How do we, as a nation, commemorate loss?
September 18, 2009
NOTE: I wrote this piece eight years ago, during the year our family lived in China. It is an excerpt from my new book, Jumping Out of the Mainstream: An American family’s year in China, now available on Amazon and other online retailers! Hope you will learn, enjoy, and check out the book!
As the sweltering heat of the summer months melted into the fall, we began to feel as if we, too, began to melt into the Ningbo University community.
We could feel the subtle day-by-day cooling in the weather – at times almost imperceptibly – as we started to develop a rhythm to our days: Wake up, pray together, ready ourselves and begin our homeschool day, prepare and eat lunch, send kids off to school and take off for our classes.
Encountering the unexpected…in my classroom
One day in September, during my last class of the last day of the week, something unexpected happened. After a full week, and running through the same lesson plan with two other classes, I was feeling confident in the flow of this class, riding on a wave of energy. All 82 eyes were on me – engaged and alert. Quite remarkable at the 16:00 hour, especially on a Friday.
And then the sirens began to wail. “What’s going on?” I wondered. Everyone else knew; it took none of them by surprise. Presuming it might be a fire drill or something like that, I asked them, “Is this at Ningbo University? Do we need to leave the classroom?”
One of the three young men in the class spoke up. “No, this is all in China.” I was confused and attempted to clarify. “You mean, this siren alarm is going off all over China?” The answer, obvious to them since they had known for their whole lives, was nothing less than a major cross-cultural experience for me.
Another student spoke up. “This is the day when we remember the start of the war with Japan.” In other words, WWII. This day is known in China as JiǔYībā Shìbiàn (九一八事变) or simply Jiuyiba, the “9-1-8, or 9/18 Incident.” On Jiuyiba, the Chinese commemorate the Mukden or Manchurian Railway Incident of 18th September 1931, used by the Japanese as a pretext to annex Manchuria.
But what fascinated me was the simple fact that everyone in China – or, at least almost everyone – was hearing the three three-minute long sirens going off during that hour.
What about in the U.S.?
I cannot imagine anything like that in the States. There is nothing that universal or sacred or historical or…coordinated in the U.S. Perhaps Independence Day comes close. But we celebrate – not commemorate – on that day. Even though 9/11 still burns in the hearts of many Americans, there is no pan-U.S. moment of silence, reflection or reverence for the deeper meaning of that day.
We do not even commemorate the invasion of Pearl Harbor in such a nationwide way. Pearl Harbor is just about as long ago, but most Americans living today do not relate to it so vividly.
The moment the first siren ended, I felt this overwhelming sense of how China’s group culture impacts its people so thoroughly. Yes, China is host to 55 minority groups and daily dissension amid tumultuous change. But to commemorate an event (now) 86 years ago annually nationwide? That, to me, was amazing.
I also wondered what this meant for real, lasting healing between China and Japan. Could they both forgive and forget? Or was this nationwide memorial meant to keep the sentiment of mistrust alive and well for generations that have not actually known the horror of the moment?
We sat quietly for each of those three-minute siren rings. It just seemed the proper and respectful thing to do. Each time following the alarm, we resumed – laughter, interaction, discussion, and so forth. But for those few silent minutes, I stepped into the wounds of a culture.
And I came to understand something much deeper and more complex about the Chinese people I was interacting with every day.
If you’ve lived abroad, what is something particular to the culture that significantly deepened your understanding about the people you were living among? Please share!
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