Presentation at the Report back seminar in Vancouver

August 21 & 27, 2005


Good morning.  My name is Cindy Patten and I am a teacher for School District 68.  I am so pleased to be able to speak to you today.  Thanks in large part to your support, I was one of the 20+ Canadian teachers visiting China this past July in Canada ALPHA’s Peace and Reconciliation Study Tour for teachers.


It was an amazing experience for all of us.  I learned from survivors more than I ever wanted to know about human suffering, and much that I need to know about living with grace and forgiveness. 


Today I will share my very personal experiences of two particular topics:  comfort women and the Nanking Massacre.  Prior to the Study Tour, war and atrocities were something I had only experienced in sanitized textbooks and through the media.  I am lucky; I have led a very privileged life.  I can’t draw any comparisons between myself and the survivors that I met; they are – simply - heroes.


On July 13, 2005 I had the extraordinary privilege of meeting one of the comfort women.  She was a victim; today she is a survivor and easily, a warrior in her own right. 


When she walked into the crowded meeting room, aided by her daughter, I didn’t see her at first.  She is impossibly tiny; when she sits in the leather armchair her head doesn’t reach the top of its back and her feet don’t touch the ground.  For several minutes she sat with her hands still, eyes on her lap, while her daughter rubbed her arm and back to soothe her, to try to make her more comfortable as she readied herself to share her story with a group of foreign strangers.


She thinks she is about 88 years old now, but she’s not sure.  Time and a life of pain have not been kind to her.  Raised in shocking poverty, she became a pawn in the Japanese military sexual slavery system before turning “sweet 16”.  She does remember escaping a marriage as a child bride at the age of 15.  When she returned to her family they could not support her.  Her fate in China was sealed when the Japanese military paid for her brother to get married, and she was sent to a “dining hall” to earn money to support herself.  She was told she could make a fortune.


This was the start of years of hellish existence for her.  The “dining hall” was no restaurant or cafeteria service.  It was a comfort station, housing dozens of young, unmarried girls who were forced to service up to 29 men daily.


She fought back against the sexual and physical assault.  “I was young and tough at the time,” she said with pride.  As she told us how she fought back every day, her voice suddenly became strong, young, forged of steel.  Her body, however, is not.  She still bears the evidence of the atrocities:  she lives with many cracked vertebrae and scars from knife wounds and gun butt beatings.


Although she spoke through two translators to communicate with us, the still-raw emotion in her words painted an unmistakable portrait of her shattered life.  Her voice cracked as she said, “if the Japanese military hadn’t cheated us I wouldn’t have come to China.  I miss my hometown.  I miss my family.”  In the 60 years since the end of the war, she has not been back to her home town, her home country, even once.


Abruptly, she ended the interview by saying “we had a tough life at that time.”  Her final words to us were that she and many other comfort women don’t want to be paid off to go away quietly.  They want the compensation that comes with a sincere apology.


While she has gone on to lead a long life that includes a family of her own, she will not – cannot - forget.  She still has nightmares and her physical wounds hurt every moment as her mind and body continue to give silent testimony to her life as a “comfort woman”.


I was selected to present this lady with a gift from Canada on behalf of Canada ALPHA.  After hearing her story, watching her struggle with her confidence and sense of self-worth in front of us, and listening to her apologize to us for not speaking as well as she would have liked, any words that I had pre-rehearsed in my mind dried up on my tongue.


I knew there was absolutely nothing I could say in any language that could sufficiently thank her for just being there that day.  Yet the debt of gratitude that we owed her was huge, and she needed to know that.  Fortunately Joseph here was able to supplement my prose enough – at least in translation – that she finally lifted her eyes to meet mine.  And then, I saw that they sparkled.  I saw her love for life and the strength that had carried her through the years.


The previous day, our group had visited the historical site Qian Cang Zhan “Comfort House” in the Pudong district of Shanghai.  It seemed in many respects to be your quintessential “haunted house” with small windows, cloistered empty rooms, and long narrow wooden staircases that creaked and groaned in whispers as you stepped up them.  It had been easy to get lost in the architecture, the sense of mystery, the juxtaposition between the antiquated beauty of the once-stately home and the modern, steel and glass Shanghai that pressed in on it from every angle.


Then on the 3rd floor I found the attic.  At the top of the stairs I peered down the hall to see three doorways, and three small shadowy rooms.  The first two rooms were door-less and largely empty.  The third room was barred by a door with broken glass panes.  Glass fragments littered the floor and crunched under my feet.  I looked through the door to the left, and saw a jumble of dilapidated bunk beds and old worn blankets. 


24 hours later, after meeting with the comfort woman, the pieces of this chapter of history began to fit together with devastating clarity.




For many of us, the most memorable high point AND the emotional low point of the Study Tour happened in Nanjing.   Although we had had two intensive pre-Tour study sessions, nothing could have prepared us for this time.  One of my colleagues actually said to me that he thought people should have some counseling to prepare for this experience – and if not before the Tour, then certainly after. 


The Memorial Hall of the Victims in the Nanjing Massacre is very powerful.  From the moment we entered onto the grounds and observed the severed head and disembodied arm we were sombered by the inescapable knowledge of what happened.  As we followed the footprints of the 222 survivors who have come forward to help others learn, we were humbled by the strength that we knew they had to have to get through their lives.  As we walked alongside the sculpted wall that illustrated atrocity after atrocity, I began to wonder how much worse what we would see inside would become.


And then we entered the Museum and saw the graveyard of skeletons, young and old, men and women, layered seven deep in a pit that has no end.  I knew that, somewhere, everywhere, in Nanjing there are 300,000 of these lost lives and that knowledge is crushing.


I found that I didn’t want to read very many details about the skeletons as we went through the pit.  It was too hard, I felt I knew enough.  However, the Museum is well designed to educate people like me.  The next section was the photo exhibit, a grisly collection of evidence taken largely by the Japanese military for purposes I cannot fathom.   The gallery seemed infinite and punishing, mirroring as best it could the experience of the time. 


As a Canadian, and as a teacher, I sometimes find it difficult to take a firm position on an issue.  Instead I try to rationalize, look for the positives, the exceptions.  By noon on July 18 I was rapidly running out of plausible excuses for the Japanese military.  By 3 pm I was completely depleted.  I was ready to actively commit to the cause of Peace and Reconciliation.  And that is because of the testimonies of two survivors, Madam Lee and Mr. Chong.


Both of these individuals are now in their 80’s.  They are wrinkled and bent, and have smiling eyes and firm voices.  Both are as articulate as any scholar, yet neither has had much schooling.  Their verbal testimonies elicit more vivid images than most films. 


Their stories, their lives at the time of the Nanjing Massacre, are nauseating.   For the first time I understood the true meaning of “bearing” witness. Rapes, guns, knives, beatings, freezing weather, slow deaths, witnessing their parents’ bravery and demise, bombings, burnings, desperate suicides, infections, starvation, a lifetime of disability, of begging, of being orphaned; 60 years of denial from Japan. 


Madam Lee said to us, “it is because of Japan’s denial that I have to be a witness coming out day after day.  [They owe] a debt of blood and tears.”


I am reluctant to admit that it took all of my energy to simply sit and listen to these two resilient senior citizens.  At the first opportunity I escaped to the outside exhibits to find some air.  My initial thought was to seek shade beside the 222 sets of footprints, as it had been blistering sunshine that morning.  However, at that very moment, the heavens opened up and rain flooded down upon us as if directed by some divine cue.  We were being implored to remember.





Mr. Chang told us, “no words can describe the experience that the Japanese soldiers brought to us.  It helps to tell my story – I’m too old to join the military for revenge.” 


I, for one, am glad that such words do not exist.  I don’t think the human race is prepared to deal with language that powerful, that destructive.  It is difficult enough to cope honorably with the language that we do have control over.


As a teacher I encourage my students to be the best people that they can be to themselves and to others.  In the long run, my wish is to help them acquire the information, skills, and attitudes necessary to identify and combat such atrocities from occurring in the future.  My hope for my students is that they can actively contribute to making the world a better place and to lead by example. 


It has never been so evident to me why this is important.  I still hear the survivors’ stories in my mind; I see their faces struggle with emotion at the unspeakable memories that they have been plagued with for 60 years.  I am stunned that their wells of forgiveness run so deeply for the people who wronged them.  All 3 survivors stated that they would forgive the Japanese military when the apology comes; none of them blame the general Japanese population for what happened to them.


We cannot have a world that neglects the cries of its people.  For my part, I pledge to you that I will tell these stories to my school children.  We will discuss peace and justice in the classroom, and in the world.  And I will continue to devote my practice to preparing the next generation to stand united for peace and reconciliation.  I believe that all 30 teachers from this year’s Study Tour will do the same.


Thank you again for this amazing opportunity.


Cindy Patten

Nanaimo, B.C.