Saturday, July 5, 2008


Dear America,

Sometimes it is good to forget. Sometimes we need to remember.

Yesterday was the 232nd anniversary of the declaration of independence from England by the thirteen American colonies. Due to my circumstances, the best that I can say I did in way of celebration was to gleefully skip through massive puddles as the rain poured down, and to laugh at the timid Chinese stuck without umbrellas who flinched and squeaked or yelled as they fruitlessly tried to find shelter.

Tentative plans for one of my classmates to find someone willing to marry him so we could legally set off fireworks (they are only allowed at weddings and during the Spring Festival) having fallen through and week-end utter exhaustion, as well as a marked lack of unpolluted skies, public parks with walkable grass, barbeque grills, hamburger patties, and hot dogs, left few other options eating (dumplings and roast lamb on a stick alone in a grimy shop don't quite recreate the spirit of the 4th). I have to say, I definitely missed my family, my country, and our traditions. These are things that we need to remember.

Several months ago I pasted this as my byline for gmail chat. At the time I was still at Swarthmore, I was swamped with work with an uncertain summer, and had just been judged guilty by jury of my peers. "backstabbeD" would perhaps be equally appropriate. Despite being the most highly qualified individual to fulfill the position and being extremely excited about fulfilling the job, my application for Residential Assistant was rejected because I had made a public stand for one of my views that happens to be intolerable to my liberal peers.

To say "made a stand" implies I bodly stepped forth -- in fact, I only pointed out that a minority of college students do not want a sex column in their daily school news digest. But it was enough. Extrapolating from my comment, at least anonymous letter-writer has concluded that I am a homophobe and a blamer of rape victims for their assault.

Sometimes it is good to forget. After all, put two reactive chemicals together for long enough, add a little energy, and boom, you have a reaction. Nearly three years at school before the reaction happened is nearly a miracle. Furthermore, in the weeks following this fiasco, I found partial vindication through being elected by the student body to serve on the student council.

Every Friday, after our weekly exam, we 4th year ACC students go with our professors to do field work practicum -- which involves leaving the school (for some, this is the first time they have gone more than a ten minute walk from the campus that week) and using your Chinese somehow. The first week we went to a museum dedicated to Lu Xun, an immensely influential and renouned Chinese intellectual of the first half of the 20th century. We had read one of his articles, and we learned about his life and saw the room in which he wrote thousands of articles, stories, and essays trying to help his country in a tumultuous time.

Yesterday, we went to China's first private hospice-care facility; as the teachers frankly described it, "It's a place for old people who are quickly about to die". The average age of patients there is 82. On first arriving an old woman in a wheelchair brusque demanding we each come over to her, after which she gave us each a perfectly folded paper crane. We saw rooms and rooms of old people in beds with IVs, the old couple who are here together (but women can't talk to the old man, or else his wife will yell at them!), and some old people outside sitting in the shade.

Our time was short, but we were able to spend half an hour or so visiting with two old women, one who at 93 was still bright-eyed and with great gumption refused to let us leave until we had sung a song for her, "Everyone who visits me has to sing a song!" she explained. One brave classmate, God bless him, stepped forward from the midst of perhaps the world's worst singers and belted out an out of tune rendition of a song he wrote regarding some of the major events of China's recent hsitory. Sung to the tune of "American Pie, " it works well. The chorus, roughly translated, goes:

Bye, bye, generation of the 50s
no more hard word in the countrside
[... something I forget...]
But the econmy has definitely developed really quickly!

One of the directors said the oldest inmate is still clinging to life at 109; in her life she has seen the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the rise of the Chinese Republic, its destruction through warlordism, World War 2, the establishment of the PRC, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Reform and Opening Up, and now modern-day college students, so young...

When one of the teachers asked the young nurse whether she found it hard to work here, whther she got attached to the patients and when they died it was hard, the nurse nodded and simply replied, "Every day there are two or three who die." As we left, another student echoed my thoughts when she said to me, "I truly admire the people who work here. I don't think I would be able to do it."

Tucked away in a corner of Beijing, in a stiflingly hot building, these patients, workers, and volunteers are people we need to remember.

I was once in a Japanese bookstore in New York, and slowly found myself meandering into the Chinese history section of it, where I picked up a book on the Nanjing Massacre. Most Americans tend to think of World War 2 starting sometime around the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 7, 1941 (As F. Roosevelt proclaimed, "...a date which will live in infamy"). For China this war, known as the Second Sino-Japanese War, began much earlier in 1937. Neither ended until 1945. Late in 1937 the Japanese surrounded Nanjing, then the capital of China. Over the course of the six weeks following their occupation of the city what has vividly and accurately been called the Rape of Nanjing occurred. Japanese soldiers killed 300,000 civilians in Nanjing alone: an estimated 500,000 additional Chinese civilians were killed in the ares surrounding the capital. Theft, arson, gruesome torture, and rape of women and children was even more common. Just one of many eyewitness reports: a girl was walking down a public street, grabbed by Japenese soldiers, raped until she bled, and then shot and thrown by the road side.

To this day, many Chinese people cite the Rape of Nanjing as a reason they hate Japanese. Even an educated Beijing lawyer I know, only in his thirties, confided in me that he doesn't like Japanese people because of what they have done to his country. At the same time, many high school and college students here closely follow Japanese movies, comics, and fashion. Japnese food is more and more popular, and business with Japan remains booming. For the upcoming generation, the term "Japanese Devils" is perhaps less meaningful than anime. They are quickly forgetting the past.

And yet, is it really such a bad thing? The atrocieties occurred 70 years ago: all or nearly all those Japanese soldiers are dead now. Their children are grown, and their grandchildren are now in college. We are two generations gone from that time; the people to forgive are gone, and we have a chance for a new start. Today's Chinese and today's Japanese do not have vivid memories of crimes of the past. They can start with a fresh slate, without the baggage their grandparents or parents still must carry. They do not remember what happened before. And sometimes it is good to forget.

At 21 years old, I am grateful that there are no major scars in my life I cannot forget. When driving a car, I always worry that one day I wil be the person who made the mistake and ended up crippling or killing someone through a moment of inattention. What would I do? There is no recompense that can be made -- I would have to live forever with that knowledge. The small things, however, add up too: the angry word, or not being entirely honest, or fighting with my brother, or self-pride, all add up and make their own little marks, just like the tiny scar I now have: a permanent reminder of a careless swipe with a paper cutter.

Though I am still quite young, I can easily imagine these things, these tiny marks, scuffs and scars adding up; after several more decades, will I not have been beaten and banged up even more, dinged and bent and tarnished by a thousand tiny bits of jealousy, of hate, of lust, of pride and anger? Having seen friends die, or drift away, and life ever changing, won't there come a time when I think -- enough, it's enough! While some people would do nearly anything for immortality, I fear an immortal life -- in this world, anyway. I would get stretched thin, and become nothing more than a whisp, or be worn down by the chains of past deeds, like Ebeneezer's colleague Marley. An immortal life with only our frail and sin-pocked bodies would be punishment, not reward.

What is the other choice? In short, death. And yet so many Americans, American Christians, fear death. It confuses me, for if we truly believe the Scripture, death is now powerless. Death is, to borrow a cliche, only the beginning. And it is the beginning of a beautiful new life -- immortal, yes, but also one in which all pain is gone, and all tears are wiped away. I don't know if that means all memories are gone too, or if it means the memories lose their sting: would we keep memories of a sin-filled world? If we do, certainly it will be different than now, and perhaps we will see them from afar. It is an immortal life of perfection that I look forward to, not a long, or -- heaven forbid! -- an immortal life here on this earth.

These promises of pure and painless life eternal, however, are easy to forget in our artificially busy lives -- which is why the last thing I did after packing away all my school belongings was to erase the four words that had graced the top of my door's whiteboard: God's promises are sure. Sometimes we need to remember.

I tend to lean to forgetting: whether it's today's 100 new Chinese words, someone's name, or what I did many weeks ago, I forget. Psychology reveals that human memory, while amazing in capacity in some ways, also is surprisingly porous in others. And the Israelites might as well have been called "The Forgetful people" as "the people of God." And forgetting sometimes is important is important -- it allows progress, it allows new perspectives and new ways; it is the temporary and imperfect solution to a life whic h if lived with perfect memory would be intolerable. Sometimes it is good to forget.

Nevertheless, sometimes we need to remember too.


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