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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Nippon-Zhongguo connection

Jaime R. Vergara

Had my first child been a boy, he would have had the unhappy name of Kenichi Zhou Enlai! Just imagine the ribbing he would have gotten in the schoolyard. My wife and I were children of the ’60s, forgiving as hell. I "forgave" Japanese atrocities committed in the Philippines during WWII. Kenichi means first healthy child in Nihonggo.

I was also a cheerleader to Mao Zedong’s alter ego, Zhou Enlai, the consummate diplomat, and nemesis of Zhongguo’s Gang of Four led by Mao’s actress wife Jiang Qing. My first child was born a year after the historic visit of Richard Nixon to China in 1972, set up by the Kissinger-Zhou Enlai tandem. Ergo, Zhou Enlai would have joined the family’s litany of names since Mao Zedong would have been too hard to handle in my wife’s conservative family, and I would have taken exception to a German addition to my lineage.

Happily, we had a girl. With her mom of Welsh-Scot-English-German Midwest U.S. extraction, and ourself, a Sino-Indo-Malay-cum-a-dab-of-Iberian concoction, Manila-born Kristina grew up to furl a school banner that declared: Mongrels of the World, Unite!

I grew up in an area that still pronounced Yamashita’s name with bloodcurdling sound. Rocks rained on our house roof on New Year ’65 when I brought home a Japanese student from a Youth Assembly I attended in Dumaguete City the previous week. That was a good 20 years after the famed Nippon general’s march north of Manila through our valley.

I would later find out that a Japanese officer warned my Dad that he was on the list of those to be apprehended by the Kempetai. He was suspected of cutting the stencil and running a mimeo machine for the underground’s news rag. He was guilty as charged. Had he been apprehended, I might have been born an orphan. My mother was heavy with child while "we" were on the run.

I am no apologist for Japan. They have their ample share of the blame game from WWII. Their atrocities were characteristic of every occupying imperial force in the last five centuries, born out of a sense of superiority nurtured and sustained by a hierarchical social structure that ordered humanity from the heavenly mandate to the lowly peon.

One of my Dad’s older brothers was a schoolteacher before the Rising Sun’s banner was unfurled over the archipelago, a nationalist noncompliant to the wishes of the American forces who saw it their task to husband the birth of an independent nation through a Commonwealth heavily tilted to the advantage of U.S. commerce. He ended up being a translator to Nippon’s occupying forces, thus seen as a collaborator to the regime. American-led guerrillas quartered him at the public square with four carabaos heading separately to the four winds, a warning to Filipinos who cooperated with Nippon.

During the Vietnam War, records of American forces’ earlier behavior in the Philippines, particularly in Samar, came to light. Atrocities did not start in Vietnam by drug-crazed exceptions. They were abundantly on display by the flannel-garbed Indian fighters who came to tropical Philippines, already seasoned in leaving behind veils and vales of tears in their paths through native territories, as real estate hungry easterners of European descent moved westward-ho!

Forgiveness came as a strong virtue in our upbringing. As an adult, we came to realize that this was more than just ignoring other’s unacceptable behavior. It is acknowledging the objective reality that whatever occurred in the past is done. Finis. There is no way of undoing it; one can, however, learn a lesson from it and decide whether one continues with established patterns or takes on a different course.

We now know that humanity is wired to behave according to the images that informed its growth, and therefore feels comfortable when it automatically just follows the easy path of previous behavior. Education’s task is to provide alternative paths.

My Chinese Oral English students introduce themselves at the beginning of the semester, and as a model, I introduce myself first with some guidelines that they then use for their own intro. One of my lines in response to the question of "what makes me happy" is an echo of Star Trek, which I rephrased as "going someplace I had not been previously, and doing something I had not done before."

There is a new context abroad, surprisingly a germ already implanted by those who devised the remembrances of this season, from the progeny of Millat Ibrahim, whether it be the Hanukkah/Menorah of the Torah story, the manger Christ-child at Yuletide, the end of Muharram in Islam, or the secular drumbeats of African matunda ya kwanza, a celebration of the fruits of the harvest, where humanity affirms the path it hath already trod, but proceed to move someplace it had not previously been, and do something it had not done before. In my old book, that was labeled "forgiveness", or, if I may be allowed a play on words, being "given for" the future.

My Nippon-Zhongguo connection is grounded in the past, but moves unencumbered and freely into the future. Happy holidays!

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