Leaving China

Excerpt 2: The Drowned Man

 

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I spent much of my time with my Chinese amah, who spoke rudimentary English, but who often said things to me in Mandarin. Because of this mélange of words, I had difficulty keeping the two languages I was hearing in separate categories. My speech was basically in English, sprinkled here and there with Chinese expressions.

My father, with his musical ear, intensely absorbed by languages and fluent in Chinese and Japanese, encouraged me to speak Chinese. The little I knew as a six-year-old would be gone by the time I was twelve.

I spent many afternoons with my amah walking to the beach near the house. I remember one of these walks, particularly, because a crowd had gathered along the water’s edge to look at something. I sensed that whatever they were looking at was something I didn’t want to see, and I resisted Amah when she tugged at me to get a closer look. She was stronger than I and soon we were jostling through the crowd to get to the center. There, splayed out on the sand, was the body of a Chinese man, grotesquely frozen into the contorted position of his last struggle with the ocean. He was a gray specter, almost like a piece of driftwood, dramatically inanimate in a way I have never forgotten.

There was so much anxiety pushed under the rug in those years, so much hushed talk of atrocities committed by the Japanese or by the warlords. I only caught bits and pieces of these stories, but it was enough to give me a sense of dying and death that was out there somewhere beyond the safe enclave of our family. Now I had seen my first dead human and it brought into sharper focus the fuzzy dread of the stories overheard.


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