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Strange Lands And People
By Martha Nemes Fried
I received a letter in June 1963 from REALM: FOR WOMEN OF ACCOMPLISHMENT, asking me for an article of interest to professional women. It reached me when my son was nearly three months old. I had no time to respond as I was packing for a trip to Taipei, Taiwan where Mort planned to conduct field research for a year with a special interest in the organization of clan temples.
We left the States on the fifth of July, headed for Southampton and reached our ultimate point of destination some six weeks later. On the way we spent a week in London, a week in Scheveningen, Holland, ten days in Athens, two days in Bangkok, two days in Singapore and one week in Hong Kong, having traveled on the SS Nieuw Amsterdam, KLM, Swissair, Japan Airlines, Malay Air Lines and Chinese Air Transport on the final leg of our journey to Taipei.
Robert Benchley wrote that taking a first class train trip with a small child was an experience akin to fourth class train travel in Albania. I had his doctrine very much in mind at the start of the journey. I was pleasantly surprised that with some effort on our part we could find goods and services to accommodate a small baby everywhere we stayed. I sought this sort of information before we left home, but was not able to find it. It occurred to me that an article relating our experiences would be helpful to women who travel with a baby.
I was really looking for something else in the attic to pack up for my move to Rochester in 2000 when this letter, which I had long forgotten, floated to the surface like flotsam and jetsam from the bottom of the ocean. I happened upon a document of historical value! Helpful to women who travel with a baby. That sentence jumped out and hit me right in my post-Feminine Mystique consciousness. Why did I not phrase it, "Helpful to families who travel with an infant?" I was not a single mother, yet I failed to include my husband in the problem we were facing as a family. It was shortly after receiving this letter that a copy of Ms. Friedan's manifesto was given to me by a friend.
Our initial happiness gave way to apprehension as the pregnancy turned out to be chancy for nearly eight months. I was completely focused on carrying the baby to term and delivering him without anesthetics. My major concerns were his and my health. This was before the advent of amniocentesis when a considerable amount of suppressed anxiety accompanied a pregnancy close to the sunset of the biological clock.
Our house had to be rented, clothing had to be packed for four seasons and baby clothes had to be purchased and packed in three sizes. A colleague of Mort advised that small electrical appliances would make life easier in Taiwan and electric blankets were necessary for all of us. The climate in Taipei is damp all the time; it is hot and damp in the summer and cold and damp in the winter. The electric blankets, we were told, had to be plugged in around the clock to keep the bed sheets dry. I found after we moved into our house that we had to keep light bulbs on in all the closets to prevent mildew on our clothes.
I had published one book which was well received and attempted to write another while trying to be the perfect wife and mother. The key word here is "attempted." I had done a good deal of political speechwriting and composed many position papers when I managed campaigns, but had not written a single word on any subject since the beginning of my pregnancy with my second child. I experienced a constant undercurrent of tension due to the unreasonable demands of the prospective tenant of our Leonia house, the delay of the signing of the atomic test ban treaty and the passage of the civil rights legislation, stalled in a congressional committee at the time. It never occurred to me that I missed writing.
Steven was born eighteen days early and to our relief and joy he was not only a sturdy and healthy boy, but a beautiful one. We were happy to have a child of each gender. Mort, Nancy, nearly twelve at the time, and I agreed on naming him Elman Steven after our close friends, Elman and Stevie Service. The ink was not yet dry on his birth certificate when Nancy announced that we would have to call him Steven because no girl would date a boy named Elman. She urged us to take her advice seriously even when we pointed out that Elman had done very well by marrying Helen Stevenson. She gave us a "how out of touch can you be" look. Of the three of us, Nancy was the only one plugged in to the subculture of her peers, and we accepted her recommendation.
I was completely preoccupied with nursing as it was the only way we could safely and comfortably travel around the world with an infant. I drank two quarts of liquid a day, mostly milk at the beginning. I tired of the taste of it after a while and partly substituted a glass of beer mixed with stout each day. I checked with my doctor who said it was not only safe, it encouraged the flow of milk. Steven's sustenance was always on tap, it contained my immunities, it was more sterile than the hands of a surgeon and more nutritious than canned formula.
I promised myself that I would make notes as we sailed on the Atlantic and sat on the bulkhead seats of airplanes to use them as a basis for a new book. It took me a few months to realize that I had a mild form of postpartum depression. I spent my time mostly resting and relishing the abundance and excellence of the food on the SS Nieuw Amsterdam which far surpassed even that of the Moore-McCormack line. We also attended films and other entertainment planned by the Holland America Line to keep us happy. We were fortunate in having a Dutch cabin steward who was a freshly minted father. He missed his baby son very much and fussed over Steven all the time.
Nancy ate lunch and dinner at the first sitting at a table with three nuns. One of them sought me out at the end of the journey to tell me how much they had enjoyed her company. Mort and I ate at the second sitting. The food was the same but the hours were more suitable for adult dining.
I turned forty while at sea. To my complete surprise, Mort, having consulted with the chef, the sommelier and the pastry chef, treated me to an extraordinary birthday feast with my favorite dishes, two kinds of wine, a birthday cake with flowers and candles and champagne to accompany the cake. I have been told of women who take to their beds on their fortieth. With a new baby and an attentive husband I had a lot to celebrate, but I remember feeling blue, still not understanding what was ailing me.
Nancy, Steven and I slept on the train all the way from Southampton to London surrounded by seventeen pieces of luggage. On our first day at the hotel we repacked our largest suitcase for shipping and sent it directly to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Taiwan. We went to the theater in London almost every evening. We saw a musical production of Dickens' Pickwick, a dramatic adaptation of E. M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread and an Iris Murdoch play, The Severed Head. We had a smoothly worked out system of shifts; Mort and I went out, Nancy stayed with Steven; Nancy and I went out, Mort stayed with Steven; Nancy and Mort went out, I stayed with Steven.
Our New York pediatrician referred us to a London colleague for Steven's second series of immunizations. The weather was more like November than July when we arrived. Steven caught a cold and developed an ear infection. I no longer remember the doctor's name, but having spent my life reading English novels I was quite excited by the fact that he was a Harley Street specialist and explained to Nancy what it signified. We took a taxi to the doctor's office and passed Wimpole Street on the way. I was thrilled to ride by the girlhood home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and could not resist telling Nancy about the Barrett family, the father's obsessive attachment to his elder daughter, his objections to Robert Browning's courtship of Elizabeth and her elopement to Italy with the man she loved.
Steven fussed because of his earache and I sent Nancy to a drug store to get him a pacifier while I sat in the doctor's waiting room with Steven in my arms. She was gone more than a half hour, but triumphantly returned with the needed item. This was no small achievement. It was raining hard and Nancy, looking for a drug store, had to learn from a stranger on the street that what she wanted was a "chemist". She was directed to one, but when she asked for a pacifier the reaction was a blank look on the faces of the clerks. It took about ten minutes of explaining what the item in question was used for, at which point one of the clerks said, "Oh, you mean a dummy! We have those."
We sampled the restaurant fare, which was still pretty poor in London in 1963, and ended up eating most of our lunches and dinners at a Chinese restaurant near our hotel. We did a fair amount of sightseeing and spent a marvelous Sunday morning on Portobello Road where I bought a lovely cross made on the Isle of Man. The cross disappeared some years ago. My mother always said, "What the house swallows up the house gives back." This maxim is very comforting most of the time, except when after tearing the house apart you still cannot find the object you have been looking for.
Steven was completely recovered and had his second series of inoculations by the time we departed Harrow for Amsterdam where a limousine, arranged by our travel agent, was waiting to take us to Scheveningen. The chauffeur was an excellent driver and an outstanding guide. We all enjoyed the ride, but the children and I were very tired and fell asleep about an hour after we left the airport. Our rooms at the Badhotel, newly opened at the time, were modern and spotlessly clean. The hotel's service and food were excellent.
Nancy and Mort swam in the ice cold waters of the Atlantic while Steven slept in his carriage on the terrace of the hotel as I read a book and acquired a tan. We rented a Volkswagen bus and drove to Gouda, Delft, Leyden and Utrecht, spending a day in each place. Nancy walked all the way up to the bell tower of a fifteenth century cathedral in Delft. I gave up after four flights of stairs.
I nursed Steven in the car and on park benches. We ate in sidewalk restaurants where Steven slept peacefully in his carriage while we enjoyed the delicious food and excellent beer. We bought a porcelain platter for the Moodys who lived in Athens, the next stop on our journey, and purchased small pieces of jewelry. I still use the silver thimble Nancy bought for me in a little shop in Delft. Everywhere we went we saw women scrub the sidewalk outside their house. Each time we used a public toilet we found a lovely white-haired lady in a spotless uniform handing out whiter than white towels in the most pristine bathrooms we had seen anywhere. Well traveled people are connoisseurs of bathrooms. Those of us who have had to squat over a hole in the ground have a healthy appreciation of a spotless white tile one with hot and cold running water and fine quality toilet paper.
We could not find the main entrance to the university when we visited Leyden. I approached the first person I saw entering a gate, went up to him and asked if he could speak English. He was not only fluent, he did not have a foreign accent! I said "Oh, you're English." He replied "No, I'm Dutch. I went to Cambridge." He graciously showed us around the campus.
We went to Gouda on market day. There were many stalls selling a large variety of herring and Mort ate more of it than I thought even his bottomless stomach could hold. The circus came to Scheveningen two days before we left. Nancy and I went while Mort stayed with Steven. It was a small-town circus with one ring and reminded me of the circus I attended as a child in Budapest, Hungary. I much preferred it to the five-ring circus at Madison Square Garden. We sat in the first row and barely escaped huge elephant droppings.
I felt sad when we had to leave Holland, but after we boarded Swissair I looked forward to seeing our old friends, the Moodys. They had two more children since we had last seen them, a boy of eight and a darling little girl of four. Jim met us at the airport in Athens and drove us to their home in Psychicho, a suburban community where they had a large, elegantly appointed house with two full time maids. Jane was still working for the International Refugee Organization in a position much higher than the one she had held in Shanghai. Their first set of children were grown, one of them married and a father.
The Moodys had a spacious, well tended garden, which included a shelter from the sun covered with a profusion of roses. It became my favorite spot to nurse Steven. We fell into their routine easily. All meals were served outdoors. Breakfast was anytime we asked for it. Lunch was a leisurely meal served at three as soon as Jane came home from work, followed by a long siesta in cool, tree-shaded rooms. We usually drove to the site of an old temple in the late afternoon and had our supper at ten in the evening. The meals were always accompanied by retsina, a Greek wine that definitely calls for an acquired taste. Jim drove us to Piraeus after the last meal of the day each evening. We sat at a table overlooking the Saronic Gulf, watched the boats and sipped uzo.
We went to an ancient temple in Sounion one afternoon to see the place where Byron had carved his name on a marble column, and accepted Jim Moody's generous offer of his Mercedes to drive to Delphi the following day. It is redundant to say that Greece is sunny. The Greek sky is a special shade of blue, the countryside is rich with trees, bushes, flowers and grass, all of it green. The vines are heavy with grapes and the mountains are spectacularly beautiful with terraced planting.
The road to Delphi was smooth and we parked the car in front of the first hotel on our left when we arrived. It turned out to be a jewel. There was a special room for mothers to nurse, wash and change babies and refresh themselves. We had a lunch of stuffed grape leaves, lamb and pilaf on the terrace that jutted out over a magnificent gorge. Our happiness was contagious and spread to Steven who smiled every moment he was awake. We walked around the town, visited the shrine of Apollo and bought a few souvenirs in a shop. On the way home we were held up for three hours in a rush hour traffic jam, the only discomfort we ever experienced in Greece. We visited the Parthenon early one morning and found an army of trinket sellers to our dismay, but enjoyed the connection with two-thousand years of history despite them.
We spent an hour or so nearly each day on the beach and built a tent to protect Steven from the sun. He peacefully slept under it in his portable crib. The color of the Aegean defies description; it is pure and clear and the water caresses one tenderly. I took Steven into the sea with me when he was awake. I promised myself that I would return to Greece. It has been more than forty years since our stay there, but unlike The Three Sisters who never got to Moscow, I am still determined to return to Greece.
Mort went to have lunch at a restaurant in Athens while I was having my hair done at a beauty shop. He related the following event to me when he came to pick me up. A tall man blocked his entrance and he was about to get into a fight when he recognized our dear old friend, Louis Cohn-Haft, Chairman of the History Department at Smith College. The two men fell into each other's arms and embraced. The meeting was completely unexpected. Lou, his wife Athena and their three children were spending his sabbatical year in Italy. Athens was just a side trip alone for Lou. We spent an entire day sightseeing with him; his expert knowledge enhanced our enjoyment.
Nancy turned twelve while we stayed at the Moodys' and Jane gave a magnificent birthday party for her, with Lou hastily added to the list of invited guests. Mort and Jane went shopping for ingredients for a Chinese dinner which he had promised to cook. Jane had invited fifteen guests, the Chinese ambassador among them, and baked two birthday cakes. I knew I could never top that celebration and from then on I limited myself to more modest birthday parties for her.
We flew from Athens to Singapore where we only spent three days. The weather was extremely hot and humid, which confined me with Steven to our air-conditioned suite most of the time. We had breakfast served in our rooms, Nancy and I lunched in the dining room and Mort took me to an air-conditioned restaurant to dine one evening. Nancy and Mort walked all over the city late in the evening long after the sun had set, enjoyed the open markets and told me all about their adventures when they returned to the hotel.
We flew from Singapore to Bangkok. Steven had one of those convenient carriages that come in two parts. It had a wheelbase and a crib part, which could be removed and used as a small crib in a car or restaurant. Malay airlines shipped the wheel base to Tokyo by mistake and we only had the crib. They promised to get the wheelbase back for us as quickly as they could.
I called Tony Meager at UNICEF. He drove to our hotel immediately and took us to his club where his wife and children were waiting for us. We had a swim and caught up on news about each other and the people we used to know in China. Tony and his wife took us to an excellent Chinese restaurant for dinner where we enjoyed the cuisine while his children kept an eye on Steven asleep in his crib. Tony told us he was slated to go to meetings in Taiwan. We did not have to say good bye, just au revoir. Nancy and I spent one afternoon on a private tour of the palace grounds and temples with a guide who wore a smartly tailored suit with high heel pumps. She stunned us by falling flat on her face in obeisance upon entering a temple.
The wheelbase of the carriage was waiting for us when we arrived at the airport to board our plane for Hong Kong. Marjorie Topley, a British anthropologist colleague of Mort, met us at the airport and took us to a reserved suite of rooms at the Ambassador Hotel. Our week-long stay was filled with sightseeing and a round of parties given by anthropologists who were conducting field research and foundation people whose job it was to facilitate their work and make their lives comfortable. Marjorie and her husband Kenneth were great hosts. They took us to the New Territories and bought a traditional silk brocade sling in which I could carry Steven on my back. I still have it and hope to pass it on to Steven when he becomes a father.
My most rewarding experience in Hong Kong was seeing an old friend. Mort had attended the fiftieth anniversary celebration of Hong Kong University in 1961 and ran into Ailing Cheng in the dean's office. She had been one of the secretaries at China Relief Mission in Shanghai where we both worked in 1947 and 1948 and saw each other every day. She immediately recognized him and asked about me. An hour after we checked into the Ambassador Hotel on the twelfth of August I called her at the university. She came to our hotel suite right after work and we had a wonderful reunion. She told me she had married an artist and her daughter was born on the same day at the same hour as mine, August 3, 1951 at 6:01 P. M. She conveyed the comment her husband had made.
"Just think, you and Martha were more than ten-thousand miles apart and each of you labored with your first child at the same time."
The following day she came to tea with her daughter, a lovely girl who was kind and friendly with Nancy.
The last stretch of the journey to Taipei was on Chinese Air Transport on August 15. We stayed at a hotel until we moved into our house. Mort had agreed to teach a course in the anthropology department of National Taiwan University, affectionately referred to by native as well as foreign China scholars as "Taita." We were given a three-bedroom house in the compound especially built for visiting professors. The house also had a dining room, a large living room with a fireplace, a bathroom, a kitchen and servants' quarters.
Chen Mei-ling's previous American employers had just left and she was looking for a new position. She was at the house when a staff member of the off-campus housing office showed it to us and we hired her on the spot. Mei-ling and I made a list of all the things we would need and she knocked at our hotel suite promptly at nine the following morning, ready to go shopping.
We bought sheets, pillows and cases, light cotton blankets, china, glassware, flatware, place mats, linen napkins, two huge kettles to boil water and some aluminum pots for cooking. I am certain we purchased many other things, but I can no longer remember the entire list. Mei-ling urged me to return to the hotel to take care of Sze-wen, calling Steven by the Chinese name given to him by Mort. She assured me as I put her in a taxi with all our purchases that she would have everything ready for us when we moved in on Thursday, the twenty-second of August.
The possibility of hiring Mei-ling as the number one servant in our household indicated drastic social and cultural changes of attitudes in Chinese society. It would have been unthinkable in the China of 1947-48 to hire a woman for a position of responsibility that was traditionally held by men. Women had gained power and prestige long before 1963 and jobs that had always been held exclusively by men were now also held by qualified women.
Mei-ling cleaned our new residence, made the beds with our new linens and had everything in perfect order when we walked into the house that would be our home for the next twelve months. Lunch was ready to be served, and in a style she was to maintain throughout our stay, she stood under the archway between the dining room and the living room and announced, "Ready eat!"
The two large kettles Mei-ling and I had purchased were constantly kept on two burners full of boiling water. Empty whiskey and gin bottles were used to store boiled water in the refrigerator and ice was made with boiled water. Steven took his bath in a mixture of boiling water and cold water that had been boiled, and stored in the refrigerator. His washcloths were boiled each day. Despite every precaution, he did get sick occasionally, but he was a happy and healthy child most of the time. He was a sturdy boy with a chubby face and fat limbs to match.
A thief broke in during the middle of one night within the first few weeks of our residence in the house, and stole our newly purchased radio, our Olivetti portable typewriter and our supply of hard liquor. Mei-ling, who always slept in, rushed into our room at six in the morning high with excitement. She talked very fast and it took us a couple of minutes to fully wake and understand what she was trying to tell us. Mort got out of bed and examined the dining room windows. The screens had been cut out. He also noticed that our bottle of Noilly Prat was lying on the grass right outside the window, still half full. Although we were amused by a thief who had tasted an expensive French wine and discarded it, we called the police.
The Taipei Police Department had a special section for the care of foreigners and a captain, who was fluent in English, arrived within the hour. We pointed out that the thief did not merely steal the radio, he found the box it came in, which we kept on top of a kitchen cabinet and he took that as well. We also told him that the typewriter should be easy to track down as Mort had extra characters put on the gray machine and having run out of gray caps the dealer put one red cap on the keyboard.
The captain was courteous and efficient; he convinced us our goods would be retrieved. A month after this incident there was an article in the local English paper about the discovery of a ring of thieves in the Taipei police department who specialized in smuggling stolen goods out of the country. The leader of this ring was none other than the above mentioned courteous, efficient captain.
The weather was typical for the time of the year. The heat was ninety-two degrees on a good day and the humidity was close to a hundred percent; breathing was a major effort. Steven was four and a half months old and teething. My milk was running out and the weather so debilitated me I could not make the effort to keep it flowing. Steven was slowly weaned to canned milk diluted with boiled water. He had been eating baby cereals, pureed fruits and vegetables since our stay in Holland. We were able to purchase some American baby food in a store on Chung Shan North Road for two and a half times its original price in the United States. There were a few very kind friends with American army commissary privileges who helped us. Felix Smith, who had been one of General Chennault's Flying Tigers, and whom we got to know through our neighbors, Arnella and Ralph Turner, worked as a pilot for CAT and brought us baby food from Hong Kong.
I wrote to my mother on the second of September.
Nancy and Mort are both well, but I must say all four of us suffer from the heat and feel enervated most of the time. The cool weather is due in three weeks -- in the meantime we use two fans and drink gallons of liquid. I shower three times a day and wash my hair in the shower twice. You would be shocked to see the black water running out of my hair after the first shampoo. We are short of bobby pins and they are not available on the local market. I know you'll find this hard to believe, but Dr. West told me one of his patients had a nervous breakdown because she was not able to purchase bobby pins with kinks in them, not even from street peddlers. I have not yet reached such an extreme emotional state, not anywhere near it, but could you please send two or three in every letter you mail?
A very pleasant couple with three grown children moved into the house next to ours and we keep each other company and play Scrabble. The man is from Michigan State, teaching at the local police college as a visiting professor (modern crime detection - it's very interesting) and his wife is a teacher of literature in the Taipei American School. The rest of the houses in the compound have not yet been filled, but I understand most people arrive in late September to avoid the hot season. We would have done the same had we known.
Of all the people we met in Taiwan we developed the most enduring friendship with the Turners. They were just as affected by the heat and humidity in August as we were, and Ralph suggested we spend an evening at the NCO club not far from our compound. I thought I died and went to heaven when I entered the air-conditioned club. Ralph, Mort and I had a beer each. If I remember correctly Arnella had a manhattan. There was music, dancing and entertainment. I did not need the embellishments, I just enjoyed the cold, dry air. Mort subsequently applied for and received membership in the Officers' Club on Chung Shan North Road where the food and service were better.
Here is a short excerpt from a letter written to my mother on November 8, 1963.
My neighbors across the street were in a state of high excitement last night because there was a snake in front of their house. I suggested they give it a good whack with a broom but they were too scared to move. I sent Mei-ling to fetch the gatekeeper and he did the beast (about six inches long) in. It was very funny and as Nancy pointed out, "Who needs television?"
We were well set until Taiwan was hit by the worst typhoon in twenty years. We looked through a Fulbright manual lent to us by the Turners, nailed down the drapes, closed all the windows, save one, which had to be left open a few inches, and boiled more and more water while the supply lasted. We followed the instructions in the pamphlet and nervously waited for the worst. The typhoon created a claustrophobic tension and we felt jumpy as cats until we were in the deceptively calm eye of the storm.
The winds continued to howl for more hours than I wish to remember, but we were fortunate in our location. The compound was on the outskirts of Taipei and the houses were built on much higher ground than the ones in the center of town. The water rose about ten feet, an entire floor in many homes in downtown Taipei, ruining property and leaving some people homeless until the damage was repaired. There was a story about one family who had been hoarding canned goods and good French wines in the cellar of their house. All the labels on every can and bottle were washed off in the water that filled their basement.
Arnella Turner and her fifteen-year-old son, John, were both good tennis players. I could hardly wait for them to come home from school when the weather got cool enough for the game. Taita had tennis courts for its professors. As soon as we received our identification cards for the courts we went to play on the first cool day. Someone notified the appropriate office that we had brought guests; a letter came asking us to pay extra fees. I went to the office of the chairman of the physical education department ready to pay the additional sum for our guests. He insisted on having the names of all the people who had played tennis with us on each occasion and would do so in the future. I said there would be different people at different times. By then we got to know the Masons, another couple in the compound, who enjoyed playing the game as much as we did. The chairman was persistent and repeated his request. I told him it was impossible for me to answer his question.
East collided with West. Traditional Chinese male collided with American feminist woman. I have no patience for tap dancing around a problem. I like to get to the heart of a matter directly and resolve difficulties swiftly. I asked what the maximum charge would be if we played tennis three times a week, and every time we played we brought four guests, and each time our guests would be different people, and we would do so for the entire year.
The chairman was taken aback by what he probably perceived to be a crude, Western, and astonishingly unfeminine frontal assault. He took his time thinking over what I had said, then asked for 300 National Taiwan Dollars, the equivalent of US$10.00, a trivial sum of money as a fee for privileges he had seemed determined to prevent us from enjoying. After I had chewed over this incident, I realized that I had thwarted the chairman's attempt to achieve the enjoyment he had expected to derive from playing out the game his own way.
The Chinese people had raised bargaining to a high art. On occasion, I had enjoyed it myself, but in this instance I felt the matter was so petty as to be beneath both of us. Considering his position as chairman of a department at Taiwan's major university, haggling over an insignificant amount of money was decidedly inappropriate. I could only conclude that frustrated as he might have felt in the heat of the moment, he must have ultimately realized that I had saved his face.
Steven was born with platinum blond hair and blue eyes. Mei-ling loved him and fussed over him constantly. She enjoyed taking him for walks in his stroller, and reported that the other families in the compound were eager to know if Steven had been adopted. Mort, who had been born with the same coloring as Steven, still had bright blue eyes but his hair was no longer blond. It had turned brown in his thirties. Nancy was twelve years old by then, a student at the Taipei American School. She and I had the same coloring, green eyes and brown hair. Mei-ling assured me that she had allayed the neighbors' doubts by telling their amahs she had seen me nurse Steven.
Lao-ting, the gatekeeper of the compound had a sweet disposition and constant stomach trouble. I had amoebic dysentery and the medication prescribed by Dr. West for my condition was generously doled out by Mei-ling at the back door to Lao-ting, who might just have had ulcers. He made a pair of silk baby shoes for Steven, each shoe adorned with a dragon. I still have one shoe and keep it on my computer station for good luck. The postman gave all the mail to Lao-ting for distribution. He also had a telephone in the small quarters he occupied next to the gatehouse and took messages for all the residents in the compound.
I was invited to teach English to college sophomores at National Cheng-Chih University, located about an hour by car from Taipei and worked as a physiotherapist in an orphanage with one of my neighbors. I assisted Mort by performing a variety of tasks that usually fall into the laps of the wives of anthropologists. He asked me to observe the nursery school in the clan temple where he did most of his research. I had studied Mandarin, the official dialect, but the language of the clan temple members was Taiwanese. I hired a young college student who was proficient in Minnan dialect and sufficiently fluent in English to communicate with me.
I spent three mornings a week at the nursery school, two mornings teaching English at the university and two hours two afternoons a week massaging the limbs of children who were born with cerebral palsy and other infirmities, had sustained spinal injuries after birth or had been stricken with polio for lack of an adequate inoculation program. Although Taiwan had one of the best medical care delivery systems in Asia, the orphans of the underclass fell through the cracks. Unlike the children whom I attended to in the orphanage, the ones at the nursery school in the Chen temple were well taken care of. I still have the announcement given to parents in the spring of 1964.
"Polio is a dangerous disease most prevalent among children. Our school sells medicine for the purpose of protecting the children's health. We wish to improve public health by immunizing children against this disease. If you want your children to take this medicine you may buy it from the school authorities. P. S.: If you take three doses of this medicine you will be immunized against this disease for the rest of your life. Take one dose of medicine once a month. Each dose of medicine is NT$27.00."
Twenty-seven National Taiwan dollars amounted to less than one American dollar, a cost the parents who were members of the Chen temple could easily afford. I was present when the public health nurse immunized the children with the Salk vaccine in the Chen clan temple. At Mort's behest, one of the elders at the Chen temple arranged for me to observe the nursery school the grandchildren of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek attended. A date and hour were set for my visit and I was given an academy award performance by the administration, staff and well rehearsed children. I inquired if I could return the following day. They replied that was not possible because it was the day the children were going to be inoculated. I indicated that viewing it would be a good research experience, but they gave me a lesson in polite resistance and offered me another day of their choosing.
I had run into an impenetrable wall. There was no point in returning to watch another performance. I smiled and said I would check my calendar. The intermediary notified them I would not be able to attend on the day they suggested. This was typical of the Chinese way of handling situations. Its purpose was to accomplish a goal, do it diplomatically and keep everyone involved from losing face. Mei-ling often reminded me that the Chinese way was always the best way. I was to hear this axiom repeatedly. The Chinese are the most ethnocentric people I have ever known. The highest compliment they ever paid me was to say that a Hungarian or Italian or French dish I prepared tasted just like Chinese food, or something I did was just the way the Chinese would do it.
Mort bought a new portable typewriter and we took turns typing up our handwritten notes each evening. His knowledge of the activities of the temple elders illuminated my frequently puzzling observations. The first time I sat unobtrusively in the back of a classroom, the teacher's desk and the children's seats were being thoroughly cleaned by a temple servant. The obvious question popped into my head. Is this room being cleaned because they had been told by the elders "the American woman is going to be here," or is this routine procedure? I immediately recognized that the situation was altered by my presence on the premises. The question then became, "How long can they keep up an act?" It turned out to be not very long. I faded into the woodwork by my relentless presence.
One of the teachers, who had an unusually sweet disposition, suddenly lost her temper with a child, then repeatedly displayed her anger during my next visit. After Mort read my notes he told me that her father had purchased a small store in a country village and insisted that she move there and manage the place for him. A struggle of wills developed. She was very fond of her boyfriend in Taipei and did not want to bury herself in a village hours away by train, taking a chance on losing his affectionate attentions. Her father ultimately prevailed as most fathers still did in Taiwan in the nineteen-sixties.
The stories told to the children by their teachers were always enjoyable. They not only illuminated the local culture, but in some instances were quite close to Western children's literature and oral history through the centuries. I was gratified to find further proof of our common humanity. Here is the tale of The Frog Prince and a princess, as told to the youngest nursery school children.
"Once there was a princess who played with a golden ball in the garden of a palace. She carelessly threw the ball into a pond. The water in the pond was too deep for her to fetch the ball. She was worried and she cried. There was a frog in the pond and he asked: "Why are you crying?" The princess felt strange and asked "Who are you?" The frog said "I am a frog." The princess said "My golden ball fell into the pond which is so deep I cannot fetch it." The frog said "I can help you, but on one condition; you must invite me to dance, to play and to have supper in your palace." When the princess promised she would comply with his requests the frog jumped into the water and fetched her ball. The princess was pleased that he had retrieved her ball, but she forgot her promise and went away. The frog shouted after her, "Wait a moment, princess." The princess pretended to hear nothing and entered her palace even though the frog continued to shout. The frog was so ugly that she did not want to play with him.
"The frog got quite angry. He jumped to the door of the palace and knocked. The guard opened the door, but he could find no one. Finally, he heard a small voice "I am here." The guard was curious about a frog who could speak so he announced him to the king who gave him permission to enter.
"The frog said, ˜The princess invited me to come here." The king scolded his daughter and told her never to break her word. The frog was led to the garden and there he played with the princess. Late in the afternoon the frog became hungry and said to the princess, "You promised to have me to dinner at the palace." The princess had no choice but to invite the frog to dinner. He was tired and sleepy after he finished supper, so he jumped into the princess' bed.
"The princess was afraid of the frog and threw him away. Suddenly, the frog became a handsome young man. He said, ˜Many years ago I was a prince but a witch turned me into a frog. If I can play with a beautiful lady I am sure to become a prince again." The princess was glad to see such a handsome prince and made friends with him. They married and went to live in the prince's country."
We had been in Taiwan only three months but we had lived through a typhoon and survived other challenges that only a tropical island can offer. Mei-ling had given us happy news at the beginning of November. She was expecting another child, hoping it would be a boy. "A man has to have two sons," she declared. Her timing was perfect. Her new baby would get all of Steven's outgrown clothing and baby blankets.
I had fun designing her maternity clothes and we went shopping for fabrics together. Her dressmaker skillfully copied my drawings and Mei-ling was the best dressed pregnant woman in the neighborhood, perhaps in all of Taipei. I bought material for myself as well and had a dressmaker run up some dresses for me. She charged the equivalent of $1.25 per garment. The local economy was a complete mystery to me. Labor was cheap, but food was expensive. Imported goods were marked up at least 100 percent.
Mei-ling had morning sickness for two months, but after that the only discomfort she suffered was lower back pain. The Chinese cure for this is a diet of snakes. The first time she brought one home from the market in a plastic bag I nearly went through the roof. She giggled, Mei-ling was an awful tease, and assured me I had nothing to worry about; she planned to prepare it by throwing it into boiling fat.
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
Contact Martha Nemes Fried at email@example.com