My Mother’s Secrets

She thought she was protecting her children by not telling us her harrowing tale of fleeing China.
[My essay first appeared in The New York Times on January 19, 2019]

Growing up in the 1950s as one of the few Chinese-American kids in my New Jersey town, I was so often told to “go back where youcame from” that I wondered about this place called China, where I had never been. But whenever I asked my mother about her young life in China, I always received the same curt answer: “That was wartime, unhappy memory.”

Over time, I stopped asking. Until one day, when she was in her 70s and we were having dinner in her small apartment, I lapsed into my childhood mantra. “Too bad you can’t tell me about my grandparents in China,” I muttered with no expectation of a reply.

But this time my mother put down her chopsticks and said: “All right, you want to know? I’ll tell you.”

I listened, transfixed, as my gentle mother launched into a tale with such clarity and force that I sat mute, fearing any sound from me would disrupt the narrative unfolding like a storybook that had never been opened:

One day in 1935, my 6-year-old mother climbed onto her father’s back in their dirt-floor cottage as they prepared to go to Suzhou, about 60 miles away. She was known only as Little Sister, and she was overjoyed because Baba had chosen her, not one of her brothers, for the special trip.

On the train ride, her first, she sat on her fa­ther’s lap, mesmerized by the rice fields and farmhouses sweeping by. When they ar­rived, she was impressed by the men and women in fine clothes, and by the colorful posters showing curly-haired ladies promoting cigarettes, mos­quito coils and rat poison.

They traveled by wooden cart pulled by an old man through mazelike lanes to a small store. Inside, her father spoke to the shopkeepers in a low voice while Little Sister watched the parade of vendors on the street. Soon Baba called to her. The shopkeepers looked into her mouth, poking and prodding her until one of them led her away. She turned to look for her father and saw him heading out the door.

“Baba! Baba!” she shouted. He didn’t turn around. The stranger pushed her into a small storeroom and locked the door. Terrified by the darkness, she whimpered at first, then steeled herself and called for her father until she was too hoarse to shout anymore. Then she sobbed herself to sleep.

The next morning, when the shopkeeper let her out, a beautiful lady stood nearby, staring intently. “She’s a pretty one, but so small and thin,” the woman mur­mured, her voice not unkind.

The shopkeeper uttered some reassuring words. Apparently satisfied, the woman took Little Sister by pedicab to a bathhousefilled with steam. An attendant removed her thin clothes and prepared to immerse her in a tub filled with hot water. She recoiled: She had never been in such a large tub and feared they were going to cook her.

She continued into the night and many more days to come, unearthing her buried stories, each more wrenching. After Japan’s invasion of China in August 1937, she fled with her new mama to Shanghai, pearl of the Orient. There they joined more than one million other refugees crammed into the city’s international districts, the imperial spoils from the prior century’s Opium Wars. They believed that the foreign enclaves would be safe havens because Japan was not yet at war with the United States and Britain. But the cruel Japanese occupation brought starvation, death and destruction. My mother — whose name was Bing — learned to give wide berth to the corpses and near-dead beggars who lined the streets.

Japan’s surrender in 1945 brought no respite, as fighting escalated between the ruling Nationalist Party and Mao Zedong’s Communist insurgents. As the government collapsed and the People’s Liberation Army advanced toward Shanghai, the city’s wealthy bourgeoisie, middle class and government loyalists — totaling as much as one-quarter of the city’s six million residents — were consumed by a single question: Should they abandon their homes for parts unknown or stay to face a nemesis reputedly as bloodthirsty as the Bolsheviks had been in Moscow?

By mid-1949, when the Communist victory seemed assured, anyone with the means to escape had fled. Those refugees included my mother, who traveled in third class aboard the General Gordon, a converted United States troopship that after 24 days at sea arrived in San Francisco on May 28, 1949 — three days after the Communists had taken Shanghai.

Each of my mother’s revelations prompted dozens more questions from me. I began interviewing other Shanghai exiles from the tectonic events that created a new China. I soon discovered that the stories of these survivors, like my mother’s, had a familiar cadence: terrible suffering through years of grinding war with Japan; the chaos of life under an imploding government; the flight from revolution on planes so overloaded they couldn’t clear barriers and trains so packed that people clung to the cars’ sides and roofs; the frantic crowds that trampled people to death as they rushed to the gangplanks of ships. Those lucky enough to escape all believed that they were on the last boat, plane or train out of Shanghai.

But leaving Shanghai was only the beginning. Most migrants found themselves unwelcome everywhere they landed.

For the first time in its history, the colonial government of Hong Kong began to turn Chinese away from its bursting border. The defeated Nationalists who had fled to Taiwan earlier eyed every new arrival from the mainland as a possible Communist infiltrator.

Those who reached the United States, the most desired and difficult port of entry, were greeted by immigration officials trained to enforce highly restrictive laws against Asian immigrants. Legislators raised alarms about an enemy Fifth Column even as they feigned humanitarian concerns; the F.B.I. interrogated immigrants and conducted raids on homes and businesses; many immigrants were detained on Ellis Island for varying lengths of time before they were released — or deported.

This all played out during McCarthy-era hysteria about Chinese Communism. My parents — who met in New York City — had each entered the country legally. But when their visas expired, they became undocumented, stateless refugees, and in 1955 were told they would be deported. Ultimately, immigration officials relented, citing the “extremeley unusual hardship” it would impose on their children — my two brothers and me, still all in diapers and American citizens by birthright. Even in those years of Cold War paranoia, it was unthinkably inhumane to separate parents from children.

Learning my mother’s stories for the first time, I began to understand why so many of the refugees and migrants chose not to tell their children about their exodus from Shanghai. Why recall trauma and hardship when, after finding places of refuge, they could focus on encouraging their children to reach their full potential? They themselves had not had that opportunity.

Even a cursory look at immigrants in America shows that a disproportionate number of their offspring pay forward their parents’ sacrifices. The Shanghai exodus produced Maya Lin, the architect, Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation, the Nobel laureate physicist Steven Chu and the novelist Amy Tan. Other migrations have brought the nation talents as varied as the former secretary of state Colin Powell, the writer Edwidge Danticat, the guitarist Carlos Santana, the actress Lupita Nyong’o and too many more to name.

My mother did not live to see herself in my book, but her secrets enabled me to see today’s migration crises through the eyes of a frightened child. It should not take another seven decades to grasp why present-day migrants risk all to face tear gas at a border, to brave rough seas in rubber rafts, to crowd into the next boat, plane, train or bus out of fear that it may be the last one out.

Or for the nation to realize that these refugees and migrants give so much more to the communities that welcome them than they will ever take away.

Helen Zia is the author of several books, including the forthcoming “Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution.”