Book Review: China to Me: A Partial Biography

Five StarschinatomeEmily Hahn’s China to Me: A Partial Biography is precisely the type of memoir I had hoped to write 40 years later about my own life. Like Hahn, I set out to live and work in a foreign country. Hahn chose China in the middle of turbulent times when Japan was asserting control over much of the country. I chose Iran in the waning days of the greatest period of influence the US had in that country.

Neither Hahn nor I could foresee what the future would bring in our different environments, but Hahn stuck it out longer than I did—nine years to my two-and-a-half. She also succeeded at getting to know her host country and its people more intimately than I, even becoming the concubine of a Chinese poet in Shanghai, a fact that allowed her to claim Chinese citizenship so she could remain in Hong Kong when American citizens were ordered to leave after the Japanese took over that city. Her reason for wanting to remain: her British officer lover, imprisoned at a Hong Kong hospital, the father of her illegitimate child.

In contrast, I left Iran at the end of a contract, leaving behind, I hoped, the negative memories I allowed to store up because life in Iran in the 1970s did not match my barely-beyond-adolescent romantic notions. I lacked the strength of character to live a truly independent life. And I lacked–and still lack–the courage to tell my story, the whole story, and nothing but the story. Hahn wrote her memoir immediately after the events. I’ve waited 40 years and am still facing fear of judgment that keeps me from completing my memoir.

While Emily Hahn, Mickey to her friends, also spent plenty of time among other expatriates in China, she moved easily among the upper levels of Chinese society as well. Along the way, she met the illustrious Soong sisters (Soong Mei-ling, the wife of Chaing Kai-shek; Soong Ching-ling, the wife of Sun Yat-sen; and Soong Ai-ling, wife of the richest man in China, H.H. Kung) and eventually wrote a biography of the three.

What appealed to me even more than the details of the daring lifestyle Mickey chose, without apology to anyone, was her writing style. She shared the most intimate and revealing aspects of her life as though she were writing to a close friend, inviting the reader to share in her exuberance as well as in her heartbreaks. She included asides within the narrative, a technique all my writing teachers have tried to dissuade me from using. In Hahn’s writing, the asides work. They bring the reader into the nearly 80-year-old story. To see what I mean, following are three excerpts that touched me, the first for how it evoked my own positive memories of Iran, the second for her honesty in acknowledging that her readers prefer to think the worst of the enemy, and the third for the recognition that life sometimes is harder to believe than fiction.

Crossing by way of the rice paddies was out of the question on such a dark night. The coolies explained this to me and then set off at a good brisk trot along the newly built road. I don’t really know why I bother to tell this incident. It has no value as an anecdote. I only want to evoke, if I can, for my own sake, the sensations of that night. I have known China so thoroughly, all her scents and noises and colors, that it is easy for me to bring back the feeling of a familiar moment there. The streets of Yangtzepoo in Shanghai, for instance, or the dust-choked air of Peking in summer. The wet pathways of Hangchow along the lakeside, and the drifting silence of one of those flat boats with canopies. The hard sharp rocks and the soft gliding clouds of the Yellow Mountain. It is easy to think of these. I could draw pictures of any of them. I would know at midnight where I was if I should wake up in any of these places; I would recognize the smell of it and the sound of it. But that night in my chair, gliding along the dark road from Madame’s house, was a special moment. It had no familiarity. It was not China, and it was not me. Somehow we, the coolies and I, had become new people in a different universe. We trotted along at the bottom of a deep, dark canyon of blackness and all the exciting pleasures of the afternoon, my talk with Mme. Chiang, the poem we had read, the sunlight on my neck as I crossed the field, the flowers I was carrying even now, in the back of the chair—they were not there. I had it all in my mind, like something I had read in a book, but it was no more real than that. My whole life was just that: a book I was reading. That moment, then, that was the proof. Once and only once, for the first time, I closed the book and laid it aside. I sat back in the chair as it jounced and joggled along to the soft pats of the coolies’ feet on the road, and wondered: Now what?

I want to tell the truth, in so far as I know. I have heard since this all happened that the Japanese stretcher-bearers were brutal in their work that day, slamming sick men around regardless and “pulling splints off of broken limbs, et cetera, et cetera.” I saw nothing like that. The stretcher-bearers I watched were gentle and considerate. I don’t suppose you like to read that. I admit I don’t much like writing it. It isn’t artistic; it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the picture, and it isn’t fashionable. It would be easier just to report atrocities. Please bear with me, though: I do want to tell the truth. It seems to me that the truth doesn’t hurt anyone in the end.

What followed sounds incredible. That is the trouble with real life: you can’t write it down as fiction because it is so impossible. I’ve known that happen a dozen times. You will have to believe me because this is the truth. I reached into that thick-pressed crowd and plucked out by the arm one Freddie Kwai, a student from Shanghai and a nephew of Sinmay’s [Hahn’s Chinese lover].

I picked out Hahn’s memoir because of my interest in learning about China from 1920 to 1940, the years my great uncle worked for the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. By the time I finished reading, Mickey Hahn had become a new subject for my fascination, one I wish to explore thoroughly. Thankfully, she wrote 52 books and 181 articles for The New Yorker, material that will keep me reading for some time to come.

Genre: Biographies & Memoirs, History, China
Print Length: 454 pages
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication Date: April 1, 2014
Original Publication Date: 1944

J is for Japan

A plain wooden trunk in the basement of the house of my childhood was off limits. Its contents included my parents’ mementos from the days before we children arrived. The kewpie doll my dad won for my mom at the fair, some dish towels mom had embroidered for her hope chest, comic books that Dad must have picked up to read on long sea voyages when he served in the U.S. Merchant Marines.

It also included items associated with far away places, places I was determined to see. Occasionally, while we kids were in the basement, Mom or Dad would open it and pull things out: a grass skirt from the Philippines; a silk hula skirt with skimpy bra top from Hawaii; a gaudy, child-sized, yellow kimono with bright red, embroidered dragons facing one another at chest height from Japan.

Dad brought these pieces of exotica to Minnesota from ports he visited during and after World War II. The most important ones for me were from Japan: a silk kimono and a fan. The kimono — not the tawdry yellow one — was elegant, purple from the neck and shoulders down with a scene of white cranes flying among the clouds above snow-covered mountain tops from the hem at the bottom up to the knees. The kimono was lined with the softest red silk, softer than any fabric I could remember touching my skin.

The fan’s two wooden handles were a shade of neither red nor brown, but both at the same time. When opened, the semi-circular fan, silk on one side with a stiffer fabric on the other, to help it keep its shape, displayed a mountain in the distance with graceful tree branches with white blossoms in the foreground.

I loved to put on the kimono, even though the two feet with the mountain scene spilled around my feet on the floor. I struggled to open the fan correctly. I didn’t want to tear the delicate, painted paper. I needed both hands and had to remind myself which way to move the handles to separate them and to reveal the fan.

These two items, more than anything else, opened a door to my curiosity that demanded I learn as much as possible about Japan and the people who lived there.

Japan was my first love, long before boys ever began looking interesting.

When I started school, I discovered there were books in its library about Japan. I read them all, starting with the bottom shelf (for those reading at the first-grade level) and then continuing up the graded shelves. By the third grade, I had finished all the books, up through those on the sixth-grade level shelf. I turned to books about other countries, such as nearby China, but they didn’t hold my interest. Learning about Japan had become a dream.

Someone else in my Minnesota hometown also had a dream.  Miss Ingram, our school music teacher, dreamed of igniting passion for music among her students.  Each year she wrote and organized two musical productions, operettas, one for the third and fourth graders and one for the fifth and sixth graders.

In sixth grade, the title of our operetta was “Around the World in 60 Minutes.” Two students led the audience on a tour of countries represented by songs the rest of us sang. One of my pieces was the Gilbert and Sullivan tune “Three Little Girls From School Are We” from The Mikado.

I will never forget wearing the purple silk kimono from the basement trunk in that production.  And my infatuation with Japan got an even bigger boost when Miss Ingram taught the three of us how to open our fans one-handed with the flick of the wrist.  By then, my dream had grown from learning as much as possible about Japan to wanting to visit Japan.

In the following years, my dream of visiting Japan took a back seat to the shorter-term goals of finding and keeping friends, passing tests, getting boys to notice me, and figuring out how I could escape the small town I felt I was stuck in.  Eventually I did make it out of the Midwest, all the way to San Francisco. I enrolled at San Francisco State University and completed their Masters of Arts program in Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL).

In my first course, the instructor demonstrated two approaches to teaching a foreign language. Her sample language was Japanese. And that switched my dream of visiting Japan back on. Now I wanted to live and work there.

But there weren’t many jobs in Japan when I completed my training. Instead, Iran was the place with jobs open to Americans. I signed a two-year contract and headed there with 10 other American ESL teachers.

At the end of my contract, I finally made it to Japan, the final stop in my nearly three-week, multi-country trip home, through India, Thailand, Indonesia, Korea, and finally, four days in Tokyo.  Four days when I smiled so much, my jaw ached by the end of the day. I was in Japan!

I went to a Japanese tea ceremony. I climbed to the top of the Tokyo Tower. I saw a Kabuki theatre production. I went to a nightclub. I wandered through a park with streams, bridges, flowers, and trees aesthetically arranged to bring calmness to those visiting.

I bought my very own blue and white silk kimono, though the prices in Tokyo were so very high I couldn’t afford one to compete with the beauty and elegance of the purple one. Mine was only knee-length and had only geometric designs along the bottom. I bought trinkets to bring home for family members and watched in wonder as the smiling and polite salespeople wrapped them in decorative paper as if the packages were gifts to me.

Those four days in Tokyo realized enough of my dream, but opened up my hopes for seeing more of the world. I also drew two important lessons from the experience, one immediately and one that only came years later.

First, I learned that working steadily to accomplish a goal makes the problems and disappointments, both small and large, shrink to insignificance. I never give up.

Second, years later my parents, my husband, and I were crossing the mall in Washington, DC.  By then, I was working for the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer and this was my parents’ first visit.

While we waited at an intersection for the light to change, a middle-aged Japanese man approached my father to ask for directions.  After pointing the way for him, my father joined the three of us. Dad was pensive and finally commented that fifty years earlier, while he was in the Pacific in the Merchant Marines, he would never have imagined that he would one day be speaking to someone from Japan in the capital of our country.

Hearing that comment made me realize how generous and understanding my parents were because they never discouraged me from my dream of going to Japan. My dream began so shortly after the end of World War II, yet neither of my parents tried to dissuade me from my interest in the country of our former enemy.

Instead, they encouraged the spark of interest with the hope that it would lead to other interests and a love for learning. They were right.

The purple, silk kimono was the spark. It ignited my curiosity which led to my nearly thirty-year exploration as a resident, not a tourist, of several foreign countries so small you’ve probably never heard of them.