Before noon, students began arriving at the bungalow called the Soroptimist House. Some women were still clad in unisexual winter jeans, others already in shorts and skirts welcoming the tepid days of early spring. The bungalow rests on a sloping ground on the south side of the main road that divides the school into upper campus with its classrooms and library, and lower with its parking and athletic areas. Named after its donor, a worldwide organization of professional women, the Soroptimist House provides a living room ambiance to small conferences. It has carpeting, upholstery and a fireplace at the back of a flagstone platform, raised seven inches above the carpeted floor.
| In their early twenties, the women on the beige sofa wearing pullovers and jeans, were alike from the neck down but their faces, black, brown and white, mirrored
the ethnic diversity
of a California campus.
Among the first to arrive were three women who sat at the sofa facing the podium on a flagstone platform. Behind the podium on the right were three chairs. Other guests sat on folding chairs set against the walls and behind the sofa, all the way to the linoleum end of the rectangular room. There stood a linen-covered table with platters of cut melons, cheeses, crackers and canned soft drinks. In their early twenties, the women on the beige sofa wearing pullovers and jeans, were alike from the neck down but their faces, black, brown and white, mirrored the ethnic diversity of a California campus. Like most students in the room, they came because their instructor Mayumi Richards had told them to attend and submit a two-page report on the event.
Leigh, the Black student with hair done in tiny corn rows, was saying, "Mayumi's cool, but I'd rather be at that concert rocking by the bookstore."
"Me too," said Melody, the brown woman with a puffy face and short hair, sitting in the middle of the sofa next to Leigh.
"This should be interesting," said Susan, the third woman on the sofa, her blonde hair split into two ragged ponytails, "a talk by a so-called comfort woman. Nice euphemism for a sex slave, don't you think?"
"Nice, my ass. The very idea makes me sick," said Leigh. "Screwed twenty or more times a night by horny soldiers must be hell."
"If she were a teenager then, she must be in her seventies," Susan said.
"Probably as old as Grandpa, who was a teenager in Manila during the Second World War."
"Why didn't you bring your Grandpa here?"
"I did tell him about this and he really wanted to come, but lives with my Mom and Dad in Los Angeles. I stay at a campus dorm and go home only on weekends."
"Lucky you," said Leigh, "I can't afford the dorms and have to commute every day from L.A. How about you, Susan? Where do you live?"
"Orange County, not far from here. Got to stay close to where I work."
"Where do you work?"
| Mayumi slowly walked toward the podium, extending a hand
to an old woman who did not clasp it until she stepped up the flagstone platform.
"Oh, you don't want to know about it."
"Come on, tell us."
"Let's just say I work in a restaurant and night club in Laguna Beach, and leave it at that."
"That bad, huh?"
"I kiss the ass of a bunch of rude and self-consumed yuppies. But they pay my bills. So night after night I try to mask my grimace with a smile."
"Whoa, sounds grim," said Leigh.
"They usually come to the club in packs of ten, like wild beasts, most of them already drunk. And they expect service at the snap of their fingers."
"Sure am glad I don't have to work as a waitress while going to school. Grandpa keeps telling me how lucky I am."
"Your grandpa's right, you're fortunate. I have to be nice to these yuppies. They tip well, and they pay my rent, car loan and schooling. I have to be nice and it hurts."
The room buzzed, all seats in the carpeted area now full. Latecomers moved to the linoleum floor or stood against the wall beside their bags and backpacks.
Leigh turned to Melody and said, "Your grandpa sounds like a cool cat to me."
"I like him but he bugs me sometimes, like when he rattles on about how much tougher things are, back home."
"What does he mean by tougher?"
"Well, look at Susan. She can put herself through college on her salary as a waitress. Can't be done in the Philippines. As Grandpa puts it, no way, Jose."
Susan said, "Hey, guys, stop talking about me. Mayumi is making a grand entrance. Doesn't she look great?"
In the sudden quiet, Mayumi slowly walked toward the podium, extending a hand to an old woman who did not clasp it until she stepped up the flagstone platform. Another woman gave a slight push to the old woman's diminutive waist and helped her on a chair and sat beside her. Mayumi approached the podium.
"Good afternoon. My name is Mayumi Richards. I teach in the Asian Studies Department. It's great that you're spending your lunch hour with us. We've all come to hear a courageous speaker. She was known as a comfort woman during the Second World War, almost half a century ago. Don't let the term deceive you. It applies to hundreds of women, Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, even Dutch and English, who were forced to become prostitutes by the Japanese Imperial Army to serve the sexual needs of soldiers. As an American woman of Japanese descent, I am doubly ashamed and horrified. It shames me that the Japanese did this atrocity, and I can't begin to imagine how horrible it must have been for these women. Many of us don't want learn about such terrible things but we have to be told, so as not to forget. We cannot change the past, but we can prevent such things from happening again. And for this we thank our speaker for having the courage to share with us her experience. To tell us more about our speaker is Professor Nancy Salita of the University of the Philippines."
| Because of the nature of their experience as sex slaves, they are reluctant to give testimony, protected by families that kept secret their shameful past.
Mayumi turned to the U.P. professor who had stood up. The two poised Asian women shook hands, showing a contrast of lovely brown complexions, Mayumi's face burnished by the California sun, deeper against Nancy's softer and fleshier kayumanggi. A contrast, too, of accents when Nancy began to speak, rounding off the "o" when she referred to herself as "Doctor."
"Thank you. My name is Dr. Nancy Salita. I teach Sociology at the University of the Philippines. I am a member of the Southeast Asian Studies group that is petitioning the Japanese government to make a public apology for its policy of conscripting women from countries they occupied during World War II, and forcing them to work in military brothels. We are also asking Japan to make reparations to surviving comfort women, many of whom live in extreme poverty. Because of the nature of their experience as sex slaves, they are reluctant to give testimony, protected by families that kept secret their shameful past. However, seventeen Filipino women have come out and are telling their stories. One of them is here with us today. Her name is Basilia Anino. We call her Lola Basiang. She's going to speak in her native Ilocano, and I shall translate to the best of my ability."
Lola Basiang rose to her shrunken height of just over four feet, her black eyes sharp as they gazed across the room, animating a skeletal face. Wearing a blouse cut like barong and plaid skirt, she looked like an exotic mannequin in a storefront window. The room froze as she walked to the right of the podium, a slight bounce with every step, as if having a hard time trying to put her weight down. Naomi had slipped a sheaf of papers on the podium, waiting.
Lola Basiang after two guttural starts began to speak. "I am, Sirs, Basilia Anino. I was born in a barrio in Pangasinan, the eldest of three girls, second of five children. My father was a farmer, my mother raised pigs and chickens."
Her Ilocano words sounded like marbles falling on the floor but Nancy rolled them off in smooth English with the help of notes. The listeners must have been amazed, as they tried to match the old woman's broken, singsong rhythm with Salita's monotone.
"So noisy, when the Japanese planes flew above and bombed Clark Air Base. The dogs, chickens, the church bells ringing, all, all were making noise. We had no telephones, no radio. News came from the post office. It had a telegraph. People were running about, crying, shouting, 'The war has come, war has come!' Like it was a visitor they were expecting."
As she spoke, the voice did not crackle as much and the pale wrinkled face seemed flushed, with Nancy providing a steady voice-over.
"My mother began selling the chickens and pigs, and buying sacks of salt. When we heard that the Japanese soldiers were coming, we loaded boxes of clothes and utensils in a cart drawn by a carabao and moved into a hut in the mountain. We brought Mother's salt. It became our lifesaver. We'd barter salt for rice, vegetables and dried
fish. Sometimes we'd get a live hen for a cup of salt. My mother taught me how to slit its neck, let the blood drain on a saucer with lemon or lime in it, before dipping it in boiling water."
| Seven other soldiers
on foot came
and formed a line behind
the horse, holding rifles. I could not run,
the water up to my knees, just stood there in my wet clothes.
Lola Basiang gave a puppy look at Nancy, as if asking, must I go on? The professor kept her eyes on the podium.
"We'd go down the mountain to fetch water from spring and wash clothes in the river. One day, as I was washing clothes with some women, a Japanese soldier on horseback suddenly appeared from the abaca grove by the river. The women ran, some dragging their children. Seven other soldiers on foot came and formed a line behind the horse, holding rifles. I could not run, the water up to my knees, just stood there in my wet clothes."
Lola Basiang dropped her hands to her side, her body shaking as if suddenly chilled.
"The man on the horse pointed at me with a black stick in his hand and said something. His voice came from his throat, with a lot of air in it. Two soldiers slung their rifles and came down. They motioned me to get out of the water."
On the sofa, the Black student Leigh had her hands on her cheeks, fingers on her ears; Melody the Filipina had a fist pressed against her mouth; Susan the white woman was looking at the door, as if thinking of exit.
"The soldiers forced me to walk with them, three on either side of me and one behind. They wore boots, I was in my wooden clogs. When I'd stumble on the trail, the soldier behind prodded me with the butt of his rifle, while the others laughed. They stopped laughing when we reached the town, and walked single file led by the soldier on the horse. They put me at the of the line with a soldier behind me."
Lola Basiang began to lift each foot in succession, her body mimicking how it walked that day, eyes cast down away from the gaze of spectators.
"They took me to a house once owned by Spaniards, who left for Europe before the war started. The sala was bigger than this room. Soon, I got to know, much to my horror, the four Japanese men staying in that big house. One was the officer on the horse. There was a doctor who examined me when I was bleeding, a man who had books and papers on his desk. Another burnt incense to a tiny statue close to a mat on the floor. He was the worst. He not only raped me but toyed with my body, as if I were a rag doll."
The professor's even tone cut the thickening silence but seemed too controlled, at odds against the voice and presence of the comfort woman. Listeners frowned and shook their heads. Leigh clamped her ears, Melody her mouth, and Susan looked away.
"That night, the man on the horse raped me four times. He forced himself upon me with grunts and the black whip he used on his horse. When he was through with me, he gave me a mint candy and a towel. I was taken to a small room with green bananas and mangoes next to the kitchen, and slept with a wet towel between my legs."
At this juncture, Lola Basiang closed her eyes and while the professor kept her poise, hands on the podium.
| He had a mat on the floor where he sat with his legs crossed, when he got tired torturing me. He slapped me and made me do things. He'd turn me round and round. . . like a pig
on a spit.
"I screamed when I woke up and saw the towel and blood on my legs. The men came and held me down on the mat. I kept screaming until they stuck a needle in my arm. They left me alone that day, fed me mung bean soup. The man with the needle came for me next day. He made me take a bath and gave me a kimono, then took me to his room. I saw the stethoscope, shelves of medicine and gauzes. He made me lie down on a narrow table. I stepped on a stool to do so. Without saying a word, he put a hand on my mouth and raped me. Then he wiped himself with a towel, saw the stain and growled like a dog."
As Lola Basiang faltered, the professor kept her classroom tone, searching for the voice of reason that prevails in courts of law. Grimacing, Leigh shook her head, Melody had both hands on her mouth, and Susan fixed her eyes on her sneakers.
"The man pulled me down from the table and dragged me to another room. Inside, a man sat cross-legged on a chair by a desk, with books and papers neatly arranged. He frowned and stood up when my captor pushed me toward him and left. I clutched the kimono across my breast, and cried as he approached. His face suddenly changed, with a look meant for child. He waved his hands, motioning me to stop crying, then pulled open a drawer and gave me a piece of candy. I shook my head and cried some more. I stopped when I saw him pick up a bamboo flute and began blowing on it."
Gasps and murmurs greeted the nonchalant voice of the professor. In unison, all three women on the sofa looked up, dropping their hands on the side.
"He did not touch me, that man with the flute. Instead he gave me food, and that night took me to the room by the kitchen. I slept listening to the sound of flute and drunken laughter."
The room sighed, a few picking up their book bags. It was close to one o'clock. Lola Basiang put her arms across her breast, and began to shudder. The professor frowned, waiting.
"The fourth man in that big house, he was the worst. He had a mat on the floor where he sat with his legs crossed, when he got tired torturing me. He slapped me and made me do things. He'd turn me round and round. . . like a pig on a spit. Not content, he tied my one leg to a bedpost and. . . ."
The room gasped, as Lola Basiang began to twitch. She took a step forward, her legs held close together, dragging her toes as though paralyzed. Mayumi rushed to her side. The professor stood frozen at the podium, unable to translate Lola Basiang's spastic gait, high-pitched scream and wild eyes darting at the acoustic ceiling, as if expecting a rain of stones to fall upon her.
© Paulino Lim, Jr.
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