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Strange Lands And People
By Martha Nemes Fried
It was our custom to listen to the news on the radio before we had breakfast. On the morning of November 24, 1963, Mort and I were in a hurry and could not spare the time. Mort had made arrangements to spend the day at a clan temple in Pei-tou, about an hour’s drive north of Taipei. I had reserved a seat on a bus taking a group of American women on a six-hour guided tour of woodworking shops and glass blowing factories. Nancy slept late.
A pleasant elderly woman sat next to me on the bus. We had been riding for half an hour when she turned to me and said, “Isn’t it terrible about President Kennedy?”
My throat constricted and my mouth went dry.
“He was shot and killed . . .”
I looked at her and pleaded, “Don’t say that; do not say that.”
The logic of my heart believed that if the news were not spoken, the event had not taken place. I had an urge to immediately get off the bus because I felt I had to return to the United States. I had no business being in a foreign country at a time of crisis when my president was assassinated. Irrational ideas crowded my brain and clouded my judgment. It was not possible to get off the chartered bus, and even if it had been, I would not have been able to return to Taipei.
The bus was packed with women who, with the exception of the lady sitting next to me, spoke freely of their intense dislike of President Kennedy and expressed great relief that he would no longer be a thorn in their side. The rest of that day remains a blur. I did not want to watch craftsmen carve wood and blow glass, interesting as these skills were, and could hardly wait to get home to speak with Mort and Nancy and those neighbors in our compound who had voted for Kennedy.
Nancy and I talked when I got home, then I ran over to our neighbors, the Masons, who had worked for Kennedy’s election. When Mort finally came home from Pei-tou we stayed up and continued to talk late into the night. Disbelief, grief and fear were just a few of the emotions we felt and expressed to each other. Subsequently, my friends at home wrote me detailed letters and enclosed many clippings from The New York Times and The Record, a local newspaper. One friend saved seven issues of The New York Times for me. The most touching gestures of our Chinese friends in Taipei were the kindhearted condolence notes they wrote to us.
Larissa MacFarquhar, the critic, commented, “People who watched the procession at the time (JFK’s funeral) say [Jackie’s] dignity helped them recover from the trauma of the assassination. For those . . . who were not alive then, this can be hard to understand.
“Certain events leave an imprint so profound that they require their own anthropology: people who lived through them belong to a different culture from those who did not.”
This is what I wrote my mother. Taipei November 30, 1963
Your two letters came this week and were a real source of comfort to us. We have all felt terribly depressed and upset and spent a good part of our time glued to the radio listening to the heartrending details and horrors as they unfolded. I cried so much I felt by Thursday there were no tears left in me.
Then again on December 26.
My last letter was written in a blue mood and I must hasten to tell you that my state of mind is improved now. I have had a hard time adjusting to Kennedy’s death (I find myself referring to him as “The President” still) and knowing full well that we must stop weeping and start working adds all the more to my feelings of frustration. What am I doing in a strange country, so far away from home, where I can only give my time and help to a strange people?
I tell myself that presenting a favorable image of the United States to my college students IS working for my country and I have undertaken the responsibility of physical therapy with polio victims in a nearby orphanage, an activity I expect to be even more soul satisfying.
As I write this Stevie is playing with a playpen full of toys wearing one of his Christmas presents, a red corduroy “smoking” jacket with black frogs and black piping. We must take his picture in it, he looks simply beautiful.
There were many soggy days when diapers could only be fully dried by ironing. The Masons had an electric clothes drier and offered its use, but I did not like to take advantage of their generosity. We played tennis with them when the weather was dry and cool and we invited each other to dinner occasionally. The Turners prepared a good old fashioned Thanksgiving dinner and made us feel very welcome at their table.
Mort’s two graduate students, Myron Cohen and Burt Pasternak, whose wife was expecting a baby, treated us to dinner occasionally and were regular guests in our house. There were about a hundred American university students in Taipei studying Chinese, some with their wives, but they formed a tight group of their own and we only saw them when we had a cocktail party for a visiting professor or a university administrator and invited them.
I always made the party food with Mei-ling’s help. She was a very fast study, eager to enlarge her répertoire. With the assistance of a number two amah, she enabled me to carry out all my obligations. She did the marketing and cooking and took care of Steven when I was not at home. As number one amah, Mei-ling was responsible for all other domestic employees. She had a daughter who was only a year older than Nancy and a son who was six weeks older than Steven. My mind was completely at ease with Mei-ling in charge. She was a highly intelligent woman with a delightful sense of humor who spoke English quite well.
Wen-shao, the number two amah, cleaned the house, washed the dishes and clothes and did the ironing. She was not the sharpest tool in the box and was slow in her movements. Her saving grace was a cheerful disposition. She carried out her tasks less than satisfactorily, but we recognized she had done her best. We hired a part time employee, Lao-wei, who drove a pedicab and did chores for other families in the compound. He cut the grass around our house and attempted to keep the hardwood floors clean. His efforts were completely ineffectual. He used a polishing machine with wax and only smeared the dirt around the floor. Steven’s hands and knees were black from the grease-darkened dirt after he started to crawl about the house. Having two full time servants and one part-time helper sounds like the makings of a luxurious life, but without a washer, dryer, dishwasher, garbage disposal, vacuum cleaner and self-cleaning oven, they did not keep the small house half as clean as I did my much larger one at home alone with my electric maidens.
Mei-ling always spoke to Steven when she changed his diapers or spoon-fed him and repeatedly told him he was “round,” which was her way of describing him as beautiful. Plumpness was a trait she considered most pleasing in a baby. Unlike Americans who have a mania for being thin and starve themselves to achieve a svelte figure. The image of Twiggy, the British actress and model, who looked as if she could have slipped through a keyhole, dominated the 1960’s. The Chinese ideal is plump. There have been periods of famine in Chinese history unparalleled at any other time in any other nation. Mass starvation of entire populations was not known to us until the more recent tragedies of Ethiopia, Somalia and the Sudan were brought to our attention by print journalists and television reporters. The memories of all such famines are etched in the consciousness of every Chinese man and woman and taught to every Chinese child.
Taiwan has three major ethnic groups; the native Taiwanese, whose ancestors had emigrated from two southern provinces of China, the aborigines, who mostly live in the mountain range roughly in the center of the island and the Mainland Chinese who escaped communism after the war and settled in the former Japanese colony. The people of Taiwan looked well fed and I never saw anyone with the bizarre ailments that were commonplace in China at the time I lived there. I was never harassed by beggars during my stay, never even saw a single one. Taiwan’s economy was healthy. They exported rice, canned mushrooms, canned chestnuts, pineapples and other tropical fruits as well as small electrical appliances and furniture.
The Turners had their new bedroom and living room furniture made of teakwood to their specification at a local factory. I followed suit after I had seen the fine workmanship of their furniture in their home in Michigan. I measured the spaces where each chest of drawers, table, chairs and sideboard would be placed, rendered my own designs, wrote down the dimensions of each piece and had Mort deliver the drawings and information to the same factory on his trip to Taiwan in the spring of 1967. It took five months to make the furniture and have it shipped. In November, when it was all put in place in our dining room and bedroom I was very pleased and knew it had been worth the wait.
We visited an art exhibit in Taipei once a week and discovered a variety of gifted Taiwanese artists. The works greatly varied in quality and style. Some artists displayed traditional Chinese scrolls, some showed modern art in oils and water colors. We bought two large impressionist paintings in exquisite shades of blue and green oils by a Taiwanese artist, an elementary school teacher who had never been out of the country. He ordered his supplies from Japan. I asked him how he learned technique. He said he did by reading Western art textbooks about oil paintings. By following their instructions, he acquired the knowledge of stretching a canvas, priming it, and mixing colors. He was a remarkably gifted man.
Unlike the irresponsible and self-indulgent young woman who behaved inconsiderately at a dinner party and upset the hosts as well as her friend, Tony Meager, I had finally become a model of restraint. I curbed my every rebellious instinct during our entire stay in Taiwan. I ate and drank what was served, never offered an opinion on anything unless we were with friends and was particularly careful to avoid political discussions. I was frequently provoked, but held my temper in check, except once.
We were invited to the home of a Chinese official for dinner in 1964, right after de Gaulle declared recognition of the People’s Republic of China, an action that did not signify he or his government approved of communism or China’s internal policies and social and political organization. It was a purely pragmatic stratagem to optimize the economy of France, but our host revealed himself to be a man who did his thinking with his stomach. We were more than halfway through the meal when he brought his fist down on the table, raised his glass and spit out the words, “Damn de Gaulle!” I quietly took my empty glass and turned it upside down, a clear signal in China that one has either had too much to drink or is displeased with the subject of the toast.
We took several trips while we lived in Taipei. We drove to Sun Moon Lake with the Masons and the children for a weekend at the end of October. The place was beautiful as well as serene and we promised ourselves we would return. I went to Hong Kong in the middle of November for a week on a plane chartered for the wives of American army officers, relief organization personnel and diplomatic officials. They had two empty seats and Myron Cohen and I got to fill them when Jackie Mason alerted me to the opportunity. She and I shared a hotel room in Hong Kong.
This was the first vacation I had by myself in over eighteen years. I felt like a young girl and found the experience exhilarating. I had dinner with Marjorie and Kenneth Topley, felt twenty years younger when I crossed the harbor on the Star Ferry from Kowloon to Victoria, and miraculously, my postpartum depression vanished in the middle of Hong Kong harbor. I arranged a small dinner party at a Russian restaurant near the Ambassador Hotel and invited the Topleys, Jackie Mason and Myron Cohen. Kenneth was part of the British governing establishment and pontificated, as usual, about Britain’s contribution to the crown colony.
“There was nothing here before we came, it was bare rock. We made this place, it belongs to us.”
He voiced these sentiments every once in a while and Myron and I no longer paid any attention to his defense of empire. Kenneth made a wonderful contribution to my life. He ordered escargot, a food I had never tasted, the first time he and Marjorie took me to dine in a French restaurant on Victoria. He offered me one, I asked for another, and discovered a lifetime fondness for the creatures Marianne Moore memorialized in a poem.
I bought pipes and tobacco for Mort from a mysterious merchant on Icehouse Street who served strong hot coffee in tiny cups while he waited on us. There was always a faint scent of incense mixed with the aroma of freshly ground coffee beans. Marjorie Topley was convinced he was somebody’s man in Hong Kong. In that place at that time, we were all given to speculation. It relieved anxiety and was a common mode of amusement among the American and British residents and visitors.
Our group took a one day trip to Macau by ship, which left Hong Kong harbor at midnight and dropped anchor at 3:00 A. M. A lady from Spain, who lived in a convent near Taipei, was a member of our group. She intrigued me. She had a camera and kept it clicking constantly, always aiming it toward the Chinese Mainland.
After lunch we visited the gambling casinos. The obsessive gambling of some of the army wives in our party was fascinating. I have always considered games of chance in a casino a ridiculous waste of time and money, knowing that the odds were always stacked in favor the house. We walked around quite a bit, looked at old Portuguese churches and other historic sites in ruins. One image has stayed with me. It was the inscription on a headstone in a very old cemetery that roughly went as follows, “All his life he was bound by the chains he made for himself link by link.” If I had had a camera with me I would have taken a photo of it.
Back in Hong Kong, I went to Peter Matahni, Arnella Turner’s tailor, and had two wool and silk Chanel-syle suits and a coat made. A visit to his atelier was a unique experience. He always had incense burning, infusing the rooms with a pungent odor. He was a gifted designer and spoke rapid fire Cantonese in a harsh tone to the Chinese tailor who did the sewing and fitting. I suspected from the beginning that this was a bit of theater. After two fittings it was obvious he put on this show to strengthen a client’s confidence in him and to establish the notion that his commercial intentions were honorable. He probably said something quite innocuous to the tailor in the belief that none of us could understand Cantonese. I returned to him to have another suit and a dress designed and tailored for me when I met Mort in Hong Kong in the Spring of 1964 after he returned from a trip to New Haven where he had attended a meeting at Yale.
We spent a weekend in Kao-hsiung, a major port city and industrial center in southwestern Taiwan, in February 1964. It was the city of Mei-ling’s birth. Although she was heavily pregnant, she was eager to come along with us. We had a suite of rooms at the Grand Hotel with a tile tub the size of a small swimming pool. We savored the excellent cocktails, seafood and filet mignon in the hotel’s restaurant. After lunch and dinner we took long walks around the city. We most enjoyed the canal surrounded by wrought iron posts with graceful connecting chains all along the main boulevard. It was reminiscent of continental capitals and bore the stamp of early Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch settlers, who left a strong European ambiance behind them.
Kao-hsiung’s economy was controlled by native Taiwanese. Unlike Taipei, where the influence was overwhelmingly Mainland Establishment, all the large stores and businesses in Kao-hsiung were owned by Taiwanese. We went to an enormous department store where I saw wonderfully crafted pieces of locally made inlaid lacquer. I bought a tray and several small boxes.
After we returned to Taipei I realized I should have also purchased a tray for friends we were planning to visit in Seattle on the way home. These items were not available in Taipei. I asked Mort to go back to the same store to buy another tray when he took a trip south in May of 1964 to visit his two graduate students, Burt Pasternak and Myron Cohen, who were conducting their own fieldwork. He had been slated to take an early plane back to Taipei from Tainan, but needed more time to go buy the tray. He asked his travel agent to change his ticket to a plane that left a little later. The earlier plane crashed a few minutes after takeoff. There were no survivors. The later plane brought Mort safely home with the tray. I decided to keep the tray that saved his life and gave the one I had originally purchased to our friends.
The East Asian Institute asked Mort to travel to Korea to interview some of the scholarly applicants. He insisted I go along. Mort made arrangements for the visit in June. I asked Mei-ling to have her husband, a lieutenant colonel in the army, stay in the house for the sake of the children’s safety. We spent a couple of days at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, every inch of which was a work of art. It was architectural poetry built into a mud base to make it earthquake proof. We made reservations for our return a week from that date and proceeded to Seoul, Korea where we stayed in one of the two best hotels located on a very large plaza. I can no longer remember the name of it. Our room was on the seventh floor.
A few days into our week there was a student uprising against the government on the plaza. We had a dinner guest and invited him up for a brandy. As our conversation continued in our room, I began to rub my eyes, then I noticed that Mort and our guest were also rubbing their eyes. It took us about five minutes to realize that the police were using tear gas, which floated into our room through the open windows.
Later in the evening, after our guest departed, I wrote to my mother.
“It seems we went to China for the revolution, we went to British Guiana for the Jagan trials and came to South Korea for the riots.”
I loved Korea. I liked the food, the people, the cleanliness and order of the spacious, well tended parks and streets, and I enjoyed the countryside, which has Northern vegetation, very much like New England. I called the appropriate American official for a permit to visit Panmunjom and was treated with courtesy and efficiency. We received our permit in twenty-four hours. We hired a car with a chauffeur and drove up early in the morning. The ride was delightful as we passed miles and miles of countryside in full bloom. We were shown into a waiting room when we arrived and found there were several other Americans who had gotten there earlier than we did. An attempt was made at conversation by the young lieutenant who was to be our guide. The moment he found out Mort was an anthropologist he asked if we knew Margaret Mead. Anthropology had certainly come a long way since 1948. Through her popular books and magazine articles aimed mostly at women, Margaret had turned the previously esoteric subject matter into a household word.
Our group was taken up to the DMZ, a two and a half mile buffer zone dividing the North and South of the country. We walked up a flight of wooden steps at Checkpoint Charlie to look at no man’s land. We also observed the daily meeting between the Americans and North Koreans and Chinese, who sat on opposite sides of a table that was placed exactly on the line separating North from South. There was an American flag at one end of the table and a North Korean flag at other end. I took some photographs of the meeting and of some of the North Korean and Chinese guards.
The cultural attaché of the American embassy in Seoul gave a dinner party to arrange a meeting of the cream of South Korean intelligentsia with Mort. We were very impressed with the keen intellects of the South Korean scholars. They were sophisticated and highly articulate. They shared an exceptional ability to analyze historical events as well as the current political situation and spoke their minds freely. Our evening of conversation and the exchange of ideas was a memorable one.
I found the instant willingness of adults to keep children from ganging up on me as I walked about the streets a very pleasant departure from the lack of interest of Taiwanese adults in the comfort of tourists. The children never meant any harm, but they persistently interfered with a visitor’s pleasure in discovering a new city. Koreans were unusually considerate and made my stay in Seoul a pleasurable one.
I had only one distressing experience in Korea. It was after our visit was over, while I checked in at the airport on my way back to Tokyo. My entire book of American Express checks was in my hand one minute and vanished the next. I had only a few Japanese yen to get me from the airport to the Imperial Hotel. This was a Saturday afternoon when the offices of American Express were closed for the weekend.
The chief clerk who checked me into the Imperial Hotel listened to my tale of woe and asked how much money I needed to do my shopping. I said a hundred dollars would do until my husband arrived. He gave me the Japanese equivalent of a hundred American dollars and instructed the taxi driver to take me to the best department store in Tokyo. I had two hours before Mort’s plane landed and with the help of an English speaking guide in the store I made the most of it. I hardly had a yen left by the time he arrived at the hotel. We went to the appropriate office Monday morning and American Express replaced all my checks. I do not remember when Karl Malden started to make commercials for American Express, but as far as I was concerned he was preaching to the converted. I shall always have a very special place in my memory for the chief clerk at the Imperial; I was brokenhearted in 1968 when they razed Frank Lloyd Wright’s work of art.
Between our trip to Hong Kong and our visit to Korea we attended a wedding in Taipei. Mort asked me to observe every minute detail of the rituals carefully and write it all down when we returned to our house. I do my best when writing in the first person, because I am telling a story to a live audience. I decided to describe the wedding in a letter written that evening, while it was still very fresh in my mind.
Mort and I attended a Chinese wedding yesterday. It was an all-day affair starting at 9 in the morning and ending goodness knows when; we ran out of gas at 9:30 P. M. I took the afternoon off to be with Stevie and have a nap, but Mort heroically stuck it out. I will give you an account of what I saw.
At 9 A. M. we were taken by the older sister of the groom, (Mrs. Wang, the principal of the kindergarten at the clan temple) to his parents’ house, where he lives. The wedding party assembled and after sipping a little tea we all piled into taxis and drove to fetch the bride. Her home seemed to consist of three tiny rooms, the middle one being a dining-sitting room, about the size of the downstairs study in our house. A table was set for a meal with various dishes of fish, meat and rice. The bride was being dressed in another tiny room by her friends. We were seated on a sofa and served two hard boiled eggs in a bowl of hot water each, then directed not to eat them, but to stir them around with our chopsticks. This was a fertility rite.
After a while the bride emerged, dressed in a white lace wedding gown with a hoop skirt and with pink flowers in her hair, a paste diamond necklace and earrings and a gold necklace with a jade pendant adorning her. There was a foam rubber rose on her gown. She was seated at the table, her father opposite her, mother on one side, older sister on the other side. Her mother and sister brushed her lips with food, but she ate nothing. Tears streamed down her face, her mother and sister wept, in fact, there was not a dry eye in the house. This was the ritual that signified parting from her family - she would no longer break bread with them.
A tray was brought in with one huge and one smaller joint of meat on it and a great many traditional Chinese wedding cakes coated with red sugar. Small bank notes were stuck into the smaller joint of meat, like so many cloves, then the bride handed a red envelope with money to each of her kin. She then rose and her father put the bridal crown with veil on her head. Then her husband covered her face with the veil and amid the thundering noise of a huge round of firecrackers they left the house, the rest of us following.
We returned to the groom’s house where the bride was taken into the room that had been prepared for her. It was furnished with brand new, modern furniture complete with radio, electric clock, torch lamp, couch, coffee table, vanity, a tea set, a carafe for water and one for tea, and of course, most important of all, a double bed. On the bed there was a huge cake and a tray with two oranges, which had been presented to the bride upon arrival by her new young nephew. The two oranges represent the sperm and the egg. There were two stools with a pair of the groom’s trousers laid on them, with one leg of the trousers on each and the newlywed couple sat on these. This symbolizes two lives flowing into one, never to part. Meanwhile, back in the kitchen women were frantically shaping the red wedding cakes into small bowls which, a little while later were served to us in a heavy syrup.
The banquet was held at the clan temple and catered by the hotel where the groom is employed. There were some three-hundred guests and we dined on cold salads, eel, pig brains with bamboo shoots, chicken with soup, an egg and crab pudding, fried shrimp and fried sweet potato puffs, roast chicken stuffed with pig’s intestines, a sweet soup, an abalone soup, another shrimp dish and a snake soup with one whole, well cooked snake per table. I believe I am now qualified to write an essay entitled: How to appear to be eating when one is actually not.
There were many speeches during the course of the banquet and Mort was finally prevailed upon by the elders of the temple to make a few remarks. He of course did so in Chinese. He opened with an old Chinese saying: “Do not fear heaven, do not fear the earth, only fear a foreigner trying to speak Chinese.” This was greeted with much appreciative laughter and applause. He closed with: “There is an old American saying meaning good luck, mazeltov! So I wish to close by wishing the new couple mazeltov.”
When the masks are stripped away and we get down to basic essentials we find that we are really all the same.
We eased back into our respective routines when we returned from Korea. Time went by faster after that trip. I knew we were going home in the middle of August. I missed our friends and neighbors in New Jersey and New York. Steven and I each had had amoebic dysentery, cured in my case by Enterovioform. I wanted an end to the constantly nagging worry about Steven’s health.
There were special stores in Taipei that sold firecrackers. They came in small rounds that cost a few cents; the largest round cost two and a half American dollars. I bought the largest round twice. The first time was Steven’s first birthday, which happened to be a Sunday. Lao-ting, our gatekeeper, tied the round at the end of a long pole and lit it. The compound reverberated with the sound of rapid machine gun fire. A few of the neighbors ran out to see what happened and I calmed their frayed nerves by explaining the reason for our celebration.
Mei-ling shouted at Wen-shao sometimes when I was in the house, which made me wonder how much more she might have yelled at the girl when I was not there. I asked her each time what the younger woman had done to raise her ire. She said the girl was stupid and lazy and refused to listen when spoken to nicely. They conversed in a local dialect I did not understand and it was difficult for me to determine if the shouting had been provoked or not. Their quarrels finally upset me too much. I told Mei-ling I needed tranquility in the house and gave her an ultimatum; learn to get along with Wen-shao or hire someone else. Mort made the decision in the end.
We kept our cash for daily expenses in a locked drawer of a desk in our bedroom to which we had the only key. When Mort tried to insert it one afternoon he found the lock had been broken and part of the key that had been used in the effort to open it remained in the lock. The money was intact because the attempted theft had failed. Mei-ling and I had been in the living room most of the day. I had been amusing Steven and she spent her time, when she was not engaged in household chores, knitting a sweater on her knitting machine, placed on top of the dining room table. Lao-wei only worked on the lawn that day. Wen-shao was the only other person in the house. Mort gave her the sack and Mei-ling hired another amah for the last two months of our stay.
We celebrated the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as soon as news of it reached us. It was at the time of the July fourth weekend when I had to rush Mort and Nancy to Dr. West’s Cottage Hospital with severe asthma attacks. Our compound was surrounded by rice paddies; they were both extremely sensitive to the young shoots in full bloom and had to stay in the hospital for treatment overnight. I asked Mei-ling to get the largest round of fire crackers and Lao-ting did the honors again. I explained the Bill of Rights and pertinent passages of the Constitution to Mei-ling. She in turn translated what I had said for Lao-ting’s benefit. I felt very proud to be an American.
There were about forty earthquakes in Taiwan during our stay. I only remember one clearly. It was in January 1964, on Mei-ling’s day off. All four of us were in the living room. Mort was typing field notes, Steven was playing and Nancy and I sat on the couch chatting. I felt the couch pitch forward and backward. I admonished Nancy to stop rocking the couch. She said she was not doing anything. The couch pitched forward and backward again and again I told Nancy to stop rocking the couch. Before she had a chance to say anything further I heard our china and glassware rattle in the dining room cabinet. I grabbed Steven and we all ran outside the house.
We stood in forty-degree weather without sweaters or coats, shivering for about ten or fifteen minutes. The danger appeared to have passed and we returned to the house. I apologized to Nancy. There were a few tremors after that, but we paid no attention to them and went back to what we had been doing before. The quake was very serious in the Southern part of the island, causing a great deal of damage. There were ninety-two people reported dead and many more injured. Myron Cohen happened to be in a Kao-hsiung hotel where everything was falling and crashing and he wondered for a few moments if he was going to survive mother nature’s latest prank in one piece.
The field trip in Taiwan was our third and last one together. We returned to Taiwan in 1966 when Mort was chairman of the Fulbright Summer Seminar in Chinese History and Culture. We lived in Liberty House without dependent children. Nancy was fifteen and capable of taking care of herself. My mother took care of Steven that summer in her home in Michigan.
I had the luxury of spending my time studying Chinese two hours each morning at the Taipei Language School, read quite a few books and went along on all the trips with Mort, Burton Pasternak and Myron Cohen, two Chinese assistants and the twenty grantees in the program.
I remembered the beauties of Macau and was fortunate enough to return there for one day after Mort’s responsibilities in Taiwan were over. This time the three of us took the hydrofoil each way with Myron Cohen, and had the pleasure of Marjorie Topley’s company as well. She is a fluent speaker of Cantonese. We went to her favorite restaurant, Poseida’s, where she ordered delicious African Chicken for us. We spent a few days in Hong Kong and visited Peter Matahni where we ordered fall and winter clothes for all three of us.
I did many things during the field trip in Taiwan, but I never took the time and solitude required to write. As I look back with the perspective that only the passage of time can render, I realize I had no choice. My life was fragmented by many things, the intensity of Mort’s involvement in his work among them. The needs of our children rested entirely on my shoulders in addition to all my other duties. These included doling out tea and sympathy to students, such as the distraught young man who came seeking my advice. His Chinese girlfriend told him she was pregnant. I suggested he make an appointment with Dr. West for a complete checkup to assure her she was in the best of health. He reported a few days later that she refused to see the doctor and told him she had been mistaken, she was not pregnant. I was not surprised by the resolution of his predicament. I was also busy entertaining Mort’s Taiwanese colleagues as well as scholars, college and university officials from the United States and other countries who came to visit us.
During the summer of 1978, while Mort was teaching at the University of Victoria, I went to Alaska alone to live among the Tlingit Indians to check out and update the findings of previous researchers. This was my first collision with Northwest culture. I flew north from Seattle, then caught a connecting plane to Yakutat. There was a motel at the airport. I remember checking in at the bar, which had an adjacent dining room. The bartender was busy serving and I stood a while waiting for him to get around to me. To my left was a series of barstools, each occupied by a man engaged in serious drinking. I remember thinking their concentration on the alcohol was that of men who drank as if they were paid to do it; they did not seem to be enjoying themselves at all.
I finally checked in, changed my clothes and went to the restaurant to eat dinner. The barstools were empty. There was one man, whose identity was never made clear to me, ranting and raving about the icebergs rising out of the sea toward heaven. “These people don’t appreciate the magnificent sights that surround them. On Saturday they talk about how much they drank on Friday and on Sunday they talk about how much they drank on Saturday.” On and on he went until I finished my dinner of grilled salmon, which was very good. My cabin was freezing. I put on every layer of clothing I had with me including my raincoat.
The next morning I visited the clinic to get information about a room to rent. By luck, the physician’s assistant turned out to be a young woman from a town in New Jersey no more than fifteen miles from my house there. We clicked. She was very bright and understood the kind of help I needed. She recommended a divorced woman who worked in the clinic’s kitchen and needed the money. I moved into her house by nightfall. The next day I paid a courtesy call at the mayor’s home and set about observing the elderly people who ate their meals in the dining room of the senior center.
Word got around about my presence and my desire to interview people. Some of the reaction was quite hostile, but a few people were very coöperative. I even got invited to a wedding and attended to learn about the Tlingit ceremony. What happened was totally unexpected. The wedding was no different than any held in a wedding mill in New Jersey. The bride was five months pregnant by another man and doing a poor job of pretending the baby was sired by her husband. One very troubled young woman sought me out and asked to speak with me. She said she could confide in me because I was leaving and never coming back. She had been a battered and sexually molested child. I was only too glad to be able to help her simply by listening.
Having done a great deal of preparation by reading the works of previous researchers, I was saddened to see that most of the old customs were no longer observed. The details of the culture and my experience in the little town can be found in the book that resulted from my observations, TRANSITIONS: Four Rituals in Eight Cultures, which was published by W. W. Norton in 1980 and by Penguin in paperback the following year.
It took me fifty-six years after that initial field trip to China in 1947 to finally set down Mort’s and my experiences in the field alone and with our children. My whole life has been a voyage of discovery of the outer as well as the inner landscape; this is not the end of the journey for me. As one of my favorite poets wrote, “I have always and still travel/And once in a while I stop by to say hello.”
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