Creative non-fiction / June 2012 (Issue 17)

Anna in the Japanese Tropics

by Kim Liao


When I was a child, my father and I would visit my grandmother Anna on weekends at her apartment on Fulton Street, south of Chinatown. We usually ate lunch there first and brought her some groceries or takeout food, like her favourite dish, Lobster Cantonese Dry. It was a winding walk from the packed and overflowing markets of Canal Street to her wide breezy street, near the South Street Seaport. When we walked under the Brooklyn Bridge overpass, the shady darkness engulfed us, cars barrelling over steel girders above our heads, and the air took on a briny scent, signalling the proximity of constantly unloading fishing boats. I always thought, Now we're on Grandma's turf. It was distinctly not Chinatown. Located on the southeast tip of Manhattan, it was an ideal place for my grandmother to live amongst her old Chinese friends while keeping her childhood home at a noticeable distance.

When we stepped off the elevator onto the fifth floor corridor, mysterious scents of Chinese spices would hit my nostrils in full force, as if they oozed from the thick carpeting. But the aromatic smells dissipated when we entered my grandmother's apartment, since she rarely cooked traditional Chinese food for herself. Grandma Anna let us in, commented on how quickly I was growing and always offered me a soda—usually Welch's Grape or a Coke. In older age, Grandma Anna stood only just over five feet tall, but her determined warmth enveloped us like her quick and firm embrace.

My father asked her how she was feeling, and she always said, "I'm still vertical," with a wry laugh. Her favourite deflection varied in tone from good humour to sharply ironic, depending on how she was actually feeling. Sometimes she ate her Lobster Cantonese Dry—a whole lobster cooked in pieces in a mystifying but aromatic sauce—and I would watch her delicate fingers crack the hard shells with meticulous precision.

The TV was usually on. Grandma exclusively watched Murder, She Wrote, James Bond, figure skating and professional golf, and we always spoke in pleasantries. But while as a child this more than satisfied my curiosity about her, when I hit my teenage years, I began to feel as if she were the gatekeeper to a treasure trove of family history and Chinese culture that I knew nothing about. Bits of her past seeped out and hovered around her like a force field; it was a tension that was felt but never spoken of. I sensed which questions I was permitted to ask: How are you feeling? What's new? How did you do in your bridge game this week? The thick plush carpet in that Fulton Street apartment had soaked up the past and muffled its echoes, forbidding me from even forming unsanctioned thoughts and questions. It protected Grandma from the scents of her neighbours, and from any unpleasant memories that could threaten her peaceful, present solitude. It was her armour.

But I once saw that armour fall, just for a brief moment.

Mid-conversation one day at Grandma's apartment, something reminded her of World War II, and she abruptly changed the subject. "I remember, during the war, the Japanese soldiers would come around to houses in the village and bang on the door, once a week," she said, her voice growing harsh. She looked right at me. "More if you were causing trouble."

I sat on the edge of her small couch, surprised, not sure how to react. We were alone for a moment—my father was occupied elsewhere. I searched uncomfortably for a response, afraid to breathe. Afraid that I might accidentally blow away the precious memory from my grandmother's life that she had conjured up—which now lingered above the couch, between our faces. No one ever talked about the past in that apartment.

Grandma Anna looked down at the wrinkled hands in her lap, her tiny wrists and thin fingers tensing up. Her curved fingernails started to pull at the cuff of her sweater. "They would bang on the doors, search the place, and say, "Have you heard the news? Who's winning?'" A shadow passed over her face; she looked haunted by it.

I imagined she meant winning the war—World War II, which I had only ever read about in a history book. Something in her voice, even after so many years, made me afraid of the Japanese soldiers. I suddenly felt as if they were lurking there in her Fulton Street apartment, glowering at us from behind the kitchen counters. Drinking all the grape soda in the fridge.

I swallowed and found my voice. "What did you say to them?" I asked.

"I said, 'You are,'" she answered, her voice growing hoarse with roughness. Grandma Anna always spoke with such powerful force—and I wondered what she was like as a young woman, wrinkles on her face smoothed, hair dark and wavy, face shaped by both Asian and Western features. How she confronted soldiers in her kitchen, men in uniforms with guns who stood a whole head taller than her.

"'You are,' I would say, because that's what they wanted to hear. But I didn't care—I didn't really want to know who was winning the war. Knowing things, snooping around, gossiping with other women and listening to the radio—that's what got you into trouble. I didn't want any trouble, so I told them what they wanted to hear."

In that moment, I longed to know what life had been like for her in that tiny Taiwanese village, ruled by fear and the sounds of missiles overhead. But although I tried to imagine her life then, Anna as a young woman was only a blurry, wavering image. At twelve years old, I had no knowledge of her life before Fulton Street, no world to imagine her into.

We sat in her apartment silently, while that small moment of living history hung there, suspended between the TV and the couch and the carpet. Then it splintered into tiny shards and fell, disappearing into the impenetrable carpet.

Grandma Anna never spoke of the past to me again.



"We were very lucky," Aunt Jeanne was saying. We sat on the couch in her living room, and I was nervous about conducting my first interview about the Liao family. "Because during World War II, the Americans didn't wind up invading Taiwan. They invaded Okinawa instead, which was between Taiwan and Japan."

"So we were very lucky in that sense," she continued, "but we still saw plenty of war. We got air raids, and there were bombings all around us. Across the way, down in Silai there was a big sugar factory, and when that was bombed, it just burned for days."

"We used to count the planes—they flew very high up, you know, and they looked like silver stars. We could hear the noise of them coming because they came in droves. We used to have a siren in our little town that would go off when the planes were coming, and when we were 'all clear.' But for a long time, there was never an 'all clear' because the planes kept coming. They would come every day, every night. We had an outdoor bunker to run into when we heard the siren, but after a while, we never even bothered running to it because they never stopped. So after first grade, I never went to school." She laughed, and sighed. "Instead of going to school, we used to go outside and count the planes."

I saw a small girl, sitting on the stone fence near the courtyard of her house, counting the silver stars with her playmates—cousins and other kids whose parents worked around town or farming the fields. Perhaps a pudgy little toddler, Teddy, was with her; perhaps he would have been indoors with their mother Anna. At eight, Jeanne and her friends were already unfazed by the sounds of war around them—they were used to the sirens, the planes, the explosions that woke them from sleep in the middle of the night, like the violent chimes of an unreliable clock.

But soldiers still frightened them: the tall, scary men in tan uniforms and brown hats, with gruff voices that choked out the strange, clipped syllables that Jeanne had such a hard time learning in school. She knew them by the harsh slamming of car doors, and by the clacking of their heels on the road leading up to the main house.

Now she heard their telltale sounds—the growling engines of cargo trucks, loud voices echoing across the fields and roads up to the fence by the fruit trees where Jeanne was sitting with her friends. She broke off her count of the planes (thirty that day!) to run inside and tell her mother. She kicked up dust as she ran barefoot, across their backyard, past the fish pond and through the main entrance into their family home.

"Mama, mama," she called in Taiwanese, running to the left in the grand entryway of the main building and stumbling into her parents' wing of the house. As in most wealthy Chinese households, she and her parents lived in one wing, her grandparents in another and other aunts and uncles in further wings, spread out around the house and grounds. She ran into their kitchen, where her mother Anna sat at the table, reading a Charles Dickens book. Jeanne knew it was Dickens because they were Anna's only books in English, which she recognised but couldn't understand. Skidding to a stop, little Jeanne panted, "Soldiers! They're back!"

Anna stood abruptly and marked her place in the book before slamming it shut. Wordlessly, she walked into the bedroom and shoved the book under the mattress of the bed she shared with Thomas. She stood in front of the mirror for a moment, smoothing down her hair. Her features were delicate but striking: her deep-set dark eyes and eyebrows were framed by a fringe of wavy dark hair; her square jaw was determined; her lips pursed. Fine stress lines had just begun to etch themselves into her forehead, between her eyebrows. She glanced around the room, looking for any evidence of American objects or of English books or newspapers. Not that she could stop the Japanese soldiers from ransacking the house if they wanted to. But why tempt fate?

Returning to the kitchen, Anna started washing the breakfast dishes.

"It's OK," she said to her young daughter, who was still sitting at the table, eyes widened in fear. "I hid the radio yesterday. And they have no reason to want to hurt us. We produce food for their army." She looked out the window, watching tenant farmers bringing in rice harvests to be laid out, dried and threshed on the family tennis courts. The tennis courts were the largest clean and dry surface in town, so twice a year, they became the centre of the rice harvest and farm business. "We are true patriots of the 'Great Empire of Japan,'" she said, voice cold with sarcasm.

Heavy pounding on the door startled both of them. Yes, come straight to the apartment of Thomas and his Caucasian wife, Anna thought bitterly as she walked slowly down the hallway. Don't bother with the rest of his family or the rest of Silai. Dear soldiers, we are overwhelmed by our sudden popularity with you. She opened the door.

Three Japanese soldiers filled the doorframe. Their tan uniforms were the colour of sugarcane after a long, hot summer. They wore the brimmed hats of officers and tall, dark brown leather boots. All carried long rifles, almost as long as the soldiers were tall. Two were shorter and wore scowls. The tallest of them, who had a handsome face and features sharpened like the blade of a knife, sneered at her, "What took you so long to answer the door?" he barked.

"I couldn't hear over the running water. I'm just cleaning in the kitchen," Anna said in Taiwanese, simpering. She knew they could understand her a bit, and she could play the ignorant housewife if necessary. "But my husband isn't here. He is travelling for business with the farm." She shrugged, trying but failing to press her pursed lips into a smile.

"You might try back tomorrow," she said, not moving from the partially opened door.

"Let us in," the tall one growled in heavily accented English, pushing the door wide open and stalking down the hallway towards the kitchen. Anna followed, glancing at the stairs at the end of the hallway. She hoped that five-old Teddy, the baby of the family, was still napping in the children's room.

Jeanne sat in the kitchen, listening to the approaching soldiers' footsteps. Their heels echoed through the apartment ominously. Oh no, she thought to herself. What did they do to Mama? They're coming for me! She slipped out of her seat and hid under the kitchen table. Three pairs of high, dark brown boots stomped in. She held her breath. Maybe they won't see me under here.

Anna followed the soldiers down the hallway, silently cursing them. It was their fault she couldn't leave the country again to visit her adopted mother, Miss Banta, and wait out the war in America. Their fault that she couldn't leave Silai, or even the house, without being followed. While she loved her new home in Taiwan, it was maddening to be singled out for being American. Had the Japanese really nothing better to do than to pick on an innocent housewife?

When she walked into the kitchen, she saw Jeanne's feet under the table and little fringe of dark bangs peeking up from under the tablecloth. She smiled. At least her children would be Taiwanese—really Taiwanese. She just wanted them to belong somewhere, to grow up in peace with a safe home. Just when she'd settled into Taiwanese life, the soldiers were accusing her of being a dangerous spy. She always had to stay on guard, somehow, wherever she went.

The soldiers walked around the kitchen suspiciously. If they were looking for something, Anna couldn't imagine what. Then she thought: Maybe someone told them about the short-wave radio. Better leave that hidden until the war is over. Damn, I'll miss listening to those baseball games. Anna had been an enthusiastic baseball fan in New York City, and one of her and Thomas's sources of comfort and entertainment was listening to broadcasts of baseball games from Manila, which had a relay for American radio stations. It was a small but sweet taste of home and giving up the radio was a bitter disappointment. But baseball isn't worth trading in your family's safety, Anna reminded herself.

"As you can see, I am just a Taiwanese housewife," Anna said in Taiwanese, standing up straight, chin defiant, challenging them to explain their behaviour.

"We know you can speak English," the tall one said in accented English. He sounded like the men in Chinatown from her childhood, Anna thought with a shudder. "We know that you are American."

"And what of it? I obviously couldn't have liked it there that much, if I left to live my life here, in your great empire," she said wryly.

"But you travelled back there again," the leader said, smirking. He must have checked government files, to see who had come through customs, entering and leaving Taiwan. "You went back to America in 1939, and stayed until 1941, returning just months before America declared war on our great empire." He gripped his rifle tighter. "How do we know you are not an American spy? What do you know?"

"Do I look like a spy?" she spat back at him. "I went back to America to give birth to my son, because your hospitals apparently don't place a high premium on comfort. And I couldn't travel twenty days by boat with a newborn baby." Watch it Anna—she reminded herself. Don't let that sharp tongue get you in trouble now. These are not the missionaries at Sunday school—this is serious business. They won't do anything to you, unless you tempt fate.

She shifted her tone, cajoling the foreign Japanese syllables to roll over her tongue. "I'm sorry, officers. But my husband is a devoted Japanese citizen, as am I." Thomas had taught her a few Japanese phrases for dealing with officials if he wasn't around, but she wished he were here. He had been arrested once, for a few weeks, right after Pearl Harbor, when Japan had declared war on America. Now, the days when he was travelling on business were spent nervously waiting for his return and dreading visits from the soldiers.

Anna continued, shrinking meekly against the kitchen counter, deferring to them. "I know that you're winning the war." It was hard not to stare at their long rifles. "The Land of the Rising Sun will eventually prevail, we are all sure of it."

The soldiers smiled, and the leader seemed to relent. "Well, that's good, we value our loyal citizens. But tell me, Mrs. Liao, how do you know that we are winning?"

Anna smiled, avoiding their trap. "I only know what my husband tells me every night when he comes home. We only know what the rest of Silai knows, that Japan must be winning!"

"You don't see any American newspapers or listen to the radio? Use it to send messages?"

"I don't even know where radios are sold in Taiwan," she said, shrugging. "I have never seen one here before, and I don't know anything. My husband is only concerned with the farming business he took over from his father. But I need to check on my children. Can I offer you anything before you go? Some fruit or goat's milk?"

The soldiers turned and looked at the leader, who shook his head. "No missus, we must go. We'll come back tomorrow to see Wen-Yi," he said. "That is, if he will be back tomorrow."

"Yes, he will be here tomorrow," Anna said, not moving from the sink, which she was steadying herself against. She didn't dare let them see her shaking in anger and fear.

"Goodbye Mrs. Liao. Long live the Emperor!" They stomped out down the hallway and slammed the door.

Anna knelt down next to the table, eye to eye with her daughter underneath. "It's OK, you can come out now Jeanne," she said softly.

Jeanne crawled into her mother's lap, eyes filled with tears. "Will they come back? Are they going to take you and Daddy away?"

"No one is going anywhere," Anna said, stroking her daughter's hair. "We've done nothing and are of no use to them. They can't touch us. Now, go run upstairs and check on your brother. The stomping and loud voices might have woken him up and scared him. Be brave, honey."

Jeanne smiled and wiped her face. As she started up the stairs she thought, I'll never be as brave as my mother. She isn't afraid of anything or anyone.

Anna remained there, sitting on the kitchen floor, breath still shaky. I've been through worse, she thought to herself, and I've survived. I'll survive this too. I just want to keep my children out of it. Maybe Wen-Yi can make sure the soldiers don't come back. She stood up, dusted herself off and went into the bedroom to find her book again. Sitting back down in the kitchen and opening up to the page she left off, Anna felt a sudden draft and shivered, vehemently wishing that the comforting words she told her daughter would turn out to be true.

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