C/Oasis
  Book News   |   About C/Oasis   |   Poetry Submissions   |   Sunoasis Jobs   |   Classifieds   |   Writer's Notebook   |   The Digital Writer  

 

Strange Lands And People

By Martha Nemes Fried

Almost halfway through our stay in China I had the opportunity to live and work fairly close to Mort's field site, Ch'u Hsien. China Relief Mission established a branch office in Nanking in February and I asked Jim Moody, our Deputy Director, for a transfer. My request was immediately granted. The decision to move was a difficult one. My job was interesting and having spent seven months in Shanghai I had acquired a circle of friends. Sylvia Ludlum, a top executive in the organization with whom I discussed the matter, told me that there was not a single challenging position in the Nanking office and advised against the move. She was a highly intelligent and experienced woman and I carefully listened to her words of caution. She impressed upon me that it was poor personnel policy to put a high-grade person in a low-grade job, the only one available in the Nanking office at the time.

I had long been aware of the potentially damaging effect of long separations to our marriage. We were each growing, but in different arenas and in dissimilar ways. Every time Mort came to Shanghai he was eager to tell me about his experiences in Ch'u Hsien and I had an equally strong need to share my experiences with him. I spent a mere twenty minutes thinking over what Sylvia had said and decided to go.

I took the sleeper from Shanghai to Nanking on the evening of March twentieth at eleven and arrived at eight the following morning to celebrate Mort's twenty-fifth birthday. This was the first time I had taken a train anywhere in China. I shared a compartment with three other women and slept soundly in my lower bunk as the train gently swayed wending its way toward the Southern Capital. I woke at seven, grateful for the hot towels and green tea the porter brought me.

I washed and dressed, then leaned against the window in the corridor of the train to watch the countryside go by. All along the embankment, not too far from the rails, Chinese workers and peasants were squatting to relieve themselves. They were enriching the soil near the wall with their excrement, staring at the passengers on the train as we stared at them. I had seen men urinate against walls in Shanghai, but this was an entirely new experience lasting nearly all the way to Nanking. Our passports were checked by an official on the train just before we arrived. Mort spent each weekend with me after that.

The Mission gave me the option of living in a room of the United Nations hostel at 57 Chung Shan Road. This was the building that housed the offices and personnel of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. My other choice was the third floor guest room in the house of John Kassebaum on Ping Tsang Lane. John was the chief executive officer of our Nanking office; Mrs. Kassebaum was yet to arrive. I preferred to separate my professional life from my personal life and chose the hostel.

The FAO offices were on the first floor of the six-story Fu Chang Da Loh, the restaurant was on the top floor and the residential rooms were on the floors in between. The restaurant concession in the hostel only served Western food. The only good comment I can make about the restaurant is that having been located on top of the tallest building in the area it afforded an unimpeded view of a large part of Nanking through its spacious windows.

Every time Mort left Ch'u Hsien to visit me in Nanking he sported a scraggly beard and wore his old army boots and fatigues that were heavily soiled by Friday. The guards at the gate always said, "There goes the Russian." They never failed to remark on his way back from Nanking, where he had shaved, bathed and had all his clothes washed and pressed, "Here comes the American."

These were the perceptions of farmers and small tradesmen who lived in the countryside. The views of city dwellers were influenced by close personal experiences with the whims and follies of foreigners. Proximity endowed them with greater understanding, a gently humorous but not always favorable interpretation, and quite often just resigned acceptance.

There was usually a poker game in progress while the passengers waited for the train at the station in Ch'u Hsien and Mort always accepted an invitation to join in. He was an experienced player who knew how to keep his cards close to his vest. He kept winning games until one of the men cried out in total exasperation.

"I can't win a game, your face shows no emotion. I can't tell what cards you might be holding. You're inscrutable!"

Nanking was completely unlike Shanghai and gave me the first real hint of the interior of China. The food in the hostel restaurant was awful. All the residents groused about it incessantly. They served us buffalo steaks and meat from oxen that were too old and feeble to pull a plow. The meat was almost impossible to chew. We had raisin pie and vanilla ice cream made with KLIM, dried milk used by the army, on alternate days for months on end. We registered a formal complaint with Bill Cummings, FAO's Chief Executive Officer. He told us that the owner of the building gave the restaurant concession to a relative. It was a package deal and useless to fuss about.

There was a temporary shortage of accommodations when I arrived and I had to share a large room, furnished with two single beds, with an Irish woman, Eileen Wallis, who had a pert face and a generous heart. She moved to another room each time Mort came in for the weekend, or Mort and I were assigned a room with a double bed. There was an additional charge for rent on my first bill. When I inquired about it at the office, I was told that it was for the nights Mort stayed with me. I went to the office and told the bookkeeper I was not about to pay extra rent for sleeping with my lawfully wedded husband while other women discreetly slept with their lovers free of charge. The extra fee was dropped from the bill.

China Relief Mission assigned Tony Meager to the Nanking office for a week right after I arrived. He did his work, I did mine, then we spent our free time as we pleased. We had long conversations over tea and biscuits in my room, roamed around the countryside in a staff car, looked at the Drum Tower and other places of historic interest. He took me along to the homes of his friends who invited him to dinner.

The first evening at the home of a European doctor and his family went very well, but the second evening was disastrous. Our hosts were midwesterners who neither smoked nor drank and maintained a forbidding countenance. It would never have occurred to me to force them to smoke or drink liquor as I did, and I lit up a cigarette assuming they believed in individual civil liberties. I caught a murderous look in Tony's eye and chose to ignore it. The conversation was dull, I was not having a good time, and I became ornery, sitting at the table passively, never touching the Spam they served for it was something I considered an insult to the genius of all Chinese cooks.

To make my displeasure unmistakably clear I smoked one cigarette after another in the small dining room. Tony, who is one of the gentlest men I have ever known, was apoplectic when we got back to the hostel and told me I was not fit to be taken out in civilized society. I reminded him of one of Somerset Maugham's brilliant stories in which he described a Briton who succeeded in the middle of China, surrounded by the artistic splendors of centuries, to perfectly reproduce a shabby, middle class English home down to the last tea cozy. Tony, straight-laced Englishman that he was, huffed and puffed and ultimately calmed down, but he did not take me to a friend's house again for a long time.

I received a letter from Mort shortly after my arrival containing bad news.

There was a touch of sadness here for the missionary's wife had a miscarriage & is still recuperating. The story is all over town it seems & the poor girl may lose a bit of face. They seem to have adjusted to it nicely, but it was a very short pregnancy -- she only knew she was carrying it about 2 to 3 weeks when it was lost.

Each floor had a boy who took care of the residents. We were lucky to have Han, a sensitive young man who was courteous and attentive. He was eager to improve his English just as I was determined to improve my Chinese. We made a pact to help each other. I gave him an English lesson for an hour each day. He spoke Chinese with me in return as often as timed allowed. He was knowledgeable about porcelains and cloisonne and always told me if a purchase I made was a good one, or a mistake to be rectified by returning it to the merchant who had stretched the truth about its age and value.

Nanking was the capital of China then. It is a walled city of about twelve square miles located on the south bank of the Yangtze River about two-hundred miles inland. The port of Nanking is Siakwan, north of the city, where the wharves and railway stations are situated. The harbor of Nanking has enough depth to accommodate steamboats that can enter the mouth of the Yangtze River. The city is in a valley surrounded by hills from four-hundred to fifteen-hundred feet high, which trap the heat and humidity in the summer months to a nearly unbearable level.

My room at the hostel was in the back of the building. The windows opened on a garden restaurant with a band playing music that sounded as if a cat's tail was being pulled until three or four o'clock in the morning. We had no air-conditioning and alternated between opening the window for a breath of air, then closing it to shut out the noise to maintain our sanity. Mort and I were so hot and soggy one summer night we poured ice water on each other from the thermos Han placed in our room each evening. We broke the world record in talcum powder usage. After a hot bath and a cold shower we could not dry ourselves during July and August no matter how many towels we used. The air-conditioned American Army Officers' Club with its outdoor pool and restaurant was our only escape.

The executives of China Relief Mission assigned me to the Joint China Relief Mission and Executive Yuan Commission Secretariat in Nanking. The office had been set up as an intermediary organization between the United States and the Chinese Nationalist Government. I worked with Chinese, American, British and Canadian staff members. The American director was Donald Gilpatric, his Chinese counterpart was Mr. Miao, an elderly gentleman who had a very young mistress. His need for testosterone was known by everyone and each time one of our executives went to Washington for a meeting, he spent hours trying to buy a supply in a drugstore.

A panel of American and Chinese advisers came to Nanking every Tuesday to meet and discuss the merits of funding requests. There were usually twenty-five to thirty proposals of interminable length written in fractured English. I saw an opportunity to create an interesting job for myself and quickly seized it. I remembered a conversation with Norma Silver, the assistant public relations officer in the Shanghai office. When I told her that I never learned shorthand, she confessed she did not know how to take dictation either. There was a limit on career opportunities in the late nineteen-forties for women whose only skill was shorthand; they found themselves boxed in and could, at best, become executive secretaries. Intelligent women who were not skilled at secretarial duties never had to take dictation from a superior. They usually wrote their own correspondence, and if they were resourceful they could advance to higher posts, often of their own creation.

I read the proposals, extracted the gist of each and wrote a one page precis to enable the panel to finish its task in one day. Decoding the hieroglyphics of the applicants was not merely challenging, it was at times quite humorous. At other times it revealed the dishonesty of Chinese officials who held top posts. This is in no way indicative of a belief on my part that the Chinese invented corruption or cornered the market on it. I was young and naive and confronted malfeasance in high places for the first time in my life. I have had several opportunities to observe its full measure in other countries, including my own, since then.

Before money was granted for any particular project a highly placed staff member of China Relief Mission investigated those who made the request. A Beijing bakery asked for supplemental funding. When Sylvia Ludlum went to Beijing to inspect the site she found an empty lot at the address. The attempt to gain easy access to American money to finance nonexistent businesses or spurious enterprises was to be ceaselessly repeated.

I enjoyed every aspect of my job but for the way the office was designed. It failed to grant even minimal privacy, except in the toilets. Another feature Eileen and I could not abide were the spittoons, three or four of them around the room for the benefit of the Chinese clerical staff. They drank boiling hot tea all day regardless of the weather, then deposited excess mucous into the spittoons with unerring aim and loud guttural sound effects. I spoke to the office manager, a bright, young and ambitious Chinese man, and asked him how he would feel if the foreigners were to relieve themselves of human waste in the presence of the other employees'. He got the point quickly, had the spittoons removed and told the clerks they would have to spit in the toilet. Eileen and I did not ingratiate ourselves with this gesture, but we were determined to put our comfort first. We could only get away with this behavior knowing the jobs of the Chinese staff depended on compliance with our wishes. We liked to think we were better than British colonists, but this was one instance when we were clearly insensitive.

It was delightful to find that Anhwei dialect, which was very similar to Mandarin, was spoken by nearly everyone in Nanking. Having improved my fluency with Han's help, I spent many afternoons after the office closed for the day wondering around Fu-tse-miao, a shopping district favored by foreign residents and visitors, and bargained for old Chinese treasures with the merchants. Everyone was expected to bargain. It was a game enjoyed by those who played it well and both seller and buyer had a friendly chuckle when the sale was completed and the merchandise was wrapped. The Chinese are delighted when a foreigner makes an effort, however haltingly, to speak their language. I always apologized for the inadequacy of my Chinese and they always complimented me on my linguistic skills. Nanking also had many textile shops, many of which Eileen and I frequented, stocked with a variety of absolutely gorgeous silk fabrics. We bought silk georgette, silk brocade, velvet made of silk and a material we had never seen anywhere else, silk georgette adorned with beautiful patterns of silk velvet. We took all our purchases to the tailor, picked out patterns and had all our dresses and evening gowns custom made.

China Relief Mission was under the aegis of the American embassy in Nanking and American staff members enjoyed all the privileges of foreign service employees. I had an embassy identification card and belonged to the American Army Officers' Club, where I could lunch or dine on food made with American ingredients. Sometimes I even enjoyed fresh strawberries flown in from the States. I loved Chinese food and ate it frequently when I lived in Shanghai, but its quality was very poor in Nanking restaurants. I had a Post Exchange card, which enabled me to buy another Parker pen for Mort; he had lost the first one I gave him by absentmindedly handing it to one of the workers when I moved from Rue Joffre to Rue Voyron.

I never smoked more than ten cigarettes a day in my life, way below my allotted PX ration. This left me with two or three extra cartons each month. I cringe now at the thought that I supplied my three-pack-a-day friends with cigarettes. I purchased Kentucky bourbon, Gordon's gin and French vermouth at the club, where liquor was tax-free and very cheap. I never drank hard liquor until I lived in China, I did not like the taste of it. Hungarians, much like the French, drink wine with meals. I had lived in America long enough to acquire a tolerance for Scotch or bourbon, but they reminded my palate of the bitter pharmaceutical concoctions I had to swallow as a child. For some reason I liked the very first martini I tried and resolved to learn to make a perfect one.

Eileen Wallis confided, while we were experimenting with different proportions of gin and Noilly Prat to mix a martini, that she could never have children. I promised her that I would name my first child after her. She was married, but had been separated from her husband for years. She had tried to get a divorce, but the laws in England required consent, something her husband swore he would never give. She pursued her case with him one more time and while we were still in Nanking and he finally relented and signed the necessary papers.

She had left the church some years before I met her. An utterly charming older Irish priest, who had a parish in Nanking, was determined to get her back into the fold. Father Bryant usually dropped in at a few minutes after five, just as we were having our first drink before dinner. We always offered him one and he always accepted it. He was a gregarious man, a marvelous raconteur and a good listener. This cat and mouse game was most amusing and I waited to see if Eileen would cave in to his blandishments. She never did.

Eileen had lovely features, dark, perfectly coiffed hair, green eyes and a wicked sense of humor. She was a good dancer, looked gorgeous in evening clothes and never lacked for partners. A good many attractive men buzzed around her at the Officers' Club and she always had more requests for dates than time to accept them. She was thirteen years my senior and made some observations about the club that were appropriate for someone with greater life experience. Her comments jarred me at first, but I have come to view them with delicious appreciation since I have long passed the age of innocence. She remarked that the men ogle the women, the women examine each other's outfits with the cold eyes of Wall Street stockbrokers, and the bachelors stand at the bar placing odds on who will end up in whose bed.

"Every time I go to the club I feel I'm too old to play these childish games, then I dance with a handsome man and feel young again and find that I enjoy myself afterall."

Jim Lanigan was happily settled in the Beijing branch and wrote me the following:


May 5, 1948

Dear Kathleen Mavourneen: As regards your unworthy husband - received an epistle from him last week written in such excellent Chinese that I am sure you helped him write it or else he had Dr. Chao's phonograph records with him at the time. Your own letter is bouncing with happiness; evidently you prefer Nanking to "Boy‚" with all his enticements. You put a germ of an idea in my honorable mind when you mentioned coming down to Nanking for a weekend or so. On my own time I went up to Mukden for three days, half for recreation and half for rationing possibility purposes and managed to discover quite a bit of valuable nonsense which I relayed to our erstwhile friend Gibson. Why when you next see him could you suggest that he arrange a visit for me, under CRM supervision, to observe proceedings in Nanking? I have been to your city before, like it very much and I am sure that we could arrange some sort of double date because I have two very far-from-ugly girlfriends there. You don't say anything about the possibilities of running up here. But seriously speaking I would be very amenable to them arranging a three or four day assignment in Nanking. See what you can do. Glad Mort renewed his subscription on a fellowship. Does that mean they can be staring at him over here for another year or is he going back to the land of subways. It is hard to determine which place reeks more of garlic. Our pal, Harry Humphreys was up here two weeks ago on his way to and from Mukden. We had a fine old time drinking beer and throwing up when we had too much Beijing duck. Please send me details of your more publishable experiences and I will break down and confess how I have been spending my time. What day does Bar-Mitzvoh fall on this year?

Lamar Sabattani Erving

The letter was pure Jim, peppered with his wild sense of humor, enigmatic to those who did not know him well. I cannot for the life of me remember Harry Humphreys. He must have been one of a dozen men who worked for China Relief Mission and spent most of their time traveling to conduct onsite inspections. Jim did come down to Nanking and paid his own way. We made arrangements to visit Beijing in July.

I made quite a few friends in Nanking. Mort introduced me to Frank Davis, an American mining engineer, whom he had met at the WHO hostel. Mort used to stay there on his way to or from Ch'u Hsien to attend to personal business at the American Embassy before I moved to Nanking. Frank was an advisor to the Chinese government. He could have lived in more elegant quarters, but he was a simple man and found the accommodations at the hostel satisfactory. He introduced us to Dr. Ian O'Toole and his wife Sadie, who lived at the same hostel. Sadie invited us to tea on a summer afternoon and fussed over us excessively. I could only conclude that she was very lonely and eager to make new friends. Dr. O'Toole was a pleasant, quiet man who tended to fade into the woodwork. Frank openly flirted with Sadie. I watched O'Toole's face to see if it revealed jealousy, but he maintained an expressionless mien.

Looking at Frank I noticed that his nose was covered with a network of burst capillaries and his face was flushed from the brandy he drank instead of tea. His thin white hair, blown by the mild breeze, revealed pink patches on his scalp. Poor old man, I thought, he is trying to recapture his youth by trying to have a dalliance with a younger woman.

Although Sadie was not my cup of tea, both Mort and I took to the shy, reserved doctor and invited them to dinner at the club. Once he loosened up, Ian turned out to be good company. Mort came down with a terrible case of dysentery the weekend after we met and Ian responded to my call in the middle of the night by rushing to his side immediately. He gave Mort some medication and ordered rest and a mild liquid diet.

Here is the letter I received from Mort after he returned to Ch'u Hsien with his newly purchased radio.


Ch'u Hsien
April 12, 1948

Dearest Kedves:

I got over my attack but feel no better; in fact I feel much worse. There are no pills I can take now to recover. It's that !!&%$#!!!@ radio. Nothing wrong with it except that it doesn't play. Just try to get this picture:- I arrive with the damned thing, the big hero, bringing a dash of American ingenuity with him. A tremendous crowd follows me to my room. I have a great audience. Not even standing room left within hearing distance as one man delegates himself an announcer and keeps the outer members of the mob posted on my every move as I put in the battery. Then the great moment, I try the radio. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. I work like a bastard for hours over the radio.

They go out and get a man who repairs the two radios and six phonographs already in Ch'u Hsien. He breaks a tube that may or may not have been bad to begin with. I hope so and tell myself that the tube was already bad so that I don't run through the streets hysterically, maybe with a kris killing everybody I meet.

So on Friday I'll bring the blasted thing back to Nanking. I'm sure I won't be able to get another tube for it. Oh, how did I ever get into this mess?

Absolutely disgustedly yours,
But I love you very much,
Mort

The residents of the hostel, who came from all parts of the world, expressed curiosity about Chinese customs and during dinner conversations Mort taught them perhaps more than they wanted to know. American women, whose lot was the loss of power as they aged, listened with envy and reconsidered their previous views on freedom of their hearts' choice in romantic couplings and marriage. Perhaps the Chinese system of arranged marriages and iron-willed mothers-in-law was not bad afterall, they thought. Chinese women accumulated power as they aged. In 1948 the Western women in their thirties and forties were considered over the hill by then. They slowly developed an appreciation for some aspects of the Chinese way of life.

Nathan and Agnes Wharton, a couple in their late thirties, were avid readers with wide ranging interests. I had always liked having older friends I could learn from. We had many stimulating and spirited conversations mostly discussing books and politics. Nathan was second in command at FAO. They had two young children enrolled in private school. Unlike many foreign women in China who left their offspring entirely in the care of an amah, Agnes was a wonderfully warm, caring and sensitive mother. She was a plain looking woman who displayed a row of crooked teeth when she smiled, but her intelligence, wit and charm transformed her into a beauty. The Whartons moved into a very comfortable house about a month after Agnes and the children arrived in Nanking and hired a staff to take care of it.

Agnes came to visit me for tea occasionally and we had long talks about history and politics. We both liked Harry Truman and hoped he would get re-elected. We also discussed love, romance, courtship and marriage. I told her Mort and I were married by an army chaplain while he was stationed at Camp Beale in Marysville, California. The chaplain asked me what kind of service I wanted and my answer was, "A short one."

I shared this letter from Mort with her.


Ch'u Hsien
April 30, 1948

My dearest Kedves, I spent the entire day at a wedding & now half lit on rice wine . . . . I want to remark you were damned lucky that you married me as shortly & simply as you did. If you were a Chinese bride you'd still carry the trauma of the wedding. Anyhow -- the major point is that the bride from about 3PM until 9-10PM, a good 6 to 7 hours, is made the butt of jokes, questions, etc. etc. -- & all the while is forbidden by custom to speak! Wearing dark glasses to replace the older "face cloth" she faces her tormentors with an amazingly set countenance. I'd prefer to be married quickly in some little town like -- shall we say -- Marysville.
I love you,
Mort

Harvey Levine, a veterinarian, was conducting original research on a new serum to prevent a fatal disease that afflicted cows. His efforts bore fruit while we were still there and everybody in the hostel celebrated his scientific breakthrough. Harvey was twenty-nine and a bachelor, a condition Eileen and I felt impelled to correct by matching him up with a "nice girl." We teased him mercilessly until Agnes took each of us aside and told us to stop; she made us realize we had embarrassed him. Harvey turned out to be a very close friend of a close friend of ours and we saw each other quite a few times in New York and Leonia where we settled after we returned home.

Gerard Fresnay was the son of a high ranking French diplomat and a Mossi woman from Upper Volta. His coloring was beautiful. He had brown hair and blue eyes, looked as if he had a deep suntan and his features were delicately chiseled. He was a medical doctor and a botanist, educated at the Sorbonne. He was very well-read, well-bred, erudite and charming. He conducted himself with honor and discretion at all times. He used to take me for rides in the country in his staff car and served tea from a thermos as we sat in the shade of the nearest tree and discussed politics or the books we were reading. The people who worked and lived at the FAO building were together all day every day, seven days a week. A certain amount of tension was bound to develop and express itself in some backbiting, but I never heard Gerard utter an unkind word about anyone. He learned tact and discretion at his diplomat father's knee.

The Millers were a young Canadian couple. Ken was a forestry expert and Ethel was the bookkeeper in the FAO office. They had been married five years, longer than Mort and I, but were still considered newlyweds by the other residents of the hostel. They were just as likely to display their affection in public as hang out their dirty linen by constantly bickering. Ken had a sharp tongue and Ethel had no trouble expressing her anger. Where he was somewhat more tempered in his judgments, Ethel had an opinion on everything and never hesitated giving voice to it. Every thought she had in her head came out of her mouth like a bullet, frequently providing the other residents with merriment. Her comments were never mean-spirited and she was often puzzled by the levity they elicited.

If I close my eyes I can still see the beautiful Mrs. Nag from New Delhi whose husband, Sushil, had a doctorate from Oxford and a white-Russian mistress. The fights began in early May, the day after Veena Nag, who looked like an exotic flower, arrived with the couple's three children. The walls were not thick enough nor her voice sufficiently controlled as she was overheard berating her fickle husband for his faithlessness and disloyalty to herself and their children. He made lame attempts to defend himself by denying her charges. If he had had any sense, Agnes pointed out, he could have said that the separation from her had been so unbearably painful he merely yielded to temptation in search of comfort.

"His response is as dimwitted as could be expected of most men in similar circumstances," said Agnes. "Poor Veena Nag, she's terrified of losing her husband to a hussy."

"I gave you the best years of my life and you betrayed me," Veena cried out one evening and instantly became a comic strip character to those of us who were familiar with the old cliche in melodramatic novels, plays and films. Of course, the other residents of the hostel, Nag's colleagues, their wives, and the women who worked for the mission, knew about Nag's white-Russian mistress and had anticipated Mrs. Nag's explosion with fear; she was bound to stumble onto the truth and create a ruckus. Eileen reported she saw him in a Shanghai restaurant with his mistress while she was there for the weekend to visit old friends, when the ostensible purpose of Nag's trip was FAO business.

Dr. Nag, an Oxford-educated agricultural economist, was respected for his extensive knowledge of both Western and Asian economic systems and his ethnological experience, but his sloppy personal life had been too blatant to escape notice and consequently took some of the sheen off his professional reputation. He was hopelessly unenlightened about proper modes of conduct and was always pinching and touching the women at the hostel. The stinging slaps his outraged victims inflicted on his hands and face had failed to discourage him. Gerard Fresnay, whose personal conduct was beyond reproach, was horrified by Nag's deportment after he heard reports of it and attempted to have a sensible man-to-man talk with him. Dr. Nag's behavior in the offices and the dining room of the FAO improved for a short while.

Mrs. Nag had traveled with a trunk full of silk saris woven with gold and silver threads. She never wore the same sari twice and kept us mesmerized for the rest of her stay. We practically held our breath each evening waiting for her appearance in the dining room wondering what she was going to wear. By the time she made her entrance we were half finished with dinner.

"She has the instincts of an actress," Ethel Miller remarked in a whisper just loud enough for her table companions to hear.

Veena Nag might have looked like a delicate tropical Nereid, but she was more shrewd and pragmatic than anyone at first suspected. She understood the compulsive and self-destructive nature of her husband's roving eyes and hands. She sized up the situation quickly. To establish her position as his wife and to endow him with the respectability he sorely needed, she gave a dinner party on Lotus Lake two weeks after her arrival in Nanking. She rented two boats, one for the guests and the other for the staff and the necessary paraphernalia to prepare and serve the food and drinks. I thought I was having a good time chatting with Ethel, Agnes, Gerard and Harvey until I had a sudden urge to vomit. I leaned over the boat and gave up the contents of my stomach, wondering if I was pregnant.

"Feeding the fish," Agnes asked, then she offered me her handkerchief and asked one of the serving boys to fetch a hot towel and ice water.

Eileen and I frequented the same hairdresser. We relaxed for two hours each Saturday morning not only receiving head, neck and arm massages but also having our hair washed and set and our fingernails manicured. We always sat in adjoining chairs and chatted while we were pampered by skilled Chinese practitioners. Veena Nag disturbed our tranquility by her officious demand for a curtained stall when she entered the beauty shop one Saturday. She did not even acknowledge our presence with a nod of her head.

The owner of the shop complied with her request. By shouting "kwai-kwaiti" several times, he jolted three assistants into immediate action. They provided long curtains fastened to an oval ring, which was attached to the ceiling, then lowered it over Veena. She was fully protected from public view and we wondered why she was in need of total privacy just to have her hair washed.

Later that evening while we played mahjongg, we told Nathan and Agnes about Mrs. Nag's curious behavior. Nathan said he could see no mystery in her conduct. Mrs. Nag's hair was undoubtedly in need of dying and as an aggrieved wife, convinced she had already been rendered ridiculous in the eyes of her husband's associates, she would rather have perished than become further diminished in their esteem.

"No woman wants it publicly known that her hair is graying, especially if the silver strands are premature," Nathan said. Ethel Miller, who had short blond curly hair, was amazed at Nathan's acuity and complimented him. She declared she would never have her hair dyed, she wanted the gray to show the wisdom she gained through her life experience. We were all amused by Ethel's naivete.

Ken Miller considered it his duty to be especially gracious with Mrs. Nag after he heard of the incident at the beauty parlor. He took her aside and thanked her for the generous hospitality at her dinner party on Lotus Lake. He had spent time in India and was extremely fond of curried food. Veena's insecurities were allayed for at least one day.

All the Americans in Nanking knew each other or at the very least heard about each other by the method Eileen Wallis called the bamboo wireless. Servants who conducted themselves with perfect decorum in our presence enjoyed gossiping about us behind our backs and talked about our peculiar ways and loose morals, as if Americans had invented fornication, promiscuity, homosexuality and inebriation. Although there was a law against it, the Chinese continued to have concubines and for all the preaching, mostly by American missionaries, they regularly got drunk in wine shops and were vehemently scolded and dragged home by their wives.

Mort had met Si Levinson, a graduate of the City College of New York, on the SS General Gordon. The old school tie does bind and the two became fast friends. Si was the treasury man at the embassy and shared a house with Steve Klein who was third secretary of the embassy. The two men maintained an elegant home with many rooms, a spacious backyard, a Number One Boy, a Number Two Boy, a male cook and a wash amah. They wined and dined Mort when he was alone in Nanking and showered me with their hospitality on weekdays, while Mort was in Ch'u Hsien. They often gave a lavish dinner party during the weekend and never failed to include us. Both men were years older than I and bestowed their generous avuncular attentions upon me.

The temperature was still nippy when I arrived at the end of March and continued through the better part of April. Si took all of us in his car to visit the magnificent mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen. Its white marble ceremonial hall and its roof, covered with blue tiles, were exquisite. The simple and massive gray brick Ming Tomb provided a sharp contrast to Dr. Sun's final resting place. Both monuments are at the foot of the Purple Mountains, which are fifteen-hundred feet high and quite beautiful; it was the site of China's principal astronomical observatory then. We wondered all over the Mountain of Ten-thousand Buddhas and picnicked in the surrounding hills.

I drifted away from the rest of the group to explore the mountain on my own one afternoon. I walked for only ten minutes on a secluded path when my ears picked up a faint sound. I walked for ten more minutes before I discovered two Buddhist monks chanting prayers. There was not another soul there; just the monks, the sound of their chanting and I. The whole world slipped away and I could not move for a while. I felt a profound peace and a spiritual connection unlike any before. I did not look at my watch and had no idea how long my spellbound state lasted. I rejoined my friends, who had not noticed I had been gone, so it could not have been more than fifteen minutes, but it was an experience I would never forget.

Some of my friends and colleagues from the Shanghai office visited me in Nanking occasionally. I took the day off from the office when Tony Meager, Nicky Chu and Dave Spillett came together and we piled into a staff car to see the countryside surrounding Nanking. We ascended the stairs at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial and felt we had reached heaven when we got to the top. I have a photo of Nicky, Tony and Dave leaning against a tree near Dr. Sun's mausoleum. I have no idea what happened to Nicky, who stayed in China; I heard years later that Dave died in a shipwreck. Of these three, Tony was the only one to keep in touch.

Please click to continue the story.


Martha Nemes Fried has published two hardcover books; each came out in paperback. Nineteen of her stories have been published in the following magazines: Ceteris Paribus, Eclectica, Savoy Fiction, Megaera, Dynamic Patterns, Zinos, News of the Brave New World and C/Oasis. She was born in Budapest, Hungary and came to the United States when she was a child.

Contact Martha Nemes Fried at mfried13@rochester.rr.com

Return to Oasis