Oral History Changed My Perception of Human Nature and of the World…
I want to go beyond ethnicity and politics and understand people as humans.
Series: Been There Done That
“She said this was the first time in so many years that her story was known by others. She felt so glorified, and for her, being heard was already a cure.”— — Chen
Chen is from Hangzhou, Zhejiang province in China. She’s now studying psychological counseling in New York, focusing on history and war trauma. She likes to go around the world to learn about different people and different lives, and to record their stories.
Chen’s interest in oral history started since she was a child and it had a lot to do with her grandfather.
My grandfather is a veteran. After retiring, he spent decades collecting historical information about his troops from all over the country, writing memoirs, and helping to build a military history museum. I ‘ve been helping my grandfather proofread the materials since elementary school and I have listened to many stories of his former comrades. My interest in the history of the last generation started then.
Later when I was studying psychology in Australia six years ago, I read a lot of historical literature in the East Asian Library of the school, including the records of the Wuhan Mental Hospital during the Cultural Revolution written by American psychiatrists, and the photos of the Indonesian massacre of Chinese. There were a lot of things I didn’t know before then. I also went to the Aboriginal exhibition in Melbourne, getting to know the trauma of the “stolen generation”. Under the “White Australia” policy back then, the aboriginal children were taken away from their parents for centralized management; they were taught to assimilate and were deprived of their ethnic cultural characteristics. Many children did not see their families again throughout their lives.
These experiences opened a door for me, inviting me to dig deeper to understand the impact of history on individuals. After I went back to China from Australia, I interned for a TV show called “The Cold and the Warm of Life” produced by Phoenix TV. The show focused on historical and social trauma, and featured a variety of groups of people including the “educated urban youth” mental hospital, the Karamay fire survivors, the POW in the Korean War, and the Taiwan Kuomintang veterans. That internship experience gave me a deeper understanding of the complexities of history and made me more certain that what I want to do is to go beyond ethnicity and politics, and to understand people as humans.
Oral history is exactly what I’m looking for — it focuses on the memory of an individual and the experience and emotions behind it. It allows me to cross the boundaries of time and space, to get to the bottom of the event, to see the richer and more complex side of the world, meanwhile changing my perception of human nature and the world.
Chen’s journey continues as she keeps exploring the world and connecting with people from different backgrounds…
When I first came to New York three years ago, I connected with some interesting New Yorkers via Couchsurfing, including an old lady who fled from East Germany to West Germany when she was young, a Jewish grandpa who witnessed the fights and struggles for LGBT+ rights in 20-century New York, a Ukrainian young man who couldn’t continue his education and fled to the U.S. due to the war, a middle-aged Syrian man who had raised some winter supplies and planned to go to the Greek refugee camp to help his fellow men. These unique life stories and choices, and that whole surging era, have ignited my interest in the history of other ethnic groups and the intergenerational inheritance of trauma.
Chen in Uganda…
In 2016, I traveled to Uganda and lived in a local town for two months. I participated in the Civil War Survivor Project of the National Peace and Memory Record Center. I attended local weddings, funerals, religious sacrifices, and visited war victims in the village including the tribal chief, archbishops, and common villagers whose home was slaughtered. Although the civil war has been over for more than a decade, the wounds are still everywhere.
My interview with the old chief of the tribe left a deep impression on me. He told me that his childhood dream was to be a nature science teacher in elementary school. But when he was 14, he was taken by the rebels and stayed in the jungle with them for six months. Later, he caught a serious disease and could not walk, so the rebels abandoned him. When he was feeling totally hopeless, a dog appeared. The dog brought food to feed him and kept him company.
For a moment, he heard god speaking to him, “Your days are open.” He suddenly felt the power and started crawling slowly toward his home. Eventually, his sister found him and the two made it home. Later, he established the Center for Missing Persons and held religious ceremonies every year, hoping that other children lost in the war could return home.
In him, I saw the words of god, “ And patience, experience; and experience, hope.” For some people, the brokenness in life is where comes in the light.
Chen in Cambodia…
In the summer of 2018, I was in Cambodia working on the records of survivors of the Cambodian Genocide. I met a local psychiatrist. When he was nine years old, he was forced to leave Phnom Penh with his family and went to the slaughtered village, where he suffered physical and mental torture. He told me that there was a saying back then, “In the eyes of the ‘organization’, innocence in itself is a sin.” Crying was a sin, so a child who cried would be taken away; laughter was also a sin — it meant depravity that needed to be “cleared”. Children who grew up in such an environment were shaped into the so-called “new people” who did not need to play, no parents, no emotions, and the ‘organization’ was their whole life and faith. When these children grew up, they became indifferent and cruel, and believed nothing.
He told me that these unspoken hurtful memories were also passed on to the next generation. “Baksbat” in Khmer describes this trauma-based cultural syndrome in Cambodia, meaning the broken courage: people seem to be always afraid of something, hiding in their own small circles, not willing to engage with the world around them, being passive and obedient, fear to fight for their rights, fear to make decisions, fear responsibility, easily accept failure, and easily give up.
In April 2015 Chen held an exhibition in New York — — “Salvage the Sinking Voices”.
This oral history project was about survivors of the 1994 New York subway bombing.
On December 21, 2014, I attended the 20th anniversary of the survivors, where I met a black girl Charlene. She told me when the explosion occurred, she was 17 and was taking the subway to school. She got severe burns that needed skin grafting surgery and she could not live normally for a long time. She said that because most of the injured were black people at the time, the major media in the United States did not report much about it, so most people in New York did not know what they had experienced.
I decided to do a project on this the moment I heard Charlene’s story. In April 2015, I held an oral history exhibition with a theme called “Salvage the Sinking Voice”. That day, Charlene came with her family and friends. She said this was the first time in so many years that her story was known by others. She felt so glorified, and for her, being heard was already a cure. I think this is indeed what’s amazing about oral history — telling and being heard in itself is a way out for those who suffered.
There were times when people were reluctant to share their painful experiences or got very emotional during the interview.
This happens a lot. I remember when I was interviewing an archbishop in Uganda, at first he talked very actively and told me all about Uganda’s colonial history, tribal contradictions, peace talks he attended and cross-religious organizations he founded, until the moment I saw the ring on his finger and asked if it was a wedding ring. His facial expression changed immediately. I knew something sad had happened, so I didn’t ask any further.
Later, when I interviewed his eldest daughter, I realized that during the civil war, his wife was killed in a car by a mine on her way home, and he should have been in that car too, but for some reason he did not get in. I think this is the pain of his life.
Generally, if there are some questions the interviewee does not want to answer, I would just respect and let it be. Sometimes they will open up later. The most important thing is to let the other person feel that I really want to know them as a person, not just to use them as a tool to collect history.
Besides doing interviews and making records…
I’ve been thinking is there any other way to heal the wound? So after returning from Uganda, I started to study psychological counseling in New York, focusing on trauma. I found that art therapy might be a good start.
In interviews involving trauma, you would see many people’s narratives are fragmented, lacking chronological order and background and even emotions, just like a jammed black and white silent film. This is because traumatic memory is often different from normal memory — it is stored in the brain in forms of senses and pictures, and often not integrated with other parts of life memory; it just stagnates there, and is hard to be expressed in words. Art therapy is like a utensil, leaving people a safe distance to project those repressed pictures, memory, hidden pain, and accessing the subconscious.
“Facts” vs. Memory
It’s true that people’s memories can be affected by emotions, and maybe not accurate as time goes by, but interestingly, in our oral history class, teachers often stress on subjectivity. The very difference between oral history and traditional historical research is that, in contrast to the collection and archive of key “facts” of history, oral history concerns more the individual experience and wants to understand how an individual’s point of view and memory is shaped or changed by historical events, collective memory, social environment, and personal experience.
Chen feels lucky to be a witness of others’ lives.
I feel so grateful that many people are willing to open up to me and let me be a witness of their past lives. Many of them had great talents and potentials but were trapped in unfortunate situations. Compared to them, I feel privileged because I always have a choice, and my “anxiety” is only about choosing between the “good” and the “better”.
Chen imagines herself in 5 years…
Oral history has become the way I communicate with the world, and it’s already a part of my life. In the future, I want to join an international organization, to give psychological aid in every corner of the world, and keep digging into the buried voice. I hope I will stay curious about stories and stay humble to history throughout my life.
I remember meeting an amazing elder who used to work in the nuclear industry. He told me that there are three ideal qualities of a human, one is the exploration of the unknown world, one is the pursuit of beautiful love, and one is the compassion for others’ misery. I really like this saying, and this is what kind of person I want to be.
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