Friday, February 12, 2016

Memories of China

On cold winter days in Kansas, my Mother would at times take out her old metal travel trunk.   When she opened the trunk it gave off a scent of camphor wood and incense, of tea and sandalwood. Then one by one she took out lacquer bowls, carved figures, silks, painted scrolls, small weavings, ink stamps to mark documents, books written in Chinese, and idol pictures common in the households of south China… 
The cook plays an Ehru as his daughter sings : Listen here to the Ehru:
The first tea I ever drank was her Chinese Oolong tea – and she might light a stick of incense…  and then showed us photos of the mission house where she had lived, photos showing what it was like to live in a land without roads between towns – only narrow pathways that led between rice paddies… photos of junks and water buffalo, of pagodas, river boats., and rickshaws.    
Hingwa in Fukien Provance (Southern China)
When I grew older I learned more about her experience. As a young woman she graduated from USC. It was between the two world wars and she was impelled by the message of her Methodist church to serve God by helping  the uneducated people of the world.  The Methodist missions sought  to convert people to the Christian faith, by providing education, hospitals, and orphanages in places where these services were most needed.

Spreading "night soil", collected in town, onto the rice field
This was in the age before the Peace Corp – and for altruistic young people who wanted to make a difference in the post war world,  responding to the call of church missions was one of the few  options. It was quite a rarity for a young woman raised in a small Kansas town with the prevailing attitudes of that time, to make such a bold move.
Harbor - on the coast from Hingwa
She was selected for special training to go to Southern China –the region of Hingwa in Fukien (Fujian) province  across from Taiwan… In Southern California she received training to prepare her for the Chinese mission service; and special training for creation of village schools. Finally the day came to tell her family and friends goodbye as she boarded a 'Dollar Line' coal powered steam ship travelling across the Pacific.  
River travel - passing villages

She arrived in southern China and made her way by human powered river barge up to the town of Foochow (Fuzhou)…  (She spoke of the haunting chant of the rowers at they pulled on their oars against the river current).  She was met and guided by the staff of her Methodist Mission center.  It must have been an amazing cultural shock to adapt to her new reality. My mother had first to learn the Foochow dialect of Chinese – and she was in a total immersion situation – She spoke of waking in the night with a newly learned phrase coming strongly to her mind. 
Workmen in a teashop
The prevailing religions in the region were a polyglot of traditional folk religions, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.  There were many temples and life for the average people was guided by a strong belief in fatalism, luck, and superstition.  The Christian faith offered a positive alternative to the burden of traditional beliefs… Still the weight of traditional beliefs was slow to budge.  While there she made of collection of traditional wood block images of the various deities - house idols woodcuts used to protect the kitchen from evil spirits, to protect boy babies, idols for safety on a trip, an idol for cleanliness of spirit. She also saved joss paper (luck paper) and funeral money to burn at the time of someone’s death.
Temple in Hingwa
Often it was the poor and destitute who came first to the Christian Mission.  As my mother became more able to communicate in Foochow dialect she had more interaction with the local people. Her primary task was to set up schools to train children in basic knowledge – how to read, write, practical mathematics, and to learn something of the wider world.  Many of the children who attended the schools belonged to traditional non-Christian families.  
School children
My mother told of travelling to distant villages – travelling in a sedan chair carried by two strong men.  I think it is easy to misunderstand people, with our modern social attitudes, what it must have been like to drop into China in those years when having someone carry you was normal and natural – after all you were giving employment to two families by paying the men in this task.  

Note walkway between rice 'paddies' 
She spoke of visiting temples where Buddhist novitiates would show their indifference to pain by inflicting painful burns to their bodies with thick glowing sticks of incense… she spoke of small cages high above the cross roads with the heads of bandits on display … she spoke of abandoned children saved from starvation and raised in the mission orphanages.  And she often spoke about the prison that unyielding superstitions created around the lives of the people.  

A days outing

Sometimes she and her mission sisters would take excursions into the hills to see a particularly fine pagoda and to share a picnic lunch…I suspect they were a very close supportive group with each other. I have one of the daily journals that she kept, recording daily plays and events… much of it quite ordinary…I am astonished at her courage to make such a great step into a very different world – and I think that it is ironic that her adventure sparked a fire in my head to long to see more of the world. 
Pagoda - 

Sadly she became seriously ill and weakened (there was a prevailing belief that Western people often didn't do well living in the tropical conditions of heat and disease) – This was after all before knowledge of our modern medicine and before antibiotics … In any case she returned to America in need of recuperation.  

Not long after her return  to America she went to Kansas to regain her health and to be close to her family. Shortly later she married my father and made a satisfying life on a Kansas farm. There was one frustration in later years... Given the attitudes of the time it was difficult for my mother to find people who cared to understand her experience in China, her deep love of the Chinese people, and the thousand and one memories she held inside.  She even found those who scorned her for her wider view of the world...  Life often comes in distinct chapters - Door open and doors close... but for good or bad we are shaped by our experiences...