How I Became a History Major

I never wanted to major in History.

Preamble

Sure, it was fun to read about wars and aeroplanes in books. I first learnt about the Cold War through the various cool jet fighters I was crazy about as a child. I first encountered jet fighters through the World War Two fighter planes in a comic book my dad borrowed for me once, in a desperate bid to stave off my boredom. An eight-year-old grounded at home with chickenpox is a fearsome thing. The adventures of Biggles the pilot and his sexy Mosquito jet plane was what first hooked me into planes – into stories, into wars, into the past, into history.

Yet all this is but one string of causality, a pattern I am abstracting and teasing out from the jungled, jumbled chaos of my distant childhood past. Along the way there were a myriad little streams and roads I could have tumbled into as well. Jack Frost’s “Road Less Travelled” (a poem which was apparently written ironically, but taken quite seriously by generations of adventurers and brave souls) is far too simplistic, a binary between just one road less travelled and a more popular path.

Foreword

The truth is that rivers (which are often used like roads too) are made from a million smaller streams, brooks and tributaries, accumulating and accreting and snowballing until they become something substantial enough to be noticed, and even seen from space. There were plenty of other roads I could have taken.

And so I have always been circumspect about a direct, distinct answer to the “What do you want to be?” question. Any one answer offered always felt to me like a lie. We are at any one moment in time so loaded with possibilities and potential that saying we are doing x often belies the numerous other facets of our Selves, our Personalities, our active Lives. (Sometimes, we start to believe that we can be reduced to just one of these facets.)

Introduction

When I entered the University, I didn’t know what I wanted to study. The original plan had been to study literature, because I liked, you know, reading stories. Not cut-and-dried facts. Not dead men and battles lost or won. Who cares?

But I quickly tired of literature, halfway through my first semester in university, in the exposure module. Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I judged a major entirely by its exposure module. I’d experienced studying Literature before, after all. I’d even forced myself to read the so-called Canon sometimes. I’d simply wearied of comparing literary theories and theorists, and speaking in big words I had to pretend to understand.

I’d done that in junior college, having stumbled unwittingly into a H3 Research Essay component. Imagine writing a comparative essay on three books. Framed by postcolonial theory. With minimal guidance and direction because, you know, if you can qualify for H3 Literature you should theoretically be able to do it more or less on your own. That was the assumption, anyway. It was a bit too far into the deep end, too early.

Nope, I concluded, no more of that kind of thing for me. There was a complex exclusitivity and insularity about the field of Literature that put me in mind of Dill from To Kill a Mockingbird crying helplessly because of the way the Adults and the Gatekeepers spoke. I could never write nor think like that.

Preface

Briefly, I flirted with political science and sociology. Week to week, I first announced that I was going to be a political science major, and then a sociologist. And again, the complexity of theories and theorists, of Big People using Big Words, befuddled me. It felt a little like swimming against a very strong current. Or being the fool in The Emperor’s New Clothes. Or being the only person in a H2 Maths class asking, “but why?” when everyone else has nodded their heads and accepted that the formula is Just So.

Looking back as I reconstruct this story, there seems to be a hint of inevitability to my settling upon History as an Intended Major. I could tell you about the Turning Points. I could tell you about a Brief Flash of Inspiration. The Damascus Moment, the Eureka. But none of these things really happened. Or if they did, they are even more trivial than this trivial post deserves.

Prelude

The truth is, I decided to become a History major because I detested it the least. In the nebulous haze and swarming host of Big Words and Big Names, the (deceptively) linear narratives of the past made the most sense to me. After all, they were just talking about What Actually Happened. What could be more difficult to understand?

I spoke to a few seniors. They seemed nice. I read a few more of the assigned readings from the exposure module I was taking for History. Aside from the boring drone that is so characteristic of most academics, they weren’t too difficult to understand. Unlike the writings of Huntington, or Fukuyama, or Weber, I didn’t have to reread every sentence six times without glazing over and wondering What’s For Lunch. I first came to the discipline of history because I didn’t really understand anything else, not because I could tell you what was the calibre of the rifles British Special Forces used when they landed on D-day, or because I could recite the emperors of all the dynasties in China. Sure, the grand sweep of History, of nations made and re-made, sounded like something fun to read about. But I was a reluctant, grudging convert.

Background

I liked fiction. I still do, more than non-fiction. And reading analytical works still put me to sleep. I would much rather be  wandering the strange worlds of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion or the abandoned realms of Gaiman’s Morpheus than ploughing through another close reading of some archival document. Metaphor and symbol and rhetoric and emotion and the story of human striving fascinate me. I want to be entertained. I want to be seduced. I want to be moved. I want to go on galactic journeys on a spaceship made from nothing but a few hundred pages of pulped wood.

And so – I never wanted to major in History. But I have since learned that there is a place for stories too, in this discipline. In fact, glimpsed from another angle, History (and history) and the Past (and the past) is nothing but stories. Strings of causality discerned from the chaos and detail of everyday life; a pattern imposed into the messy overlapping, interlacing, intertwined connections and crossings of existence. Human drama from which even the grandest, most ambitious tales of science-fiction draw from, and build their templates on.

Preliminary

“History? Just remember dates one right??? So boring!!”

I’m caricaturing a caricature, I know. But I thought I needed to address this caricature because frankly, I can’t remember even a quarter of the content I’ve learnt from four years attending history modules in NUS.

Vaguely, I can tell you that the Ottomans were one of the greatest, most tolerant multicultural rulers of their time. That Lim Chin Siong may have been a communist. That the Cold War was a construct which was cleverly deployed and made “real” by parties who would benefit most from getting rid of alleged “Communists”. I can pull out a few more interesting anecdotes that I read about, like a magician at a kiddy birthday party. I can tell you what people did, how some people thought – but in all honesty, I have very vague conceptions about what happened when.

Perhaps I simply have a porous brain. Things drip out quickly after they have been poured in. Perhaps I am just a lousy History major, and maybe a biologically unsuccessful one, because I don’t get all the dates (ha ha). I learned about several events in Modern Japan, in Malaysian History, in Empires, in Approaches to Singaporean History, in Environmental History, amongst several others, across eight semesters. Something like that, something like this.

Front Matter

But I never wanted to be a history major. I simply wanted to read. As I look back on a past that I am now reconstructing for you, re-making out of summoned, uncertain memories, all I can tell you is that I don’t remember. Not accurately, anyway. The past is another country, and we travel its uncertain provinces on rickety buses to suit our own purposes. The great poet Pablo Neruda once wrote that “love is so short, and forgetting is so long”. I wonder what he would have to say about the act of remembering.

What has four years studying the past wrought? Nothing but uncertainty, is one thing (or a few?). Socrates resonates with me, when he (ostensibly) declared that all he knows was (is?) that he knows nothing. A bigger question mark (made of many smaller question marks) then when i entered university.

Beginning

I was a reluctant History major. It was, at the time, the least-worst choice. But I’ve since learnt to surf some of its great, rolling waves. I’ve learned to parrot some of the bigger names, and ape some of their disdain for certain things.

Theory still eludes me for the most part, because I like to pretend I’m working with something less “smoky” (and yet, words are representations. Everything is a social construct. IT’S ALL LIES, really).

But I still like to read stories. Learning to take them apart, to slice them thinly and to examine how they came to be, has been one of the recent pleasures I have discovered here in this field.

I know, you wanted to find something more tangible and meaty here. I know, because I was too. But I’m not prevaricating, nor smoking you. It’s just that I’ve come to see too many possibilities floating around, too many streams bleeding into each other, too many facets glinting in the darkness. To net one and to pin it down like a taxidermied butterfly would be a little like finding a case study, forcing a theory and a thinker onto it, and saying THERE, IT FITS…(“the failure of democracy in Asian states”  perhaps. A largely absurd statement without context and rarely much definition)

Anyway, this is a blog post, where I write about anything and everything; where everything’s made up (at least the structure is), the points don’t matter.

Prologue

How I became a History major really depends on when you’re asking me that question, because the past is prologue, and we are, like nations, always in the process of becoming.

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