Patrick Logan For The Straits Times

What students in a classroom taught me about regional tension and why summits fail

A photograph taken at the recent Asia Security Summit shows United States Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel sitting solemnly in his dark blue suit, hands folded in front of him. Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, leader of the Chinese delegation, stares back at him across the table at Singapore's Shangri-La Hotel.

As they have been doing since the annual meetings began in 2002, delegates hoped to foster better relations in a region that has seen growing tension over territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East Asia Sea. Some attendees, of course, used the opportunity to reinforce a specific mythos, the set of beliefs that a particular group of people comes to internalise.

As a teacher in Asia for more than 20 years, I have observed the power of mythos in my classrooms, where barriers to communication have sometimes appeared not through inadequate grammar or vocabulary, but because of the story each group has told itself.

Poking around a flea market in Yokohama years ago, I discovered a 1930s postcard depicting three peasants in north-east China. They stand before a mud wall, their hands raised in jubilation; the caption reads, "Farmers rejoicing over the new Manchukuo", the name given to the region by its Japanese occupiers. What struck me was not the obvious propaganda, but how the nervous faces of the peasants betrayed the card's cheery message. Those buying the postcards at the time perhaps failed to notice this, preferring to accept the government's narrative that Japan was liberating Asia from its colonial yoke.

My Japanese students at the time invariably redirected any discussion of World War II to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They never mentioned the millions killed in China, the brutality throughout South-east Asia or the mistreatment of Allied prisoners of war; Japan had been a "victim".

Teaching writing at an international college in Singapore years later confirmed my ideas about mythos. I noticed that as the ethnic mix of the class expanded, so did the opportunities for chauvinism. One morning, a young woman from Beijing proudly related to the class that China's territory had once extended to Eastern Europe. A stocky boy from Ulan Bator responded by slapping both hands loudly on his desk. He rose slowly, wagged his finger and said reprovingly: "China didn't conquer Mongolia, Mongolia conquered China." Proud of his heritage, he was reluctant to cede any of the great Khans' conquests.

A common point of agreement among many Asian students was Japan's past ruthlessness. However, one student from Indonesia and another from Vietnam challenged their classmates from Korea and China regarding the current relevance of that brutality. One pointed out that the Dutch had controlled parts of Indonesia for more than 300 years. The young man from Hanoi acknowledged the cruel treatment by the French, the Japanese, the French again and finally the bombing campaigns of the Americans. But neither felt that his compatriots had any interest in brooding over the past. Their advice: "Get over it."

The arrival in the class of a young woman from Vladivostok added another perspective. The former Soviet Union had relinquished possession of a dozen territories in its near abroad. She explained that these states had different cultures and languages and so naturally should have their own sovereignty, despite some having been a part of Russia for centuries. Someone made a comparison with Tibet, upsetting the Chinese students.

With their passions temporarily confounding their ability to express themselves in English, the Chinese paused long enough for a normally reticent Japanese girl to pose another challenge: "If you believe that Japan's occupation of Korea and Manchuria was wrong, then why is it right that Tibet is controlled by Beijing?"

The question hung in the air, leaving the room silent. The faces of the Chinese students displayed something curious. They'd been listening to viewpoints denied them their entire lives, ideas blocked by a mythos that was contrary to everything that had just been said. However distasteful, the arguments of their fellow students also seemed reasonable.

In his book What Gave You That Idea?, Georges Kassabgi writes: "There are assumptions that get embedded in a cultural legacy, and end up being seen as facts." Sadly, this inheritance lowers the likelihood of success at gatherings such as the Asia Security Summit.

The writer teaches English at JCU Singapore.