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, I'll close my eyes and go back to my grandparents' home, to the hot food and even warmer hospitality. That's what it means to me to have a culture, not so much a way of doing things, or even of thinking, but a world to immerse myself in.

That's my heritage.

Andy Chen, Year 12, Macleans College
By Andy Chen By Andy Chen
12:23 PM Tuesday Aug 30, 2011

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