Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Teacher's Personal Stories

Teacher frequently told us stories from her life. She was born into a wealthy, traditional household. The household was large; although the immediate family was small, there were many servants and workers. They had a house in Beijing proper and farms in the outlying regions around the city. Her grandfather had been an official in the Qing Dynasty, and her father was a medical doctor. Her grandmother had primary care of Teacher after her brother was born. The grandmother was illiterate, but she was able to pick out whatever errors teacher made when she was writing homework for her tutor.

The family fled from the Beijing house to one of their farms after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and northern China. Eventually, the Japanese army made it to the village with Teacher’s family’s farm. Teacher’s father had joined the Kuomintang Army as a medical officer. He took most of the able-bodied young workers with him, so the only men left at the farm were either young boys or old men. One day the Japanese troops came into the village conscripting men and boys of military age. They broke into Teacher’s farm and searched all the buildings. Eventually, they burst in through the door of the bedroom where Teacher was hiding under the blankets with her mother and baby brother. Her brother began crying, and the soldiers grabbed him from his mother’s arms. They ripped off his diaper to see if he was male or female. Females were allowed to live, but boys of upper class families who were too young for military conscription were usually slaughtered. The soldier had just raised the baby above his head to smash him against the floor when the Japanese commander walked into the room. Teacher’s brother smiled at him and stretched out his hands cooing. It reminded the commander of his own son in Japan, so Teacher’s brother was saved. The commander took him from the soldier and played with him. The commander moved into Teacher’s house while his squad was searching the area for conscripts. His presence ensured that they survived the raid, but it brought its own tribulations. One day an old man from the nearby village, whose son had been lost in the fighting, got confused and frightened by the constant presence of soldiers. He ran and hid in a haystack within the borders of Teacher’s family farm. The Japanese soldiers discovered that someone was hiding in the haystack because the entire mound was shaking. The commander ordered Teacher and her mother to come with the baby and watch the sport. The Japanese squad surrounded the haystack and bayoneted it from all sides, thinking they were killing an AWOL conscript or a young man avoiding conscription. The person in the haystack screamed and screamed, but the soldiers did not stop stabbing until the ground was flooded with rushing rivers of blood. When the screams had turned to gurgles and eventually no more noise was emanating from the haystack, the soldiers used their bayonets to flick away the hay and discovered an old, white-haired man. They kicked the body in disgust and went off looking for more conscripts.

After the war was over, the northern countryside was plagued with struggles between Kuomintang squads and Communist guerrillas. Eventually, Teacher’s father returned to bring his family with him to the South. They spent time in Nanking and Shanghai, moving frequently and always following the government. Schooling was sporadic, but Teacher had had a good foundation in her youth, so she was able to adapt.

The biggest problem was their clothing. They fled south in their winter clothes, which were suited to the severe cold of northern China. After they got south of the Yellow River, their clothes were too warm. There was no opportunity to get new clothes because they were always on the move, and the countryside had been bombed and ravaged during World War II. Teacher’s mother was clever, and she was able to take away some of the layers in the winter clothing. It was actually a good thing that they were in winter clothes; they were able to make spring and summer clothing better suited to the heat of the South from all the layers in their heavy winter clothes.

In 1949, when Teacher was 11 or 12 years old, the Kuomintang government made the decision to withdraw from mainland China to Taiwan. As Teacher’s father was a medical officer, they were in the rear of the retreat, and every night her father worked long hours to care for the wounded in the train of retreating troops. When they arrived in Shanghai, there were just a few transports left. Teacher’s father wanted Teacher, her mother, brother and aunt to all sail on one transport that left in the evening. He was scheduled to go the following morning on the last transport with the last of the wounded. In the end, Teacher and her aunt took their places on the transport to Taiwan. Her mother refused to leave her father, and of course, her brother stayed with his parents because he was so young. Her parents had just boarded the last transport, which was preparing to leave when they were stopped by the Communist Army. Teacher’s parents were dragged off and executed by a firing squad against the wall of a warehouse at the docks. Her younger brother was forced to watch his parents die. Then he was shipped off to an orphan camp in Xinjiang. He was not allowed an education; he could read a little and write, but his children were illiterate because they were in a blacklisted family. While we were studying under Teacher, her cousins, who had immigrated to America, got in touch with the brother. They transferred letters back and forth. When Teacher first saw her brother’s handwriting and learned what had happened to her parents, she cried and cried. We spent several weeks hearing all the stories.

In Taiwan, Teacher’s aunt soon got married and began having babies. Teacher was there without any money of her own, at the mercy of her relatives. She became a built-in babysitter. Her aunt and uncle were fair to her, but they were not her birth parents. They made sure she had food, clothing, and education, and they arranged a good marriage for her. It was not the marriage Teacher wanted for herself, but because the aunt had been so good to her, Teacher felt she owed it to her aunt to do her duty in marrying where she was told. The relationship was friendly, but not a great romance. And yet, Teacher still felt that this kind of arranged marriage was better than the “I love you, you love me; let’s get married, smooch, smooch, smooch; three years later, I hate you, you hate me; let’s get divorced” relationships of the West. (These were the only English words I ever heard Teacher use in class.) Because our class was all female, and because our two overseas Chinese classmates had been sent to Taiwan by their parents to be prepared for arranged marriages, Teacher spent many lessons teaching us about Chinese families and marriage relationships.


Linda McLaughlin said...

What a tragic story about her parents and brother. She lived through a lot of history.

Teresa said...

She did live through a lote, and despite all the hardships, she grew up to be a warm, caring person. I feel privileged to have known her and studied under her.

murat11 said...

There was something almost Hebraic about Teacher's life stories: stories akin to the years of exile in Babylon: the violence and slaughter, the exile itself, and the rigorous honoring of truths and traditions held dear in the face of a crumbling world. Her cultural loyalty and commitment have an even deeper sense: history and dreams cherished and cared for in Diaspora. It all puts a beautiful human face behind Teacher's inimitable mask; even the irony of a marriage that flies somewhat in the face of her own teachings of love growing through the years. But, her commitment is always to something larger than herself.

Teresa said...

Murat: It's interesting that you would compare Teacher's story to the Hebrews. I had an elderly Chinese friend who also went through similar experiences in his migrations from northern China to Shanghai to Taiwan. He used to say that the Chinese of the Chinese diaspora were "Chinese Jews". I never quite understood why he would say that.