Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Taiwan 1940s and 1950s

on April 16, 2014

Taiwan had been ceded to Japan back in 1895, so Grandpa Chang had been educated in Japanese and had attended university in Japanese. Mama studied in Japanese up to sixth grade before Taiwan was returned to Chinese rule at the end of World War II and the entire education system reverted to Chinese Mandarin.

1945: people welcoming Nationalist troops in Taiwan

1945: people welcoming Nationalist troops in Taiwan

While helping Aunt Lily clean the squid or the chicken for dinner, I would listen to her stories about the war years. There was an electrical plant in the town where they lived. One day, the siren sounded and war planes (I assume they must have been bombers) flew overhead, dropping bomb after bomb, apparently aiming at the electrical plant.  But bombs do not always fall only on their target, and so the entire family dove into the basement which was also the air shelter. Grandpa was away at work, and Grandma hugged the little ones while Mama, the eldest, hugged the others. When finally the rumbling, booming, whistling and crashing stopped, the family crawled back out, only to find the house above ground in total ruins. Grandma told the children that they were going to flee to GuZhang’s banana plantation on the mountain. She carried the baby, Mama strapped First Uncle on her back, and Aunt Lily held Third and Fourth Aunts by the hand. They traveled as fast as they could, half running and half scuttling, finally reaching the hills. When Grandma called a halt in the thick of the banana groves, Mama half collapsed onto the ground, unstrapped First Uncle from her back and put him down. She then sat against the trunk of a banana tree, which is when she started feeling some pain in her foot. She pulled up her foot and found a huge nail stuck in her heel. In the panic of the moment, she had not felt a thing throughout their trek! Grandpa rushed home from work, only to find the entire neighborhood in rubble. He screamed and clawed frantically through the ruins of the house looking for his family, believing them all buried under the debris.

Banana grove, Nantou county, Taiwan

Banana grove, Nantou county, Taiwan

After the end of WWII, China struggled in the throes of civil war. When the Nationalists withdrew to Taiwan in 1949, they brought in their wake over 2 million refugees from mainland China. Mama was fifteen, and Aunt Lily fourteen when one day, a band of soldiers knocked on their front gate. Grandma told the elder girls to jump out through the window (this was on the ground floor) and squat and hide under it among the jars and boxes in the back courtyard. She would face the soldiers herself. “Why?” I asked Aunt Lily. “Because during wartime, you never know what these soldiers might do.”

“War must have been an exciting time, I wish I was there,” I remarked to Aunt Lily, dreaming of the Three Musketeers and d’Artagnan holding a conference in a bastion with bullets flying around them. She scolded me harshly. “Exciting? Exciting? You do not even know the first thing about it.  It is a very frightening time. You children are so fortunate to live in peace time, you do not even know what you are talking about.”  I changed the subject, “So what did those soldiers want?” Aunt Lily replied, “Ah, nothing, just food and stuff. They left after a while.”

It was also Aunt Lily who told me that Papa’s nickname among the girls was “My Darling”, a pun on his name Mai Deh-Lin.  I look at photos of Papa in his twenties and early thirties and can understand how he could have been the crush of the girls around him at the university or in the lumber mill. He was really very handsome: skin quite fair, the look of a classical scholar — a xiu cai. His “phoenix eyes” were very pronounced in his youth and offset by a very serious look accentuated by dark-rimmed glasses. My second son today looks so much like Papa then. History lives on.

Papa and Mama married on October 11, 1955, the day after the Double Tenth celebrations (National Day). However, soon after Saadia’s birth, Mama found she was pregnant with me. They decided to take Saadia back to Taichung and leave her in the care of Grandma Chang until my birth.  Fourth Uncle was then still in elementary school, and all the aunts and uncles had a great time doting on Saadia for a year.  Mama had a hard time with my pregnancy and had at first considered aborting me since I was so close in age with Saadia. Then at one point, she ate too much watermelon and had so much diarrhea afterward she nearly did lose me! Wow, I feel that I escaped twice not being born at all!  When my birth became imminent, Mama returned to her parents’ home. This is how I came to be born in Taichung. Then, when Mama was done with her month’s confinement, she took the two of us back to Taipei. At the train station, as they said their goodbyes, Saadia screamed her lungs out, “Ah Mah! (Grandma) Ah Maaaaaahh!” and grabbed Grandma tightly, not letting go. Poor Grandma was in tears, and Mama felt her heart broken to have abandoned her baby daughter so long that she wouldn’t recognize her as her mother. I wonder whether this guilty feeling lingered on throughout her life, for she forever doted on Saadia, and let her get away with stuff I couldn’t get out of, such as snapping retorts.






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