A Grain of Rice


(I wrote this, after my first brief visit to China, back in 2007, before I had a blog).

China was not part of our original itinerary but we were planning to visit Seoul and it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to Beijing.  It seemed silly not to take the leap.

I’d imagined grey sky, smog, and a reckless juggernaut of capitalism.   Well, the smog proved true, and the capitalist invasion is too.   But  grey, Beijing is not. All over the city are parks and carefully cultivated gardens.   The Forbidden City is a riot of colour.  In Tiananmen Square, Mao’s portrait looked far more benign than I’d imagined.   I wanted to join the large queue moving slowly to view his embalmed body, but we didn’t have time.

They’re preparing for the Olympics with a clock counting down and in the Square there is a topiary Acropolis which will no doubt impress the Olympic tourists.  What are they planning to do about the smog?   It seems they will shut down the factories for three months before the Olympics and ban cars from the city. Many of the factories are owned by European car manufacturers.   We heard that there were three million cars in Beijing (I don’t know who counts them) but yes, the air was more like a good meal than a mild refreshment.    I’m more concerned about the athletes making it in one piece to the Olympic Stadium – you see the traffic is unforgiving and unrelenting.  A green light to a pedestrian means very little to the traffic.   You need either an enormous bravado (he who dares wins, or dies) or else you need to gather a large group of people with yourself in the middle, before you cross the road.

It was easy to imagine how beautiful the city would have seemed without all these cars and with people riding their bicycles dressed in their Mao pyjamas.   For just a moment, I wanted to see that.    But then I thought about the fate of the sparrows and the intellectuals.  I asked our tour guide, Mark about his family.    His father had been a schoolteacher.  I questioned him about his father’s life.   Mark went quiet.   “So-so”, he said.   And that was that.  He had no wish to say any more.

Nothing in Mark’s commentary about the history of this beautiful city, mentioned what is now perceived in the west, as Mao’s reign of terror (otherwise known as … The Great Leap Forward).   Everything was carefully worded to exclude any criticism.   Here is a city embracing capitalism with a capital “C” and yet still somehow honouring Mao.

This is not an in-depth tour of China but more of a tourist’s overview.  A highlight is our walk along the Great Wall.  We’re most fortunate to be on a section of the wall with not a lot of tourists and because we are reasonably fit we manage to burn off our Chinese fan club (yes literally, they walk beside you and fan you because of the heat) and end up alone, just the two of us walking until we meet a guard with his mobile phone who prevents us from going any further, because that section of the wall is unsafe.   Many (many) years ago in Form One (Intermediate School), I gave a speech to my class on The Great Wall of China.   I cannot recall why I chose this topic or indeed, what I spoke of, but it is an extraordinary feeling to be actually walking on the wall, something back then that I had never imagined.

We catch the overnight train to Xian from Beijing to marvel at the Terracotta Warriors and find ourselves cycling around this beautiful walled city, almost eating the air.  Yes, to quote my son after his first trip to India (a place he fell in love with) the air was as thick as wasabi on a wafer.   I want to peel back the pollution to uncover this ancient city, its clouded beauty.  If I cup my hands, I am certain I can catch a piece of air and hold it.

Our next stop is Shanghai, a city vivid in my imagination.  My dreams are of the Bund as it had been without the spectacular high-rise development on the other side of the river (Pudong) and so I am disappointed.   But we have a taste of what might have been old Shanghai in a historic teahouse looking out through a tangle of overhead wires.

It is October and we are there to witness the national celebration of  the People’s Republic of China. Cars are banned from the city centre and The Bund for three nights.   It truly happens, causing stress to unsuspecting tourists in mid city hotels who have planned to catch taxis to connecting flights or trains.  The streets throng with Chinese (one child) families enjoying themselves – no liquor – no violence – just a swell of families and innocent pleasure – in contrast to the screaming neon along the waterfront;  although they are quite beautiful too.  And then on the third evening of celebrations, we look up at a clear blue sky.   So, it is possible!    Maybe by the time all those highly trained athletes arrive in Beijing, the air there will be clear.   What will happen to all the industry that is shut down?  It is hard to imagine.    But noting how obedient the traffic in Shanghai is in obeying the ban, I am heartened.

            Flying out of Shanghai heading towards Athens, on Lufthansa, I sit next to an enthusiastic Chinese travel agent.   She is sitting in my allotted seat, but I don’t have the heart to complain, as she is so excited having just swapped seats with another travel agent to sit by the window.  She confides in me this is her first overseas flight.   She expresses her disappointment at the lack of “uniformity” of the Lufthansa hostesses who are all wearing similar coloured casual but not matching outfits.    The meal arrives and we have to choose between hot noodles in a carton or cheese and salad on a bread roll.  My new friend chooses the bread roll because she tells me she wants to try everything.  She asks me, holding up her bread roll “Is this the cheese that makes you fat?”  Before I can reply, she is waving to the hostess and has swapped her roll for noodles.   We talk about food and waste and living in China.   She tells me when she was a young girl her Mother said they must not waste a single grain of rice because if every person in China wasted one grain of rice, each day…  the mountain of rice grows before my eyes.  I ask about her parents and Mao, and she explains that it had not been easy for her parents growing up under Mao.  At this point her voice changes, just like Mark our tour guide’s had. It’s a tone that implies that they understand but we don’t. ‘Difficult” she says, and then so I won’t get the wrong impression, she adds, “Mao meant well”.

The European car manufacturers say they mean well too, producing low-cost cars in China.  I heard one such manufacturer bragging on television about how cheaply they could reproduce their brand in China.

I imagine the mountain of rice and the mountain of cars, growing side by side.

The Comfort Women


The title is of course an oxymoron of the cruelest kind.   Comfort for whom?  It reminds me of the title of Julian Barne’s book ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’, it all depends entirely where you put the emphasis. Until recently, I had not realised the number, the territory, the vast canvas of this henious crime.   It was on a recent visit to Seoul to be with family, that I came face to face with the history of sexual slavery during the Second World War.  According to Wikipedia a majority of the women were from Korea, China, Japan and the Philippines, although women from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia and other Japanese-occupied territories were used for the Japanese military “comfort stations.” Many of these women have gone to the grave carrying their secret.     And now, a few, very old, very brave, live on as long as they can, hoping that by holding out, at some point, the Japanese Government will hear them, will see them, will give them all that they want… recognition, by way of an ‘official’ apology.

It is with pride that I write of my encounter with some of the still living sexual slave survivors at the House of Sharing in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, about a two-hour bus ride from the centre of Seoul.   Pride because they are resilient old women with dignity, courage, and often a surprising sense of humour.   Many of them survived the horrors of sexual slavery and because of the shame, married, raised families and did not ‘come out’ until later in life.    Even now, in this quiet rural setting, they are not entirely welcome.   Some of their neighbours would prefer them to be elsewhere, and believe they bring shame upon the district.   So, instead of the overdue compassion, they still carry both inwardly and outwardly, the stigma imposed brutally upon them, their dignity so tragically stolen by a Japanese Government at war.     Simply put, many people, the Japanese Government included, would like that these women would just die quietly, their secrets buried with them.

We were taken on a tour of the House of Sharing by my son and his Korean wife who actively campaign for and support the cause of the Comfort Women. On this particular day, they were the tour guides for a group of around sixty international tourists from Japan, America, China as well as local Koreans, and my husband and I, from New Zealand.   The tour is advertised in the Lonely Planet Guide for the socially conscious tourist who wants to know more about Korea than just the LCD screens, amazing restaurants and famous palaces.

Every Wednesday, a protest is held outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul (near Insadong) and whenever they can, my son and his wife, join the protestors, and too, some of these elderly women (in their late eighties now and failing) will travel the two hours or more by van from their rural home at the House of Sharing to join the protest.   Why?   Because, the one thing they still demand from the Japanese government is a formal apology.    The Japanese have admitted that these events took place, have even given funds to support the women, but the most important step they seem unable to take, to offer the women the one thing money cannot buy, an official apology.   An apology will mean that this barbarous act against these women will finally be acknowledged as a a war crime, and not just some collateral damage to be swept under the carpet and forgotten.                 Alas, these women are dying now, one by one, every few months, another survivor dies without the dignity of an official apology.

                  Take a look at the photograph of the map I have posted and see for yourself the shocking geography of it, scan the map, look at the colour, trace for yourself the transportation of young Korean women, some as young as sixteen, as mere bodies to satisfy the Japanese invading troops.   Imagine yourself as one of those women, taken from your family, to serve as a sexual object for not just one, but hundreds of soldier’s gratification.   Imagine that now in your last years, all you long for is recognition, a piece of your dignity restored and all that it requires is a public apology, so that it is known officially, noted in the history books, a dark stain on the maps of Asia, that you and hundreds of other women were sexual slaves of the Japanese Government.   And although you have great dignity as a survivor, maybe something else, maybe but a piece, a small shining piece of something will be yours, before you die.   That small piece of something will be a light that shines on this crime, so that it may never be repeated.

And yet, as I write, and as you read, we all know that around the world in scenes of conflict both within and between national borders, women are still, often, the first victims of violence in acts of aggression by the state, or the soldier.

I am posting some of the poignant and eloquently tragic paintings by some of the women from the House of Sharing.  Unable to put into words the dramatic degradation they experienced as young  girls and women, they have taken to painting to express their pain.   Words are not necessary.

I met some of these women.  I sat with them in the afternoon, after a tour of the House of Sharing that unveiled the history and horrific details of their experiences.   What a contrast.   From the museum part of the settlement, we moved with a swarm of delightful young tourists, to the home where these elderly women are feted like famous movie stars.     These young people come regularly on the bus and the women, to be their friends, to love and to show support for them.   There is much laughter, affection and ordinary conversation.

It might have been any small residential home for the elderly – under-floor heating, spacious rooms, quite luxurious toilets with heated seats, and smiling older women, some more stylish than others, one knitting herself a pair of woollen trousers, one holding my hand with humorous affection and telling me what a wonderful son I have.   My son laughing and teasing her because he said that normally, when he visits, she tells him he is not good enough to be married to our beautiful daughter in law.   The humour is good-natured and the women can be just as cantankerous and difficult as any elderly people might be.   Except they are not ordinary elderly women – they are extraordinary and their story ought to be told, over and over, that it may never happen again.

The systematic rounding up of young women, their transportation to the battle fronts, moved like livestock from camp to camp from Korea to Japan and as far south as Indonesia across vast areas of Asia, to serve as sexual slaves for soldiers – some young women servicing up to sixty men in a day.  Records were kept to ensure the sexual health of the soldiers; prophylactics provided but with no concern for the health of the women….waiting in the small room……listening for the footsteps….   We entered a small wooden hut at the museum restored to the dimensions of the huts used, where the young women lay like objects, listening for the footsteps…   the dark, repetitive, footsteps.

I met two dedicated women volunteers from Japan, living in at the House of Sharing and caring for the elderly women.  Indeed it is common for Japanese volunteers to come and stay for weeks at a time, and through their caring to do what their government refuses to do – acknowledge what has happened. I found meeting these Japanese women a very emotional experience as it highlighted the common decency of the average person and how most of us at any level abhor what war brings, especially to women.  I was very moved by their dedication, generosity and obvious loving affection for the women they cared for.   But too, even this, a small house in the middle of almost nowhere, is not without cultural politics, disagreements, and differing ideals within the groups of people who care and support the women at the House of Sharing.   The Korean’s demand an apology from the Japanese and I hear whispers from the Japanese as to why the Korean Government has not looked after its own women better, with the money given to them by the Japanese.   And so, seventy years on, politics still blur the lines of compassion.

If no-one listens, (and you almost feel this is what the Japanese Government is hoping for), these women will go to their graves, all of them, without ever having had their dignity upheld, their story acknowledged, officially, that they were brutally and repeatedly raped, as part of an official Japanese government programme.   No amount of money or reparation is as important as this official apology.     An official apology will not take away the past, but it will highlight the stain, focus the forensic eye, so that this crime enters the history books and so that it can never be repeated.

I’m adding to this blog from 2011, and including a link to a newly released short film (sub-titles in English) about the recent agreement between the Japanese and Korean Governments which includes a commitment to removing the beautiful and most poignant bronze statue across the road from the Japanese Embassy. http://newstapa.org/31980