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

Book Review: The Orchid House

Three starstheorchidhouseLucinda Riley’s New York Times 2012 best seller, The Orchid House, spans seven decades and two continents, and addresses the lives of three generations of landowners and their employees and their descendants in Norfolk, England. The three generations of the Crawford family, owners of Wharton Park, are on the verge of losing the estate throughout the novel, but saving Wharton Park remains at the center of all the twisted tales and secrets revealed when Julia Forrester, the granddaughter of a gardener at the estate discovers a diary at a sale by Harry Crawford, the grandson of the owner when her grandfather worked there. The two discover the diary in the old hot house and assume that it must be Julia’s grandfather’s. Rather than opening the diary to read it herself, Julia brings it to her grandmother, Elsie, assuming she would like to keep it. But Elsie knows the diary wasn’t her husband’s. And she knew it was time to share a secret that involves both the Crawford and Forrester families.

While the story is beautifully told, I felt the author tricked the reader rather than simply revealing details about the secret in layers so the reader could willingly suspend disbelief. The central premise, that a half-Thai, half-British child, described as the spitting image of her Thai mother, would be accepted as the natural child of a British couple, spoiled the story for me. The happily-ever-after ending also resolved both the personal and financial tension of the tale too neatly, too quickly. I was surprised to find the book was categorized as historical or literary fiction rather than romance. The full story line more closely matches a classical romance than literary fiction.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, British and Irish Fiction
Length: 468 pages
Publisher: Atria Books (February 14, 2012)
Publication Date: February 14, 2012

Book Review: Farewell to Manzanar

Four starsfarewelltomanzanarJeanne Wakatsuki Houston revisits the three years she and her family spent in Manzanar, one of ten internment camps run by the US War Department for relocated persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Her father had been taken away earlier, arrested for presumably supplying fuel to Japanese submarines from his fishing boat off the coast of Southern California two weeks after the bombing of ships at Pearl Harbor. She survives. Her parents and older siblings, less so. The Japanese-American way of life did not. Houston supposes the traditions would have died anyway, but internment accelerated it.

Houston tells of how camp life for a child was part adventure, unlike the burden it posed to the adults. She also tells of how camp life began the disintegration of Japanese family life as extended families were separated from one another, and even when they could remain together, there was insufficient space for family events, such as eating a meal together, to happen. Yet in spite of this, families did what they could to make the overcrowded and insufficiently insulated homes as much like homes as possible. Setting rocks among raked sand in gardens outside the entrance to bring a bit of beauty, a bit of familiarity in the midst of a hostile environment.

Houston told her story in 1973, more than forty years ago. But the lessons of the story are important today as well. Fear of those who look different, whose traditions are different, whose language is different, can lead to intolerable policy decisions, as was the case during World War II. We must learn from the mistakes of the past so that we do not repeat them.