Experiences That Transform Us

She’s lived through WWII, graduated summa cum laude in English, had four children, seen the EDSA Revolution, and gone to the DPRK border - my grandmother is, by far, the most interesting person I know.

Picture the typical “little old lady” in a wheelchair. Her posture is curved, and she stands presently at 4’11. Now give her an intense expression - an expression that burns into you, that expects you to bow your head and quietly do as she wills. Good. Now she will talk - no, command you. What other choice do you have? In every moment she is an authority, a ruler, a chief executive…and you’d better not forget that.

Yet, despite that, she can be kind. Nurturing, in fact. She was the one who fed me and put me to sleep every day (as my Mom was still working long days at a bank) up until I was 4 years old. Perhaps that’s why I’m her favorite grandchild - she treats me differently, even if she doesn’t say it outright.

She’s not one to talk about herself unprompted, so I had to spring the questions upon her. She and I were sitting around in my late grandfather’s panelled den. I don’t know how she still goes into that room - it’s like a pristine, three-dimensional snapshot of my grandfather’s life across the past five decades. A million memories preserved clearly in aspic. At first, I had to explain to her what was meant - or at least what I thought was meant - by a “transformative experience.” “An event that changed you, or set you on a different path in life.” As we talked, however, it became quite apparent that this question didn’t, and still will not, apply to her and the way she lived her life.

Celia was born in 1935. From age 4 to age 10, she experienced the horrors of World War II’s Pacific theater. (The war here didn’t end until 1945.) Her family scraped by every day - at one point, they were forced to stay in a hospital room (used as a bomb shelter) with a stranger and his houseboy. She still vividly remembers the man eating and commanding his houseboy as if they were not hiding for their lives, and looking at his food with a mixture of longing and resignation. They had a little malunggay, after all, and that’s just how things were at the moment. No point in complaining.

What they feared most, however, were the Japanese invaders. Soldiers of the IJA relished in pointless cruelty, domination, and death. Perhaps they were demonically inspired by their Nazi allies and decided to take some things a step further, or perhaps some kind of inhibiting psychological element was merely “switched off” in them when they were given imperial(!) orders to conquer and subjugate. Regardless, the brutality they caused and their general inscrutability were enough to terrify most Filipinos into staying silent and keeping to themselves.

One of Celia’s relatives was pregnant at the time. She was on her way to another hospital to see her sick brother, but the route she had to take passed through a Japanese checkpoint. Despite being heavily pregnant, and despite being in a hurry for a loved one, they nearly beat her - all because she did not stop and bow to them. That was another way they instilled fear into people: fickleness.

The Japanese did not even stop making casualties when the war ended. They had no personal restrictions - any target was fair game, even little girls going out to get water with their older relatives. Celia was saved almost miraculously. The shot missed, and another sniper (who she thinks was an American) killed the Japanese aiming for her.

Every day, even after the war, burned corpses lined the streets. Carnage - hell on earth. When she was describing it, my Mom asked, “Didn’t that upset you?” “No, I was just a child.”

How strange, isn’t it? A child would be more affected than anyone else. Yet she wasn’t. She was never stressed or afraid for her life - and that’s because she knew that she would survive. She does not have a “will to live” per se, but rather a confidence in her own power so great that it realizes her intentions without her always consciously fighting for them.

Years later, Celia went on to study English. At university, she met a kind, quiet man studying Foreign Affairs - my grandfather. They went on to get married, and for the rest of my grandfather’s career as a diplomat she would accompany him everywhere he was assigned.

In the early 1970s, my grandfather was assigned to Japan. He too had traumatic experiences during the war, but unlike my grandmother’s, his persisted for years and manifested as a deep fear of Japanese people. Going to Japan as a symbol of peace and friendship from the Filipino people was something incredible - not only had he forgiven what they did to him, his wife, and his country, but he was also going to make sure they didn’t do it again. When they were there, the treatment they received could not be any more different from what they experienced three decades ago. Every morning, the Japanese guard near their residence would allow them to park somewhat illegally (as the car my grandfather used was too large for the garage) and laugh about it. My grandmother even recounted a story from when they were just about to leave for Manila again: she realized she wanted to buy a car in a specific color (they were quite well-off in the seventies), so she called Yanase & Co. immediately. She haggled and haggled, and eventually she got the exact car she wanted at the last moment.

My brother and I laughed when we heard this, because it was an incredibly clear demonstration of my grandmother’s incredible survival instinct and how it worked (it always works) beautifully in the long term. She went from being shot at by the Japanese, to demanding they get her what she wants...and them having no choice but to obey.

So this is my grandmother’s story. Transformation, in the context of a human life, is the emergence of new understanding and (possible) the rejection of previously-held ideas when subjected to a new and strange experience. My grandmother has always held firmly to her beliefs, regardless of where she is and what she must endure. Perhaps she could have transformed when she saw that different side of the Japanese, but it truly seems more like she was just waiting to get her dues from them.