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The Suitcases

two suitcases

They sent her overseas to save her life. A small-boned young woman just beginning her twenties, hair fashionably short in the American style swinging against her strong jaw, her black eyes proud and watchful, ranging over the seething common crowd of Chinese at the dock. She moved flanked by the black and white of two nuns, her protectors. I imagine her standing on deck while the vessel backed slowly out from the dock, clad in a slim navy wool coat, her gloved hand raised to shield her against the sunlight, controlled in every gesture, contained.

Her blood ran arrogant in her veins, and in the changing China they had none of them invited, my mother’s family feared she would not survive. Some day too soon, she would say a thing that would be unforgivable, in public, with the snap of authority, with the precision she had learned from tutors before she went to the nun’s school, and she would die for it. So they sent her away, with the two leather suitcases her father had owned during his years in the diplomatic service, and in time she came by ship to America. I see her small height strung straight, balanced on her tiny feet by the railing with perfect pride and defiance, her hair neat, her face wisely giving nothing away, her short gloves matching the jacket over her simple dress. She probably didn’t touch those leather suitcase handles until the end of the trip. Some ship crewman would have carried everything for her, carted her trunks packed with silk, cotton and wool, and her beloved books.

Today the two suitcases lie stored in our closet in America. I look at the imprint of her father’s name upon one, and I touch the stamped in letters. He was a modern gentleman who refused staunchly his mother’s pressure to have his daughters’ feet bound. He had them educated, and in the long nights they fell asleep to the sound of their cousins weeping at the pain of broken feet when they thought no one could hear them give way.

There are stories to tell that I will not, now, because I have one particular night upon my mind. All gold lights and black shadows, a blue so deep the sky seemed to fall away between the buildings and the leaning skyscrapers; a New York City night. The night I met my uncle by marriage, Xiao Qian.

My mother left family in China when she clutched those leather suitcases and went away. One of that family staying and studying in Beijing was a younger sister, who had the temper of a dragon, the patience of a tiger, the double cowlick that means these things, and when she fell in love with a writer much her elder in the torn China of those times, the family wrote to my mother and asked her what to do. My mother had by then married a New Hampshire farm boy–scientist and poet, and she said, it does not matter– if Margaret loves him, let her marry. Thus, younger sister Margaret married her beloved mentor, teacher and inspiration, Xiao Qian. He was of peasant origins, but had grown to be a writer of repute, and as the years passed he continued a correspondence of great liveliness with the English writer E. M. Forster.

My husband and I entered the New York hotel room to find several older Chinese gentlemen there to whom we were barely more than children, and my aunt Margaret. We settled to seats once the greetings had passed, and listened as my uncle spoke to his old friends and to us.

“You know it has been fifty years since we last sat together,” Uncle said, his round friendly face making his dark eyes look even larger. The lines of years of smiles marked his face, his alert glance moved from one to another of us. His quiff of silver hair gave him a look of humor, reminded me of a panda. “Fifty years, my friends! These were my students,” he said to us, gesturing at the gentlemen around him, and they murmured a deep note of assent and pride.

When the tide of the Cultural Revolution rose, E. M. Forster arranged a position for Xiao Qian in England, inviting him and his family to come and take up a new life. But Xiao Qian said “No, it is now, more than ever, that my country needs me, and I must stand by her and see her through these hard times.”

“I was such a fool,” Xiao Qian said, looking from one to another of us in the hotel room. “So proud of myself with my noble words.”

“My neighbors came to our house and they destroyed it, broke my daughter’s piano, smashed chairs, tore the books. Pulled us about and beat at us with their familiar hands. Stood us on the table and struck us, villified us. Our friends, the people we knew. That was only a beginning. I cannot tell you it all.

“They beat us into the street and in the days that came and went I fell into such despair. I didn’t remember my hopes for China, I could see only my own sufferings. There came a day when I decided to die rather than bear this, took pills I had hidden and swallowed them and my wife Maggie when she realized, went to beg the doctors for help but they were afraid. In spite of myself, and them, she made me live. Maggie, Maggie. My stubborn fierce Maggie,” he looked at her and she pretended not to be listening; she was like stone and fire, all the pride that she would not share implicit in the quiet lift of her head.

“They sent us to the country to tend the pigs. It was a hard life, but the abuse became less over time until it was only a hard life and no longer an impossible one. And the years passed.”

He paused, and I could not take my gaze from his homely face and huge black intense eyes. He made a little nod, a tender broken smile, a gesture of open hands.

“But you must understand this,” he said. “On that first night of our new reality when I looked upon my friends and neighbors, shouting and yelling in the night with their fists raised, with broken brooms and knives, I understood that if there had been any way to change places with them I would have been so glad to do it. I would have acted as they did, maybe shouted and hit harder whoever they gave me to strike. That old saying was true for me no matter how proud I was. How idealistic. There but for the grace of God would I have gone. Yes, there, I too, would have gone. There but for the grace of God. But the choice was never offered, that it was not, was all that kept me from being them.

“Now I am born again into the land of the living, of the remembered.” He gestured with his square old man’s hand and there was such liveliness and self-knowledge in his black eyes. “I am known now for the work I did long years ago, they do not even require that I write more. Here I am a guest in America, and I come with a message to you,” he looked about at his old friends, his former students. “You who are known as the overseas-Chinese…”

I had heard that term in my Chinese language classes.

“You are invited back to our country with honor, with welcome. None of your belongings will be touched or taxed, you will be greeted with joy for the knowledge and skills you have gained in this wide outside world. There, I have said it, and I will testify to the truth of it. Already I know families who have come back, many doubting, but they came home. So I bring you this welcome, I convey it to you all.”

“The letters,” one gentleman spoke into the silence that followed. “Your correspondence with E. M. Forster, what became of it?”

“A few years ago I received a letter from Cambridge,” Xiao Qian said, “enquiring that very thing. When I was first reinstated by the government, this letter came to me. But the letters E. M. had sent me were burned. My wife’s sister panicked when she saw how the neighbors behaved and she took all the letters from their hiding place and burned them.”

The men in the room caught their breaths in shock.

“But think,” Xiao Qian said, “for great though our sufferings were, how much more terrible would they have been if I had in my possession my friendship correspondence with an English intellectual? Treason, no less, all the arrangements he tried to make on our behalf to find us sanctuary in his land.”

“But let us talk of your lives and what has happened in them, and how you have been happy, my friends.”

Voices rose and fell, but I kept replaying his past words, looked over at my new husband and knew he did the same, saw how moved he was, his hand gripping the arm of his chair. Tears in his blue eyes.

“Yes, let us go and eat then,” my uncle agreed, turning to us.

“We will catch our train, we had not meant to stay so long, but this was wonderful. Thank you,” I said, and we nodded. We rose, but Xiao Qian raised his hand and such was his authority that we stopped.

“Share the meal with us,” he said. “This is a special occasion. This is once in a lifetime,” and the crowd murmured agreement. They swept us along, down to where a line of chauffeured cars waited, navy and black and gleaming, crowded on the street. One of these men it seemed, owned a restaurant in Chinatown and he had swept a table for his old teacher and mentor, Xiao Qian. I sat silent in the back of our limo, gripping my husband’s hand as the chauffeur wove us our way through the magic streets, and our throats were filled with tears.

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Time Travel

A few weeks ago I traveled in time, but not quite the way my characters do in my novel Future Past. I took a jet to Fort Collins Colorado to meet with a group of about twenty faculty and family members from an all-but-forgotten program that Colorado State University ran during the 1960’s.

The last time I’d seen these people was in 1967, in the month of May. I was ten years old when war came to Nigeria. The warning came at three AM for expatriate women and children to have one bag each and be on the van for a 6 AM departure from our quiet bungalows, headed for the city of Port Harcourt and evacuation back to the States.

After the declaration that Biafra was seceding from Nigeria, after all the negotiations, the little scares, the bloodshed that occasionally touched our servants’ families, or in our case, stained my father’s floor mat when he smuggled refugees, our turn to run had arrived. The men were told to remain, so there would be enough room for the women and children in the first wave of evacuation. Some weeks later they finally received orders to get themselves to safety.

Our time-travel crew met at a retirement home in Fort Collins, in a bright room with tables and chairs. Wonderful to see so many of the people who shared the compounds at Umudike and Enugu in 1967. Some faces I recognized – many of the faculty and graduate students who had gone to Nigeria to teach. I did a double-take on meeting Danny, for I remember him as a little mischievous boy of five years of age with yellow dandelion hair, and now he’s in his fifties, with glasses and long hair held in order with a brow-band. He’s a lot taller, too.

Joe M came over. He was using a walker for he’s now 94 years old, and he wanted to park it against the wall so he could move about freely. He immediately told daughter and myself that my father had saved his life twice during the evacuation from Biafra.

It seems that when the expatriate men received the order to evacuate, Joe tried to get his Volkswagen out of Biafra stuffed to the windows with all the goods he and his wife Enid imagined might be useful to their daughter Lynn in her new married life in Northern Nigeria. A run-away marriage, I guess, to a Scandanavian whose family lived far from Biafra in the North of Nigeria, who spoke Hausa fluently.

Joe told us that when my father Fred and he travelled together in the Volkswagen van to cross the borders into Nigeria from Biafra, Federal soldiers grew suspicious and started to act like they were going to shoot him at one station, because they found a compass in his glove compartment. Things heated up, then a junior officer came into the room, saw Fred and greeted him with delight, asked what the trouble was and gave Joe and Fred a pass written in Hausa to get them through the next few roadblocks.

A day or so later, on the road, the Volkwagen got stuck in a huge line of traffic at another checkpoint. Some hours into this, during which the line moved perhaps three car lengths, an army vehicle came along and pulled them out of line for special interrogation. Again, things went sour, progressing to very sour and Joe said that he honestly thought he’d never be released. Then a similar thing happened but this time it was a colonel who came in, recognized Fred and embraced him with delight, took Joe and Fred out of the interrogators’ hands and whisked them off to lunch at the officers’ mess. Joe’s head was reeling.

Joe summed up his story by saying that he thinks even to this day that without Fred, he’d still be in Nigeria, either in a hidden prison camp or in a grave under a palm tree. Fred never told us these stories of the evacuation. I remember how my father always liked spending time with the Nigerian servants and students, and how my mother scolded him to come in and eat supper instead of chatting. I guess Fred got the last laugh.

I am writing too long so I’d better stop. On the flight back home daughter expressed delight to have met these people out of the past. She said they stood larger than life, as though the experience of being caught up in the transformations of a foreign nation had marked them all for life, made them face the fact that there would never again be an ordinary life for them. That none of them could ever claim that they didn’t matter, that their lives held no significance, because they had been in one of the myriad tides of history and left some kind of mark.

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