Soften Your Heart

I remember a conversation with one of my favourite high school teachers while volunteering with her elementary school archaeology program. She had been a reference for a summer internship with a non-profit that provides education about the history of WWII in east/southeast Asia. We were talking about how I would learn a lot about the atrocities during the war, and about the people it continues to affect to this day. “Harden your heart,” she had told me.

I didn’t realize at the time how much those three words would impact me throughout the course of my internship, and would continue to serve as a reminder of how I should live. During those summer months, I learned about genocide, sexual violence, human experimentation, racism, political ugliness, and gained an overall disturbing and disheartening picture of what human evil looks like. It was awful.

But it was also inspiring and humbling in ways I had not imagined. After learning about the evil, I would learn about the good: the efforts by international organizations and governments to bring about justice, peace, and reconciliation; the innate tendency that humans possess to be kind and to do the right thing; the willingness of people previously ignorant of these atrocities to work towards spreading awareness, tolerance, and hope. It was a phenomenal start to my journey as an activist.

Throughout this internship, I heard “harden your heart,” over and over again in my head. And I did try to harden my heart. But ultimately, it was impossible. How could I distance myself from what had happened and what is currently happening in the world? I understood that there was some truth and value to separating yourself from these kinds of things for your own mental health, but I was and still am unable to fully do that.

And I’m unable to do this in everyday life. Whenever I try to put up that tough/witty/authoritative front, it always fails me. And it’s a lesson that I have to learn over and over until it will finally stick. Being kind, being soft, being graceful in a world that pushes you to do the opposite is not only brave but necessary. At least for me. I know myself well enough by now that softness and kindness are a big part of my personality and bring more good than harm – as scary and vulnerable as it is.

And I think that’s why it’s so difficult to consistently soften. It’s just so damn scary. What if we crumble? What if our worldview and outlook on life are destroyed and cannot be mended? What if I change? What if I don’t? What if I don’t like what softening does to me?

Perhaps this is The Big Risk that people like myself have to take. Perhaps softening our hearts is the only way to live an authentic and fulfilling life. And perhaps that’s the way we’re meant to live.

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The Sound of Cracking Bones

I went to see a play on Friday night about child soldiers. Written by Suzanne Lebeau, this play tells the story of a young girl and boy fleeing the rebels who had captured them and forced them into slavery. I haven’t seen a lot of plays (I’m not going to count the 10+ musicals I’ve seen), so I will definitely remember this one. It was haunting and raw and totally pulled me into the characters’ world. You could tell that the audience really had a visceral reaction to it.

What I love and admire about actors is their ability to imagine themselves into a role. It was so amazing to hear the actors talk about how they prepared for their roles and that they believed that the play is largely about hope. I always love witnessing how art and creativity and merge the personal and the political, and drive home the fact that sharing stories can make the world a better place. Even such a terrible yet real story.

Child slavery is an issue I’ve long heard of and sometimes go back to whenever it comes up in the news or conversation. So I feel bad that it’s not always an issue I talk or think about. I think that’s why I had felt so compelled to give my feelings an outlet: because I hadn’t had a chance to do so in a while.

But the only thing I can do now is write about the experience that I had, not the experience of the actors on stage – and not the experience of the guest speaker who was forced into become a child soldier at age 5. Michel Chikwanine spoke about his life before, during, and after his capture and escape. He said that it still feel so raw to him. I can’t even begin to imagine what he has been through. He is one of two people I’ve met who have been forced into slavery during war. Both people have been among the most warm and compassionate beings I have ever met.

So where does that leave me, in the midst of all this chaos? Where does someone who has talked to victims of slavery go to help make sure that their stories are not forgotten? Is writing a blog post enough? I feel bad in admitting this, but I don’t feel as compelled to do more research into the topic or work for an organization that advocated for such people. Does that make me a bad person? Should I be doing more?

A small voice in the back of my head says no. And I guess that’s somehow me telling myself that small acts like this can send ripples of goodness around the world. And I suppose I do believe that in theory. It’s tough to believe that in practice, since I’m looking into what else I could do.

So let’s do one more thing to take this further. I’m going to ask whoever is reading this to please perform a small act in effecting positive change. You can share this story with someone else, or do research into child slavery or another issue. You can act kinder to those around you. You can do something good for yourself in order to reach your highest potential. You can do something different on your own, or join others in a movement. You can be a voice, or be an echo. It’s up to you. But please don’t let this opportunity pass.

When Love Catches Fire

A spark came to life when I became a part of the Toronto ALPHA (Association for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia) team; when I learned about the atrocities that occurred during the Second World War across the Pacific. I learned how the Japanese Imperial Army inflicted so much pain and suffering on its neighbours, and how the survivors are dealing with that pain more than 50 years later.

(International relations are so complex. I don’t want to make the Japanese Imperial Army sound like heartless antagonists. They weren’t. They were treated like filth by their superiors, bullied into submission, and took out their frustrations on civilians in China and elsewhere. That’s one explanation. It’s also important to remember that these soldiers were socialized into believing certain things about themselves compared to their neighbours in Asia. I remember learning just how fragile us humans are, how capable we are of either good or evil. Iris Chang called this the “thin veneer of humanity.”

For me, it’s frightening how this veneer is so delicate, how the balance between good and evil is so precarious. How people like us make choices everyday that determine on which side we stand. Like the Joker said, “All they need is a little push.”)

That spark ignited into a flame when I began to feel an inseparable connection with the survivors. These people had been brutally beaten, raped, and witnessed the deaths of their families while they were young children. I clearly remember seeing the face of a survivor of military sexual slavery, a so-called “comfort woman,” and noticing how much she looked like my late grandmother.

After working with ALPHA and realizing how these stories and forgotten histories need to be told, my passion for this cause truly caught fire. It wasn’t until I met the very woman who had reminded me of my own grandmother that I realized just how big this flame would be.

It was a cold Sunday night a few weeks ago. Volunteers were invited to dinner with ALPHA staff and directors, with special guests Lola (“grandmother” in Tagalog) Fidencia David, Dr. Christina Rosello, and representatives from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Lola Fidencia and Christina visited from the Philippines to speak in public events hosted by ALPHA and the CMHR in Winnipeg and Toronto. Lola was to give her survivor testimonial, and Christina was there as Lola’s therapist and an expert on psychological healing. I didn’t know what to expect from this encounter, but from the moment I had met with everyone, I realized just how special this connection would be.

Within 1 minute of meeting Lola Fidencia, she felt like a grandmother to me. When I told her my hands were still cold from being outside, she immediately offered me Katinko, her all-purpose ointment. (It’s really supposed to treat dry, itchy skin, but who was I to refuse?) And it worked – the ointment and her charm. This woman was so incredibly strong and loving and grateful that I was instantly drawn to her warmth, and wanted to take care of her like I would my own family. I knew that it would be extremely difficult to listen to her story later on.

Lola Fidencia, at the age of 14, was taken along with her grandmother by Japanese soldiers to cook, clean, and “comfort.” Held captive, she did housework during the day, and was raped multiple times at night. While trying to escape, Lola saw her grandmother shot dead. She managed to reunite with her family, but to this day has had to suffer from that trauma. I remember holding her after she gave her testimony, sitting together while she calmed herself down by rubbing Katinko onto her trembling hands.

How could anybody not be affected by a story like hers? How could the Japanese government still not give a formal apology for the mass murder and slavery? What is incredibly unjust is that these survivors will not stay with us for much longer, and may never be able to hear that apology. From the Halmoni in South Korea who protest every Wednesday in front of the Japanese embassy, to the lolas who work with Christina, these people still suffer. After over 60 years of dealing with the so-called “side effect” of war, military sexual slavery survivors are still waiting for justice.

Violence against women during war should not be the norm. It should not even be expected. I admit that I may not know much about this issue, that I am naïve and simple-minded in this matter, but I care a LOT about my lolas. It is with love, our greatest weapon, that we can feed the flame that will guide us towards peace, reconciliation, and justice. It is with love that we will ensure that the odds will be ALL in our favour.

This journey to justice and equality is long and slow and emotionally exhausting and more than physically painful… but I promise you, it will be worth it.

“Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.”
– A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens