By Katherine Haas
I was in my mid-fifties when I first saw my parents’ wedding photo. My eighty- year-old mother unpacked a large cardboard box full of letters she kept and showed the old black and white photo to me, ashamed. In it, her dress hangs awkwardly off her tall frame. The neckline is uneven and the fit is baggy. In spite of the badly designed dress, my mother is radiant standing in the center. Why had she never shown it to me?
My mother, Barbara Schuchard, was born in Berlin in 1913. Her brother Georg came three years later. They grew up as good friends and playmates. They were both very smart and compassionate children. Georg loved the idea of flying. He designed wings to wear snow skiing that lifted him off the mountain. His ingenious invention even got covered by the local newspaper. By the time my mom was 17, she was at the top of her class. Her high school teacher asked her to help correct other students’ papers.
“Mark these full of errors,” the teacher said, giving her a stack. “These are from the Jewish students.” Furious, my mother quit school that day. Another of her teachers sought her out at home and suggested she attend a school across town, an excellent school where there were mostly Jewish students. It was there she met Eva Illsch, who became her best friend. Eva’s fiancé was good friends with a handsome young Chinese law student named Hsu Dau-Lin.
In the 1930s Germany was the best country in the world to get a law degree. My father had been educated at home until the age of 21 when he was sent to Germany to get his Ph.D. in International law. He loved his classes, learning German, and joking with his classmates, something he was never able to do with his serious teachers back in China. When Eva introduced my father to my mother, he was captivated and began wooing her. He attempted to impress her family by cooking a Chinese meal. However, he misread the label and all of the stir- fry dishes were cooked with castor oil.
As he presented dish after dish, my mother’s family tried to eat it without grimacing. Finally, young Georg cried out, “Every dish tastes horrible!” It was only then, that my father tasted his presentations and discovered his error!
During high school, Georg began to fly and design airplanes, but soon he was drafted into the Nazi army. When he discovered what the Nazis were doing, he protested. Soon after, he was sent on a mission. He and his airplane were never found. My grandmother spent the rest of her life waiting for the return of her beloved son.
My father graduated and returned to China in 1932. Once he got a good job he sent my mother a letter asking her to marry him. My mom was uncertain about such a momentous step in a foreign land. Then one day she had a terrifying experience with the Nazis in Berlin. On her way to her college class, she saw an old Jewish woman attempting to enter a store to pay a bill. Two Nazis blocked the woman’s way and wouldn’t let her enter. My mother pushed the men aside and accompanied the woman into the store. As soon as she came out of the store, the two Nazis forced my mother into a car. She was taken to a basement, held captive and interrogated as to where she lived, who her parents were, and other personal questions. While the officers were deciding her fate, a handsome Nazi whisper to her, “If you want to live, you need to shut up.”
They released her, but her entire world had changed. Germany felt alien, she wanted to leave and never return. Even though she was uncertain about her feelings for Dau-Lin, marrying him and moving to China could be a way out.
“Think twice,” my grandfather said to her. “You see one Chinese man and he looks handsome to you, but once you arrive in China and see a billion Chinese, he may not look so attractive.”
On the ship, the passengers, who were all Caucasian, felt sorry for this beautiful young German woman about to throw her life away by foolishly marrying an oriental man. They took up a collection for my mother to buy a return ticket to Europe, but my mother turned down the money.
When she arrived, Dau-Lin was overjoyed. My mother was overwhelmed with culture shock. She thought she’d have time to test the waters, to see if she could live in China. Instead, she discovered that Dau-Lin’s mother had already prepared an elaborate wedding. My mother was too embarrassed to admit that she had yet to make up her mind.
There were no shops with western bridal wear, but my mother was determined to wear a white wedding dress. A tailor was quickly hired and he used my mother’s elegant suit as a guide to reproduce what he thought was a western bridal gown.
In the picture from that day, she looks incredibly beautiful. Next to her is my father, Dau-lin, softly smiling. A smug looking gentleman stands next to him and five young women with white chipaos round out the newly wed tableau. The women are all young and slim, much shorter than my mother, and none of them smile. They knew they had been chosen because they were homely. Even the two six-year-old children aren’t particularly attractive.
My mother had hidden this picture all these years out of embarrassment. After the wedding, she found out that her mother-in-law, who had never seen a European before, thought my mother was terribly ugly with her strange nose, pale skin and light brown hair. In her kindness, she orchestrated a group of unattractive people for the wedding party, so my mother would not stand out as quite so homely. The pain it caused my mother to look at the picture stayed with her until the day she showed it to me. I believe that when my mom opened the box, she released her shame. Instead, she was filled with love and understanding for my grandmother. She realized the act was a loving gesture, not meant to hurt. She understood that it was not only her twenty–year-old self who faced a cultural shock but my father’s family too, had to overcome their prejudices and come to terms with this unexpected union.
Katherine Haas taught at Key School in Annapolis for 42 years. She now spends her time enjoying the arts with her husband, learning Spanish while her Arabic teacher is in China, teaching Chinese, working part-time at Key as Scientist in Residence and engaging in progressive activism.
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