Oberlin Blogs

On picking my Winter Term

January 26, 2009

Zoe McLaughlin ’11

It was actually last year's Winter Term that planted the seeds of the idea for my current project. Along with everything else I did in Malaysia, and perhaps most important out of everything I did, I got to spend time with my grandparents. My grandfather, in particular, is a storyteller. He talked about everything from the church's new minister to his childhood in China.

At a church gathering, everyone asked him to tell a story. He proceeded to talk about a hotel that once existed, the spirit that haunted it, and the bomoh they hired to appease it. And of course there were the people possessed by the spirit and my grandfather himself, as this was a true story.

Though this was a good story, complete with a plot, a mystery, and interesting characters, it wasn't the one that stuck with me the most. Every time I visit my grandparents, there will be one story that sticks with me, and this last time that story was about World War II. My mum says he tells the story all the time, but I guess this was the first time I'd really paid attention. He told me that when the British had fallen back to Singapore, leaving the rest of Malaya to the Japanese, well-established Japanese dentists and shopkeepers came out from their stores and offices to greet the new occupying force wearing Japanese uniforms.

Something about this story really struck me. Beyond the fact that this is undeniably history and my grandfather was right there to see it, there was something more. For one thing, I'm still amazed at how well-planned the invasion was. These people working for the Japanese had worked hard to become part of the community. Also, though, I think I realized that this wasn't just my grandfather's story, it was the story of all those Japanese people, too, and the story of my grandfather's neighbors...

If you can't tell by now, I'm a sucker for a good story. I blame this on the writer in me. For nearly a year, this story rattled around inside my head until only a few months ago, when I started scouring the internet looking for information on the Japanese Occupation. There was depressingly little. Even Wikipedia didn't help.

I also read The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng, incidentally about the Japanese Occupation, and how it affected, specifically, the island where my family is from. The novel was interesting, added a little to my understanding of the time period, but was, of course, fiction. It also raised several more potential research topics where--again--Wikipedia failed. (My faith in Wikipedia, it should be noted, was shaken to the core.)

Then it came time to pick a project for Winter Term, and I realized I had too many options. I could notate ballet choreography, I could go sift through the dirt from around mastodons, I could stay in Oberlin and pretend I was good at modern dance, I could try and find a lab to work in... All these options churned around in my head while the deadline to pick a project crept every closer.

And then I remembered my topic of mostly-failed independent research. If I found a professor to give me a little guidance, it could really work for Winter Term. So that's exactly what I did.

I'm nearly done now, and though I'm not sure how I'm going to present everything I've learned quite yet, getting to this point has proven so far to be very interesting, if still confusing at times. Let's just say that things are much more complicated than they first appear.

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