History Lesson

One of my nearly-fluent Chinese classes is reading biographies; this morning, they chose to read about Anne Frank.  One of the students thought her name sounded familiar, but none of them have ever studied her, nor the European theatre of WWII.

Seemed a little heretical to me.

I found Anne Frank’s book of short stories when I was about 9 years old, sitting calmly in the bookshelf at the top of my grandparents’ stairs.  I was lost for almost 24 hours; my grandmother gave me one of those knowing looks and said, “Of course!” when I asked if I could take it home with me.  I recall my mother – busy with small children and laundry – vaguely acknowledging that I would be almost ready to read that but directing me towards Anne’s diary the next time we went to the library.

It’s as if they thought it was something really important for me to know about.

And here are these children who are 12 and 13 years old who don’t know about Anne.

Is it possible to live like that?

The Chinese have this really twisted attitude towards history: it doesn’t exist (they’re a lot like Christians that way).  They’ve erased a good 50 years entirely, and they ignore about 500 more.  There’s some stuff that happened at one point long ago (The Three Kingdoms is required knowledge) but unless the Chinese won the battle, it’s not really relevant.

One of my students from another class is greedy for history.  She doesn’t care what you teach her, as long as it’s history; Harry Potter became relevant when I showed her the King Arthur stories.  She likes it when we read about European history because it’s not something she can find easily in Chinese books.  Like her, I get all happy when I read history; it’s the perfect story that never ends.  One thing just leads to another and, while you might have to take a bathroom break, something good will always be waiting for you.

I like reading any history – as long as it’s not the boring dates and statistics; it doesn’t matter where or when it’s from, although I must admit a certain fondness for European and British history as it makes the most sense to me, and I don’t have to think too hard to make the connections.  I’m also fairly loose in my standards: mythology counts as history.

Ironically, in China, Greek mythology is considered to be relevant because it contains the essence of an Empire; a young girl locked in an attic for two years is not something to be considered because it doesn’t inspire greatness.  Yet, my students are already great, and so I will be teaching them the unimportant and irrelevant stories from the rest of the world.

I accept full responsibility if it turns them into something fair-to-middlin’.

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