By: David Wu
David Wu writes about American society and politics as seen through the fresh eyes that immigrants can have. Not only did he become American, he became a congressman, an ascent possible only in America.
My earliest memories are of Taiwan. I was born in 1955, only six years after Chiang Kai-shek had retreated to Taiwan and nine years after my family had moved there. In those days, we considered ourselves Suzhounese and Chinese, not Taiwanese. Today, we think of Taiwan as prosperous and democratic. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was poor and autocratic. But economics and politics are of little importance to a young child. I remember my mother taking me fishing at a nearby reservoir, standing in the warm tropical rain on top of the igloo shaped air raid shelter in our front yard, walking through our backyard patch of sugarcane and banana trees to visit the neighbors, drinking goat’s milk as a nutritional supplement (cow’s milk was too expensive), and on special occasions, having a family meal of chicken, sacrificed from our backyard flock. To a child, it was heaven. Even the occasional typhoon was exciting and fun.
We lived in a house built by the Japanese. World War ll had ended less than 15 years before, and Taiwan had become Chinese again after a 50 year occupation by Japan. The signs of those years remained-our front yard air raid shelter, the Japanese home in which we lived (it had tatami flooring and paper walls that made typhoons a worry for adults), and Japanese built public infrastructure that was better than that of Mainland China at the time. The hostility between the Nationalist government of Taiwan (or the term used at that time, The Republic of China) and Communist China (The Peoples’ Republic of China) was quite clear, even to a child. There were regular reports of artillery duels between the forces facing each other, eyeball to eyeball, across the narrow waters between mainland Fujian Province and the tiny Nationalist held islands of Matsu and Quemoy. Occasionally, fighter jets would challenge each other or even engage in combat over the 100mile strait between Taiwan and the mainland.
Our family wound up in Taiwan by accident. Suzhou, an hour and a half up the Yangtze River from Shanghai, had been our ancestral home for over two thousand years, according to family lore. After World War ll ended, my parents thought it would be a grand adventure to spend a few years in Taiwan before going back to start their “real” life in Suzhou. They crossed the Strait in 1946, with no idea that a cataclysm was about to happen in the traditional China they had left behind. The final war between the Nationalists and Communists (there have been at least two prior wars) was fought between 1947 and 1949. Like so many military campaigns in China’s past, the Communists swept south out of Manchuria, carrying everything before them. Mao Zedong announced the formation of the Peoples’ Republic of China from atop the imposing gate in front of Tiananmen Square on September 1, 1949. The Nationalist government fled to Taiwan with two million refugees, China’s gold reserves, and most of its cultural relics. They locked the door behind them, and no one was going back.
I heard about some of these events from my mother and grandmother, but what mattered to me was that I was in the warm embrace of a loving family, that my mother, two sisters, grandmother and I formed a tight knit and comfortable family. The absence of my father didn’t seem striking. That had been a given all my life. He left for America soon after my birth and I had no memory of him. He was an Olympian figure who was manifested at Christmas and on other special occasions by a package with a toy in it for me and chocolate for all the children. I had no sense of the strain my mother felt as a single mother with a husband six thousand miles away. Many fathers in our social group had gone to America. None could take their families with them because of US immigration restrictions. We were a group of husbandless, fatherless families with a shared, passionate purpose: to get to America, and to reunify the family there. We had a clear goal. To our Christian family, America was the Promised Land where the streets were paved with gold and ran with milk and honey. My sisters said that even the moon shined brighter in America. Americans born here have no idea what this country meant, and still means, to those who aspire to become American.
Life and politics are full of ironies. In the US Presidential elections of 1960, everyone in Taiwan supported Richard Nixon. He was Taiwan’s defender. To us, it wasn’t clear that Jack Kennedy knew where Quemoy and Matsu were. Today, those islands and the conflict over them are lost in the mists of time. Back then, five years after the Korean War, they symbolized the need to restrain China, and Jack Kennedy didn’t seem dependable on our most crucial defense issues. When he won the election, we were apprehensive, but little did we know that our family’s long wait was almost over, thanks to the election. Two months after he took office, President Kennedy issued an executive order that made American immigration laws more fair, cutting the waiting time for Asian immigrants and making them more like those for Europeans. The long line for Asian immigrants was dramatically shortened, and six months later, my mother, my sisters, and I were on a flight to America.
My parents had been apart for over six years.