Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
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Who She Is

The only people in the house were her mother, the house caretaker and the caretaker’s daughter. After eating, she had planned to accompany her mother to the post office to mail a letter to her grandfather. The caretaker sets a plate of food on the table and motions her to eat. Dutifully, she approaches the food but at a glance to the right she notices the caretaker’s daughter who is crawling on the floor and she offers to share her food. After half an hour, she dresses and looks for her mother.

In the distance, a crowd of people walk along the road with heavy footsteps. With the sounds drumming closer, she glances out the window at the wide steel gate and at once realizes that the guests were not the usual friendly neighbors offering food or the kind salespeople trying to sell a product. Instead they were Japanese soldiers wearing green uniforms, carrying a bayonet on one hand and a Japanese flag on the other. They break the wooden door and march into her house, heading towards the stairs to destroy the house from top to bottom. Immediately the caretaker’s baby begins to cry. She runs over to carry her and together they hide under the dinner table. Before long, she beings to cry with her and the screeching cries startle the soldiers. At the foot of the staircase, the soldiers start talking in Japanese and one points to the door. In an instant they leave and the children stop crying, sniffling and gasping for breath. The mothers, unaware of what had happened until they had heard the cries, come downstairs and embrace their children.

“It was life-changing. Looking back on it now, I was really scared I was going to die but I was lucky the baby and I started crying,” my grandmother, Mu Juan Huang, reminisces about her frightening encounter with the soldiers. The soldiers’ intentions were not to kill, but to intimidate the people and destroy the house to obtain firewood to make dinner. There had been rumors, no, facts, that most young men were captured to do strenuous labor and women were captured as a source of entertainment and pleasure. Because of this, women smeared dirt on their faces to make themselves less than appealing. My grandmother’s older sisters and brothers left the area to avoid being captured and tortured by the Japanese, leaving only my grandmother’s mother and her in the house. “The experience was traumatizing”, she adds, smiling at the thought of being uninjured and alive.

“The Japanese were so superstitious,” she chuckles. When the soldiers heard the children crying, they quickly left and tore down the house next door. The Japanese believed that the cries would chase away good luck and fortune and therefore did not persist in ruining my grandmother’s house. The house was grand, unusual for an impoverished family that grew up in a provincial farm village. To my grandmother, the house symbolized everything and nothing. It was the only thing that her family had. The house was evidence of her grandfather’s hard work in America. He had made enough money in America to build a house back in China to shelter his family. Each month he would bring several cans of salmon to his family.

She ate the salmon, savoring and remembering the taste forever. As a child, she had admired her grandfather for coming to America to make a living as an immigrant. She became exposed to what she thought as good food and saw his financial success. After the death of her grandfather and the abandonment of the house, she arrives in America and looks for the same delicious taste of salmon that she had tasted decades ago. After her daughters were employed and money started circulating at home, she bought loads of canned salmon to find and recreate the same taste but never found it. Her daughters say, “Because you were impoverished you thought it was really good but now after coming to America, you are no longer in poverty, so you cannot find the same taste.”

Today she lives with her daughters, son, and grandchildren. When her children went to make money to support the mortgage, food, furniture and family expenses, she took care of her three grandchildren who were born within 13 months. She taught them to be well-mannered and kind, yet aggressive and confident. She never hit them or scolded them when they got in trouble; instead, she made them stand against the wall for what seemed like hours on end to repent for their mistakes. As my sisters, cousins, and I grew up, we constantly heard the story of how my grandmother was directly involved with the Japanese when she was 6 years old, how she treasured the house that her grandfather worked so hard to build and maintain, how she came to America hoping for success and how she disciplined us to be better people. Today, the house still stands in China. After the Japanese left China, the Communists dominated and took control of one-half of the house, leaving the other half for her family. My parents tell me that life was cruel at the time; poverty flourished in my grandmother’s native village of Sun Woi in the Guangdong province of China.

Each week, my grandma would throw in an ancient Chinese proverb that my older sister, cousin and I have never heard. The most recent adage she told me was “A book holds a house of gold.” Another included “Perseverance can reduce an iron rod to a sewing needle.” Over time, these sayings interminably buzzed in my ear and I learned to understand what they meant. “Study hard and get a better future”. “Success is won through long-term commitment and diligent effort sustained over time.” From these proverbs, I strove to do well in school, persevere through life’s strenuous obstacles, apprize and spend time with my loved ones and embrace my identity as part of two cultures. No matter what I do or where I go, I will always keep these Sundays and proverbs in mind, as well as my Grandma. I respect her for the struggles she has gone through and the life she had lived in China. Through her past experiences in China as a young child and her present experiences in America as a parent and grandmother, I have come to realize who she is – a strong woman with multiple roles.


1 emilymusgrove { 12.27.08 at 6:32 pm }

Your grandmother’s life is so interesting historically. She must have had so much fear as a child, but also be grateful for surviving and keeping her house from being demolished by the Japanese. I definitely agree with you that she is a strong woman, considering what she has been through.

2 Kamellia Saroop { 12.28.08 at 1:34 am }

I was very interested in reading your “Who She Was” project after you described it in class. It reminded me of the history lessons I had in Global class while on the subject of Nanking, except those lessons could never cover the fear the victims felt. Thanks for providing your insight and your grandmother’s experience.