Tan’s Oral History: Perspective
by Ziyang Yu, May 20th, 2013
History is important to us because people learn from history, and can avoid making the same mistakes again and again. Everyone has a unique personal history, which makes every person possess an interesting and special life. Personal oral history can let people know one deeply, which creates better relationships between people. After people share their personal narratives, they may feel happier because someone listens to them, and cares about them. My Interviewee, Jing’e Tan, who is my grandmother, is a Chinese immigrant. She came from Taishan City, Canton province, China, and has been in the United States since 1996. She was born in 1944 during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which meant she was born into chaos. Her oldest son appealed for her to come here because they wanted a family reunion and a better life in America. After her arrival in the U.S., she has taken care of her grandchildren, and worked as a housekeeper. She did a great interview with me at my home. Before I interviewed her, I didn’t know a lot of her stories. When I was about six years old, my grandmother immigrated to the U.S., and I was living in China. Therefore, my grandmother didn’t exist in my childhood, and I felt strange about losing her. However, after I interviewed her, I have come to know her life much better. I started to interview her out of curiosity, and the interview ended up fostering a very deep feeling of understanding about her life.
Tan’s family felt depressed and worried about the Japanese all the time during the Second Sino-Japanese War. China was very weak from the end of the Qing dynasty through establishment of the People’s Republic of China, and China was labeled “The Sick Man of East Asia.” Therefore, a lot of countries invaded China, and wanted to segment China’s lands, antiques, and riches. Japan was the biggest enemy for China to fight at that time. Qinna Shen, who is a professor at Miami University, wrote a piece entitled “Revisiting the Wound of a Nation: The ‘Good Nazi’ John Rabe and the Nanking Massacre,” which is about how the “good Nazi” and the Japanese hurt China from 1931 to 1945, and how are people trying to heal this awful wound today. The author states, “over 300,000 Chinese were murdered by the Imperial Japanese Army…more than 200,000 Chinese were massacred and approximately 20,000 cases of rape occurred in Nanking during the six weeks after the city fell.” This is a shocking number of the Chinese people who died from the ruthless Japanese murders. All Chinese civilians felt afraid of the Japanese and worried about their safety because of their cold-blooded actions. Tan says:
“My mom told me that she was so scared of the Japanese because someone told her that a villager killed a Japanese soldier and then the Japanese destroyed a town, which was near Taishan City. She heard that the Japanese killed everyone they saw, raped women, and burned down the houses. My mom felt depressed all the time during the war because she didn’t know when the Japanese would attack Taishan City.”
The whole country was in an unstable situation, and Tan’s family had anxiety during that period. Every day the family lived under this depression, and every moment the whole family needed to get ready to escape from the Japanese. Also, Tan felt sorry about what her mother had done to her brother; she says:
“When the Japanese arrived in Taishan, my mom was so afraid because my mom had four kids and pregnancy at that time. My older brother was only a few months old, and he cried all the time. Therefore, my mom was worried that the whole family would be caught due to his load noise crying. She decided to discard of him to safe our family during the exile. She put down him on a thick growth of grass, and ran away. She cried as her ran, but after a few minutes, she ran back to pick up him.”
This event tells me that her family was very frightened about getting caught by the Japanese. All mothers want to stay with her children, and take care of them. However, Tan’s mother lived in this chaotic situation, so she had to save the whole family, which meant she had to abandon her newborn child. Her family seemed to live in the abyss of misery, which created her family’s hopeless perspective and search for safety.
Tan’s family experienced conflict and desired a stable source of food during the war. Most of the young people in China haven’t experienced a war, and cannot imagine how horrible a war is. People want a good life, in which they have good jobs, healthy bodies, and happy families. When people live through a war, they never experience what a pleasant life looks like, and the only thing concerning them is survival. The indispensable factor for survival is food. Food is very valuable, and even money can’t always buy a piece of food. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Tan’s family had some experience with the lack of food. Tan says:
“At that time, all people were starvelings in China because the country didn’t have enough food for anyone. If you wanted food, you had to cultivate or you went to a mountain to forage for it. My family couldn’t go out ploughing and sowing because we were afraid of the Japanese. We just kept hiding in a mountain. There was no market selling food as today. Especially, my family has five siblings, so we had very hard time to find enough food for all people in the family. My mother told me that we couldn’t eat rice every day; sometime we ate potato; sometime we ate wild fruit during the war.”
Food seems like luxury in a war. Even though people find some food, they punish themselves for eating the food because they want to store it for the future. Her family needed food for the children, but were afraid go out to do cultivation because they worried about getting caught by the Japanese, which made her family have a conflicted perspective. If they wanted safety, they needed to hide in the mountains, where they didn’t have the chance finding or cultivating food. On the other hand, if they went out cultivating, they might get killed by the Japanese. In their minds, they had conflicted perspectives between food and safety. Moreover, Nuha Al-Radi was an Iraqi diarist, ceramist and painter. She experienced the Gulf War in her homeland, which is Baghdad, Iraq. She wrote a book called Baghdad Diaries, which in basically about what she saw and what Iraqis did during the war. In the section, “Funduq al-Saada or Hotel Paradiso,” Al-Radi describes herself and Iraqi civilians looking for food and safer places to live. She says, “Only we would escape from a war carrying freezers full of goodies. Iraqis have been hoarders for centuries. It’s a national habit. Since one never knows when anything will be available on the market, one buys when one sees, and in great quantities” (14). Al-Radi is a lucky person during the war for she has food to eat. Iraqis usually store a lot food at home because they live in a precarious situation. She notes that storing food is “a national habit.” This habit accompanies her during her exile during the war, and she must store food all the time and carry it from one place to other place. Tan’s family and Al-Radi both lacked of food during the wars. Unlike Al-Radi, Tan’s family was first experiencing war, so they hadn’t store any food before the war. When the Japanese attacked in their city, they just ate what they had, and picked wild fruit to eat in the mountain. Tan’s family had more desperate perspective on food than Al-Radi.
Tan’s has had a disconnected perspective in the U.S., and her expectations haven’t come true. Most American immigrants have their expectations about what they will get in the U.S. People have a lot of reasons for migration. Some people want a higher education, so they become international students and study abroad. Some people pursue a better living; therefore, they immigrate to the developed countries. Tan wanted reunion, to stay with her family members, which was the significant reason for a woman in her sixties to come to America. She felt very happy that she could live with her oldest son’s family and took care of the grandchildren. During her first year living in the U.S., she felt bored, homesick, and disconnected from this country. She states:
“I felt homesick during the first two living in the U.S. At that time, I really wanted to go back to China. In the U.S., I just like a disabled person. I have legs, but I could not go to place I like because this country was brand new for me, also I have gotten lose for a few times. I have ears, but I could not understand what my grandchildren were talking to each other. I have eyes and month, but I could not communicate with Americans, and read my grandchildren’s homework. I felt very bad about this.”
Tan considered herself the disabled of the family, and her expectation didn’t come true. Her expectation was to have a better life with her family. She wanted to get into the U.S. She wanted to know what the grandchildren were talking about, and make a good connection with them. Also, she feels disconnected from the American community, which makes her create disconnected perspective in the U.S. Moreover, Out of Place is a memoir written by Edward W. Said, who was a Palestinian-American literary theorist. The memoir is about how Said was exiled from his own country, Palestine. After he left his country, he considered himself out of place at schools among his classmates and teachers, out of place in the culture, and out of place in terms of language. Therefore, he felt out of place all the time. Said says, “Because of Rule I we spoke more, rather than less, Arabic, as an act of defiance against what seemed then, and seems even more so now, an arbitrary, ludicrously gratuitous symbol of their power” (184). Said was bound by schools’ rules, but didn’t obey the language rules. He became a rebel by opposing these rules, and spoke more Arabic at the college. According to his exiled from the school’s language rules, he felt out of place in his native language. Tan’s felt a lost connection with her grandchildren and the American community, and Siad felt out of place in his native language at the school. They both have disconnected perspectives on their new places, which makes them feel lost all the time.
Tan’s perspective started changing from her comparisons between the U.S. and China. In the first few years of living in the U.S., she felt unhappy because what she expected didn’t match the reality here. However, after getting used to living here, she started changing her perspective. She compares the U.S. and China, and considers herself is a lucky person. She says:
“I receive better welfare in here than China, which can protect my health. American government offers different kinds of welfare to help low-income family. Even though my husband is not an American citizen, he still receives some benefit. I am receiving SSI and my husband is receiving food stamp. America is great in some ways because here no one die of hunger. If I had had stay in China, I wouldn’t have good live like today.”
She realized that, actually, she is living a great country, which provides her better health care than China, and the U.S. government offers her SSI. If she hadn’t move to the U.S., she believes that her quality of life would much worse than living in the U.S. Her comparison shows that her perspective has changed from “being the disabled” to having a good quality of life.
Tan considers that where her family is where her home is. “Home” is a very sensitive and emotional word. Everyone has different ideas and definitions about his or her home. Some people think the place where one comes from is a home, while some people think the place where one is living is considered a home. In Tan’s mind, wherever her family is where her home is. She says:
“Ten years ago, my home was China, but now I only consider United States is my home. To me, home must has family members, which include children, parents, and spouses, etc. My home in China is only an apartment for me, and it doesn’t worth anything. On the other hands, my five children, my seven grandchildren, and my husband all live in the United States, so my American home is much valuable for me.”
Ten years ago, her whole family was living in China, so China was her home. During her first few years living in the U.S, she felt homesick, and still considered China was her home. However, after all her family members moved to the U.S., she started to change her perspective of home. Family is very important for her, and Tan’s definition of home means being together with family members. Moreover, Isabelle Allende, who is a Chilean American, was forced to leave her country in 1973, and writes about it in a memoir called My Invented Country. The book is about her memories of Chile, written after she was exiled from her homeland because she was in a horrible situation under the Pinochet dictatorship. After she left Chile, she felt nostalgic about her homeland. Allende left Chile in 1975; her first time going back was in 1988. She thought Chile had undergone a big change and didn’t recognize her hometown, which was Santiago. After she visited Chile, on the return flight, when she saw the San Francisco Bay from air, she said, “Back home at last. It was the first time since I’d left Chile in 1975 that I felt I was ‘home’” (192). She considered, for the first time, San Francisco as her home. She is not clear about “home”; she always thinks the only home she has is Chile, but, after she revisited Chile, she developed a new idea about her home of Chile. She felt Chile had changed, and the buildings and the people there were all brand new for her. At first, Tan and Allende both thought that where they were born would always be their homes. However, after they got used to living in the U.S., their perspectives changed, and they started to consider the United States is their home. The places that they were born were not their homes anymore, and only exist in their memories. The United States is the only home in the real world of Tan and Allende’s lives.
In conclusion, the Second Sino-Japanese War gave Tan’s family the depressed perspective of survival, and Tan’s migration changed her perspective on home from being a homesick person to considering America her home. A lot of people consider where they are born their home. However, Tan thinks the place where she and her family are living together is her home. The home in China exists only in her memories of the past, and the home in the United States is her true home now, in which she can stay with her whole family. Everyone has a different perspective about his or her personal history, and everyone has a different perspective about home. Also, a person’s perspective may change someday, but personal history is unique and valuable.
Allende, Isabel, and Margaret Sayers. Peden. My Invented Country: A Memoir. New York: Perennial, 2004. Print.
Radi, Nuha. Baghdad Diaries: A Woman’s Chronicle of War and Exile. New York: Vintage, 2003. Print.
Said, Edward W. Out of Place: A Memoir. New York: Vintage, 2000. Print.
Shen, Qinna. “Revisiting The Wound Of A Nation: The ‘Good Nazi’ John Rabe And The Nanking Massacre.” Seminar – A Journal Of Germanic Studies 47.5 (2011): 661-680. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 May 2013.
30 April 2013
Interviewer: Ziyang Yu
Interviewee: Jin’e Tan (my grandmother)
1) Where are you from? I am from Taishan city, Canton province, China. How long have you been here? More than ten years. I haven’t counted exact years yet. Did you migrate to different places in China before come to the U.S? No. I only stayed in Taishan, and I haven’t moved to other place beside Taishan. When were you born? I was born in 1944 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. I knew the Nanking Massacre, which the Japanese killed three hundred thousand Chinese in Nanking, but I haven’t known the Japanese attacked in Taishan. Did you remember anything during the war? Not really, the war was ended in 1945, and that year I only was one year old. However, my mom told me that she was so scared of the Japanese because someone told her that a villager killed a Japanese soldier and then the Japanese destroy a town where was near Taishan city. She heard that the Japanese killed everyone they see, raped women, and burn down the houses. My mom felt depressed all the time during the war because she didn’t know when the Japanese would attack in Taishan city. At that time, I just lived inside my mom’s abdomen. I hadn’t born yet. Did your mother tell you any terrible event that your family face during the war. Let’s me think. Yeah, my mom told me that when the Japanese arrived in Taishan, my mom was so afraid because my mom had four kids and pregnancy at that time. My older brother was only a few months old, and he cried all the time. Therefore, my mom was worried that the whole family would be caught due to his load noise crying. She decided to discard of him to safe our family during the exile. She put down him on a thick growth of grass, and ran away. She cried as her ran, but after a few minutes, she ran back to pick up him. We all escaped from the Japanese together, and no one left. She said we ran to the countryside of Taishan. We hid in a mountain until the Japanese left Taishan. We were so luck because we all survived, even though there was not enough food for us. And then we went back home. That’s what my mom told me about the Anti-Japanese War
2) How did you come here? By ship or airplane? Both. At first, my husband and I went to a pier by car, and it took about two hours. then we took a ship to go to Hong Kong pier. That took me so long. I still remember on that day has rough sea, and the ship couldn’t berth easily. The arrival time was three hours delay, and we spent about seven hours on the ship. I was worried about I might miss the airplane. At that time, the public transportation was not as convenient as today. Also, I have seasickness, and I felt very bad on the ship. I felt embarrassing about the delay because my relatives were waiting in the pier for more than 4 hours. Finally, the ship was park, and they taught us to take a taxi from Hong Kong pier to Hong Kong International airport. Luckily, We got on the airplane on time, and I didn’t have airsickness. My oldest son and his wife picked us up from San Francisco International airport to his house.
3) Have you even moved to different parts in the U.S.? I have lived with my oldest son’s family in Chinatown Since I arrived in the U.S. What kind of job did you work in the U.S? I didn’t have time to work because needed to take care of my two young grandsons. One was eight months old, and another was two years old. I was very busy at that time. I needed sending and picking them up to school. At home, I did all kind of housework, such as cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes. However, after the grandsons graduated from the elementary school, I had a little time to work. I worked part-time job to take care elder people, and did some house work for them. Have you experienced a special event in your work? I had an unforgettable event in the fist day of my work. At the first of working, my son drove my to work, but I needed to take a bus to go back home by myself. I got lost, and I couldn’t find the bus stop. I walked and walked for a half hour. I started felt nervous, and I was still seeking for the bus stop. I asked for help, and I said, “bus Chinatown” and “Chinatown bus.” I only knew these two words in English, which would help me back home. They replied me in English, and wave their hands. I guessed that they didn’t know what direction to take a bus to go to Chinatown either. It was getting dark and dark, and I felt more and more afraid. I kept walking, and I didn’t know my direction was correct or not. Suddenly, there were two huge dogs barked on me, my tear came out and I ran away. At that time, I felt very sad and helplessness. In my mind: “Is this what America look like?” So, how did you get home? Thank god. Finally, I found a Chinese high school student, and I asked him in Chinese. He said, “If you trust me, walk fallow me”. At that time I had to trust him because I didn’t have another choice. We walked for a while, and we found the bus stop. He said to me that you waited for the number 1 bus right here to go to Chinatown, and he left. I appreciate this young guy helping my. Luckily, I got home about 9:30 p.m. My family was standing on a street waiting for me back home. They asked me, “You got off at 5 p.m. why do you come home so late? Where did you go?” They asked me a lot of questions. I felt gaily and I said it softly “I got lost.” Did you continue working there after this experience? My family wanted me to quite working, but I found another job where is near my house. What was your second job? It is very near my house, and I only walked fifteen minutes to work. My family didn’t need to worry about I got lost again. My second job lasted for two years. After my second job, I haven’t worked any more. I have been taking care of my youngest daughter’s daughter.
4) Do you like to live in China or the United States? I think they both are same to me. I felt homesick during the first two living in the U.S. At that time, I really wanted to go back to China, but my oldest son’s wife said that your sons and daughters would come to America later. After years by years, all my five children arrived here, I got used to living in the U.S. How do you feel living in the U.S. now? I receive better welfare in here than China, which can protect my health. American government offers different kinds of welfare to help low-income family. Even though my husband is not an American citizen, he still receives some benefit. I am receiving SSI and my husband is receiving food stamp. America is great in someway because here no one die of hunger. If I had had stay in China, I wouldn’t have good live like today. Have you ever visit back to China? I didn’t have time and enough money. I needed to take care my grandchildren, and I work part-time job. So, you haven’t gone back to China? Only once, but I came back for my mother’s funeral. I stayed in Taishan for a month, but I was on the sorrowful mood during that time. I didn’t travel around Taishan, and mostly I just stayed at home to think back my mother. However, I met brother and some relatives, and I felt relieved that all my relatives were doing well in China. I never consider this retune was a vacation because of my mother. Which country do you consider as home for you? Ten years ago, my home was China, but now I only consider United States is my home. To me, Home must has family members, which include children, parents, and spouses, etc. My home in China is only an apartment for me, and it doesn’t worth any thing. On the other hands, my five children, my seven grandchildren, and my husband all live in the United States, so my American home is much valuable for me. Are you planning visit back to Taishan in someday? No, I only have one younger brother in China, and rests of my Family members are living in the U.S. Also, I am getting old, and I can’t take a thirteen hours fly to China, which can make me so sick. I will stay in the United States rest of my live with my family together.
Follow up questions:
1.Did you have enough food to eat during the war? At that time, all people were starvelings in China because the country didn’t have enough food for anyone. If you wanted food, you had to cultivate or you went to a mountain to forage for it. My family couldn’t go out ploughing and sowing because we were afraid of the Japanese. We just kept hiding in a mountain. There was no market selling food as today. Especially, my family has five siblings, so we had very hard time to find enough food for all people in the family. My mother told me that we couldn’t eat rice every day; sometime we ate potato; sometime we ate wild fruit during the war.
2. How do you feel living in U.S. and are you feel happy living with your grandchildren? I felt homesick during the first two living in the U.S. At that time, I really wanted to go back to China. In the U.S., I just like a disabled person. I have legs, but I could not go to place I like because this country was brand new for me, also I have gotten lose for a few times. I have ears, but I could not understand what my grandchildren were talking to each other. I have eyes and month, but I could not communicate with Americans, and read my grandchildren’s homework. I felt very bad about this.