Nancy Unchuan Toledo (The Freeman) - November 20, 2016 - 12:00am

CEBU, Philippines - I recently watched the 25th anniversary recorded performance of the musical “Miss Saigon.” I’ve had a long history with “Miss Saigon.” I distinctly remember listening to the cassette tape of the original West End recording over and over until I almost memorized all the lines. I finally saw it when I was in college in Manila, in 2000. And this year, I watched it again at the cinema. Having been so familiar with it, I hadn’t expected to feel little more than a mild tug in my heart as the tragedy unfolded before me. But there I was, two hours into the performance, weeping quietly and self-consciously in the dark theater.

I don’t remember being that affected the first time I saw it. They’d changed some lyrics of course and a song or two. But it was still technically the same story. Although, I was still only 20 then. And that may have been it – the story was the same but I was different.

Coming home to familiar stories is a lot like coming home after a long trip elsewhere. Getting in touch with something familiar after some time being away allows us to see how much we’ve grown. If it were an experiment it would be a control group of sorts; the other variables change but one group will remain constant. Unfortunately, we don’t have scientists looking at us objectively and monitoring our behaviors in real life. We must rely on self-reflection, or if we’re lucky, the feedback of honest and helpful friends or advisers. But at other times stories can become helpful touchstones that allow us rest our gazes inwardly and ask ourselves how much we’ve changed or remained the same.

This, to me, has always been the allure and the power of stories – that in looking at life through the lens of someone else (whether real or imagined), we are brought closer and closer to who we really are. I had the experience of teaching the same subject for many years. This meant that the curriculum didn’t change all that much. The stories and works of literature were the same. And yet, every once in a while, I would read the same material and something would strike me differently. Or a student would point out something that I had overlooked. So, over the years, the depth of my experience with the same story fascinate me even more. Friends grow dearer the more time we spend with them. My favorite stories also turned into dear friends who would surprise me or confront me when I needed it.

It becomes more and more apparent that despite the frantic pace of the tech-savvy world, people still crave for stories. And that in a world where our differences more than our similarities are highlighted, people need stories. Our shared need for stories cuts across cultures and religions. And perhaps the more we are able to listen to (or to read) the many stories of people, the greater our capacity for understanding and love. If I can find something enough in common to weep with a Vietnamese bar girl in the 1970s then surely it can’t be so farfetched to empathize with a living, breathing human being living somewhere other than here.

Perhaps this is why our country insists that students in all schools celebrate national reading month every year. We’re not really just celebrating reading; we’re celebrating how stories make us more humane. (FREEMAN)

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