In my young adult years, whenever I would go back to Singapore to visit my grandma, I would record our conversations.
One time I decided to ask her about what she remembers during the Japanese occupation of Singapore during world war II between 1942 and 1945. Just a few years prior, she left her home country of China with her siblings and widowed mother (my great grandma) shortly after my great grandfather died. My great grandpa was a truck driver for the Chinese military and died from a heat stroke. Since it was taboo to remarry, my great grandma sought out her deceased husband’s family who had already migrated to Singapore. My great grandma and her young children took a train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, and then traveled by boat from Hong Kong to Singapore.
I asked my grandma what memory stood out to her the most about the Japanese occupation of Singapore. I’ve translated the following conversation from Cantonese into English:
Grandma: “One day we were walking, I can’t remember, maybe to the market, it was me, your great grandma and your granduncle and suddenly Japanese soldiers were shooting people. It was very loud. We stopped walking and stood there. There were people in front of us, and soldiers pushed them down to their knees and then they shot them and those people fell in front of us. We were then asked to kneel but then one of the soldiers started talking to the other soldiers and they hurried off somewhere. We stayed low on the ground till we couldn’t see them anymore.”
Me: “Oh my god grandma that must have been horrifying. Have you talked about this experience with anyone before?”
Grandma: “No. This is my first time. I forgot it happened until you asked me.”
Me: “How do you feel talking about it?”
Grandma: “I feel nothing. It was a long time ago. I saw all those people die and then we ran away. You don’t talk about those things. It was very sad.”
Me: “What do you think of Japanese people now?”
Grandma: “I like Japanese people. They are very nice. I love sushi.”
This conversation, and many other conversations I’ve had with my grandma since, reminded me of how normal it is in Chinese culture to not talk about hard things. Being a parent myself now, I can’t imagine my son experiencing something traumatic and not having a safe space to process his feelings. As someone who has been in therapy for many years, I remember how uncomfortable I would be with simple questions like “What are you feeling right now?” when I first started going. My grandma frequently says she feels nothing when I ask her how she feels about something.
Growing up in the Singapore education system and being a good student, you’d think I’d have the vocabulary to answer such a question. It took me many years to learn how to express my emotions verbally without crying. With these new skills, I’ve been able to have more conversations like this with my grandma not only for family history purposes, but for me to learn more about the traumas my family has gone through.
Having been through trauma therapy, I’ve learnt just how much generational trauma and my own personal traumatic experiences have been trapped in my body. I’m now in a place in my life where I am confident of my ability to release the negative energies in my body through hypnotherapy, meditation and yoga. It wasn’t easy getting there, it took years and years of unlearning and relearning things from my childhood.
I know I am breaking cycles everyday and I won’t get everything right either. But my hope is that I am creating a new foundation for my family. And my children will take what they learn, find ways to keep what works, and leave what doesn’t.
We are not responsible for the traumas of our families, but we can be the generation to break the cycle of trauma and abuse.
If you are just starting your healing journey, I want you to know you are not alone. I’ve been there and I’m in a good place now. You deserve to feel safe and loved and I know you can get there too!