I believe in history.
When my grandmother was a young beautiful woman in the occupied Philippines during World War II, a Japanese soldier saw her in a market and was being “fresh” with her. She rejected him and the enraged soldier went to karate chop her neck. She ducked, and the blow sent her fake bun – a fashionable woman’s hair piece at the time – flying. The soldier was so stunned by his swift chop that actually cut hair that he just left, awestruck. My grandmother still got home in time to cook dinner. That was over sixty years ago but it’s still my favorite memory of her. It occurred some time after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the invasions of Guam, Burma, Borneo, Hong Kong and the bombing of Manila on December 27, 1941. Like many small skirmishes, my grandmother’s episode did not make the history books.
I believe that history is the meeting of public interests with personal concerns. Its many variants and interpretations are not signs of its analytical inaccuracy, but of its mass appeal and uniquely human importance. The passion of a historian constructs the explicative frameworks for common knowledge and facts, and this passion helps answer the many questions we have about the world and circumstances we inherit.
Nevertheless, sometimes history just comes down to timing. For my grandmother, a split second meant the difference between consequences I now understand in a historical context. She could have faced a mild reprimand to abuse, imprisonment, or misogynist forms of forced labor. As a child, my grandmother’s story was a gifted memory that emblemized the virtues of bravery, dignity, and luck. Now I see that her story joins so many others to form a collective narrative in which we trust and rely.
On March 3, 1945, U.S. and Filipino troops took back Manila and in 1946, the Philippine Islands regained the autonomy they hadn’t known since the invasion of Spanish conquistadores in the 1500s. My grandparents married shortly thereafter and my mother was born a few years later. As a study that connects causes to effects, history is about providing knowledge of general importance, not usually personal anecdotes. But as I begin my career as a historian, I have come to understand our records of past life as a collective memory that we share like air but we maintain like our own home. Some stories are universal. They bind us together, and our casual recollections let us participate in the grand narrative.
When I read the history of that era and country, I place my grandmother’s story within it. What I don’t know and can’t recover is manifest by other things within me. We fill in the gaps for each other, and we break through the barrier of time, even split seconds, to experience another human perspective, but I like it best when a personal memory flickers bright in a distant place that raged like a vivacious fire. I believe that those moments – our inherited memories – keep us warm like how the embers of a fire, dead long ago, still smolder at dawn.
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