Wishbones, War and Wonder

The Author on the day she first saw her father, Hsu Dau–Lin, after a 11-year separation. Photo: Katherine Haas

I was twenty-two, married, and had my first child when I finally saw my Chinese father again. For the eleven years of our separation, I must have wished on a thousand wishbones for that day to come.

A week after this longed-for reunion, my mother and step-father, Henri, came to visit me in Annapolis. I confronted her, gritting my teeth and trying to hide the emotion bursting from within me. “Why did you divorce my father? He’s the most wonderful man on earth!”

My mom sat down on the couch, with Henri standing beside her, and sobbed and sobbed. I was so caught up in my own anger and pain, I had no idea why she cried.

My parents met in Germany in the late 1930s when my father attended law school (see the earlier story here).  In 1932, after my father finished school and returned to China, he sent my mother a marriage proposal. Taking a huge leap of faith, my German mother traveled to China at the tender age of twenty and agreed to marry my father. In doing so, she was determined to become a truly good wife and adopt the customs of this alien country.

My father’s mother, my Grandmother, believed in the old superstitions. My father was born in the year of the horse and my mother in the year of the ox. Chinese tradition said that this would be a bad match; One cannot put a single yoke on a horse and ox and expect them pull the plow in harmony. A marriage between an ox and horse was bound to fail. My father, before introducing my mother to his mother, asked my mother to lie.

“You must pretend to be eighteen years old, born in the year of the rabbit,” he said.  “Rabbits and horses get along well.  While the horse works hard, the rabbit plays alongside. Please tell her this lie and she will rest easy.” My mother agreed, and my grandmother instantly accepted her and grew very fond of her.

For their honeymoon, my father, Hsu Dau–Lin, took my mother, Barbara Schuchard, to a town famous for its food. At the restaurant, the staff brought in their specialty dish, live shrimp soaked in wine. My mother looked at the shrimp drunkenly swimming around in the bowl.

I can’t do this! How can anyone eat live shrimp? she thought, disgusted. But she’d promised herself to do whatever Chinese women would do. She gagged as the crustaceans wiggled down her throat and into her belly. A week later, she met my father’s sister, Hsu Ying Li, and proudly boasted of her accomplishment.

“ICK!! You ATE them? my aunt screamed. I would have run out of the restaurant!”

A few days later, friends invited my mother and father to a banquet. The hosts put samples of various dishes on my mother’s plate. My mother thanked them heartily and dug into slices of Peking duck wrapped in tiny crepes, thousand-year-old eggs, steamed fish with head and tail on, twice cooked pork and stir fry lamb with tree ears. As soon as my mother finished one dish, the host filled up her plate with another serving.

“No.No, thank you. Everything was delicious, but I’m full,” said my mother.

“You must have more,” the host insisted, as he continued to refill my mother’s plate with whatever she finished.

No matter how much my mother begged for the host to stop, he continued to fill her plate. Finally, my father turned to my mother and told her to stop making such a pig of herself. Almost in tears, she whispered in German that she was completely stuffed, but didn’t know how to stop the host from giving her more. My father then explained that by finishing what was on her plate, it was a sign that she wanted more.  She looked like a glutton. She was embarrassing him. If she had had enough, she was to leave the food on her plate. For my poor mother, learning the customs was an uphill battle.

Soon after they were married, they moved to Nanking in southern China, where my father had a good job. They bought a large house and had many servants. Feeling isolated, my mother wanted to interact with the people in her adopted country. She tried to learn Chinese by asking the servants what things were called. When my father found out, he was appalled. He wanted her to have a scholar for a teacher, not a servant. She must learn Mandarin Chinese correctly. A learned wife of a colleague came daily, and using classical poetry as their textbook, my mother learned impeccable Chinese.

In 1938, my father became the acting Chinese ambassador in Rome. I was eight months old. We moved into a bonafide palazzo. The palace garden had twenty-seven fountains, each with its own Roman statue. The marble staircase inside the palace, where my sister slid down the banister, was two stories high. Gilded paintings adorned the walls. The enormous living room had marble columns and the ceilings were exquisitely decorated with wooden panels and detailed paintings. It was paradise.

My mother and father, dressed up for a party in Rome, sometime between 1938 and 1941. Photo: Katherine Haas

Once back in China in 1941, my mother and her mother-in-law grew closer over the next several years. One day, my mother decided it was time she came clean about her birth year. She had not really been born in the year of the rabbit. She figured that surely my grandmother would dismiss the ancient Chinese superstition that proclaimed a marriage between a horse and an ox would not work. After all, at this point, they had been happily married for seven years. Sadly, being honest in this instance was a mistake my mother would always regret. My grandmother was devastated. She pulled away emotionally from my mother and fretted; Was the oracle correct?

In a way, yes. The civil war between the Nationalists (those loyal to the kuo ming tang) and the Communists broke the country in two. As it turned out, this also brought the end of my parents’ union.

In May 1949, my beloved father stood at the pier in Shanghai and waved goodbye to us as we boarded the freighter, SS Gordon.  My mother, using her German passport (since the quota for Chinese allowed to enter America was very low, and she may be turned away under a Chinese passport), took my sister Joan, brother George, and me onto this last ship leaving the port. We escaped to the U.S. just before Shanghai fell to the Communists.

My father stayed. Later, when he moved to Taiwan and begged my mother to join him, she turned him down. Years later, I asked her whether her decision to stay in the U.S. was because she had stopped loving my father, or because of her concern for my siblings and me.  She answered that, at the time, Taiwan had been jammed with refugees from the mainland. As a result, all of the schools were overcrowded, and only one out of seven who tested well enough were allowed to enter school.  She chose to remain in the U.S. so that my siblings and I would have a better chance at a good education. My father could not get permission to leave Taiwan, and so they divorced. For my parents, it was amicable. For me, it was devastating.

It was 11 years later that my father finally was able to leave Taiwan and come to the U.S. By then he had remarried. He brought his wife and their young son and daughter—my new half siblings. They settled first in Michigan, and later, in Washington state.

Seeing him again when I was twenty-two was truly one of the happiest days of my life. He was everything I remembered him to be: scholarly, gentle and loving. When my mother came to visit me soon after, and I witnessed her collapse into heaving sobs at my questions about my father, my anger at having missed growing up with my father made me unable to comprehend her pain. Today, on the verge of my 80th birthday, I try looking through a window into the past to understand.

Were they happy those sixteen years they were together? I think so. Was it difficult?  It must have been. My mother conceived my older sister a month or two after her marriage.  She told me years later that had she not been with child, she probably would have left China and my father. The cultural adjustment was just too hard. Still, when my parents were much older, I asked each one separately if they could relive one year of their life, which year would they choose? My father said, “One of the years in Rome!” and beamed. A few months later, when I asked my mother the same question, her face lit up.  “That’s easy. It would be a year we spent in Rome!”

Were they sorry they divorced? I’m not sure. I always thought it would be too invasive to ask. They both eventually remarried to partners they loved. They remained good friends, however, for the remainder of their days.

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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