A Lesson Learned

By Tania Dyett

Originally printed in the JULY-AUGUST 2005 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Dyett, Tania."A Lesson Learned." Quest  93.4 (JULY-AUGUST 2005):148-149


I can still remember arriving at Adek. It was 1942 and the Japanese had just invaded Java, Indonesia. My mother and I had been rounded up with the other women and children and sent off to an internment camp. It had been a nightmarish trip; a train journey which had started in the afternoon and finished in the heat of the next day. Packed tightly together in compartments, we had been forced to sit on each other's knees. The air was dank and claustrophobic. Children began vomiting. One woman became hysterical and a Japanese guard came in and slapped her hard several times on the face. We just sat there, unable to help her.

For two long years Adek was our home. In that time we encountered many cruel and vicious Japanese soldiers. For the most part, their incomprehensible barking and sudden rage are a distant memory for me but I vaguely remember one soldier who slapped my face because I didn't bow when he passed on his bicycle. I recall another who gave some children sweets and then slapped their mother's face as hard as he could. She had not bowed, but instead had smiled at him with gratitude.

At Adek, girls between the ages of 15 and 25 were considered the"strong girls," healthy enough to do all the backbreaking jobs. We unloaded heavy bags of sugar, rice, and salt and carried them into the storerooms. For example, forty other girls and I once carried 300 mattresses from the train to the truck and from the truck to the dormitories. I remember carrying those mattresses almost in my sleep, the jolting train jogging my head and body with every step I took. Another time, the latrines at the camp broke down; the strong girls labored for months digging trenches to be used as an alternative.

Sometimes, women fought back. In Tiji Hapit, a camp I stayed in for some time, a Japanese guard once caught five women bartering their jewelry for pork. The guard waited until the women got their items and then pounced on them. He told them to hand over their pork and whatever money and jewelry they had. One woman got so furious with the guard that she attacked him with her knitting needle. She stuck the needle through his arm while four other women threw themselves on him, took his gun, beat him, and then ran away. The story went around the camp like wildfire. We all waited, trembling with fear, for the consequences.

A week later we saw the Japanese guard with a black eye and his arm in a sling. He patrolled the camp looking around viciously for somebody who didn't bow. But that was as far as his retribution went. If he had admitted to his superiors that he was attacked by five defenseless women, he would have lost face.

The guards often were cruel and capricious, but I remember one who was different from the rest. Takashi arrived without fanfare on one of the days we were digging trenches. Each day we had worked in the hot sun until lunchtime. A Japanese soldier would lay in the shade of a tree and make sure we weren't idle. On this day, however, the usual guard did not turn up. In his place came Takashi, small and insignificant.

We didn't take much notice of him at first. We simply went on working as usual. But Takashi did not recline under the tree as his predecessor had, instead he visited each of the trenches. He seemed greatly amused that we needed rope ladders to get in and out of them, and he tried to make conversation with us, but we couldn't speak Japanese and his Malay was very broken.

At noon, we had an hour off for lunch. All we had to eat was dry tapioca bread. It was a dirty gray color with black spots in it and had the texture of rubber. Takashi ate his lunch alone under the tree. Then something extraordinary happened. He walked over to where we sat and handed me and another girl the rest of his lunch. It was real white bread with butter on it!"Trimakasi!" I exclaimed, thanking him. He waved his hand and sat down next to us. He said something and gesticulated toward the spade. Clearly, he wanted to know what it was called."Patjoel," a girl replied. He smiled happily and repeated it. And so began Takashi's first lesson in Malay. He was a keen pupil and before we knew it our lunch hour had stretched to two hours. We could not believe our good luck.

The next day Takashi brought a bag of sweets and two packets of cigarettes. He proceeded to talk to us in sign language, waving his arms in all directions. He then covered his mouth with his hand and pointed to the sweets and cigarettes. He shook his head until he was dizzy and then jumped up and stood to attention. Then he gave himself two hearty slaps on his cheeks. We all burst out laughing and Takashi shone with delight that his effort had been a success. We all clearly understood that he did not want us to tell anybody about these gifts.

From that time on, Takashi would always bring us a treat. He continued to allow us long breaks in our digging. We soon discovered that he had a marvelous memory and remembered all the Malay words we had taught him from the previous day. We, in turn, learned some Japanese words from him.

Takashi told us that he came from a small village. He had a wife and a three year-old daughter. He asked us many questions and we told him about the history, mathematics, and geography we had learned in school. He smiled and shook his head in admiration.

One day Takashi did not appear and another guard took his place. We all missed him terribly. We didn't miss him because of the fruit he shared with us, or the sweets he gave us. We missed his gentle nature and eager smile. During the four years I was in the camp, I learned a lot. The most important thing was that the real value of people is not so much in what they think, but in what they actually do to help others. All the guards were encrusted with the social and intellectual embellishments of normal society. Only Takashi used them to benefit others. Small and insignificant Takashi, an enemy soldier and a Japanese guard, made me realize how wrong it is to dislike people because of race, color, or religion.

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