Permanence is a Language

Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Lucille Bellucci

Among my school friends the designation Eurasian spanned a myriad racial combinations: French-Chinese, Danish-Japanese, Portuguese-Chinese, and one gray-eyed, raven-haired offspring of Irish-German-Japanese ancestry. The theory popular in my somewhat limited circle in Shanghai then was that if one’s mother were Oriental, your features were more Oriental than European; less so if your father were Oriental. We were girls in a convent; our other, less subtle distinctions were hidden under navy serge uniforms. Our common language was English, the language of the British taipans who in the 1830’s founded Shanghai upon mud flats. The British were King of the Heap. A few bothered to learn Chinese. Nationality and race in Shanghai either created social barriers or demolished them. Language enabled one to flit back and forth through them, like a phantom. Eurasians like myself utilized English to do that.

My mother was Chinese and my father Italian-Dutch-Indonesian. In a complexion fair and freckled, my eyes were neither European nor Chinese; the epicanthic fold was not much in evidence, but their shape was indisputably–the cliche is inevitable–almond. Had I been born at the end of the First World War, when the British monopolized the Shanghai International Settlement, I might have felt the social stigma of being Eurasian. In private get-togethers I would have moved freely among the Italians, French, White Russians, German Jews and Portuguese. At Club with all the connotations of the capitalized word) functions my presence would have been tolerated only if attendant upon some taipan as his secretary. A Eurasian woman of my family’s acquaintance had for twenty years been introduced by her British lover, as “My friend, Miss Hern.” We wondered what happened to her with the British, menaced by Sino-Japanese battles near Shanghai in 1937 and eventually beset by their war in Europe in 1939, began leaving China. Was she evacuated by her lover as he in turn was evacuated by China?

During the exodus the very few marriages we knew of between European women and Chinese men, held firm. A Belgian woman who had married a university professor told my mother she was staying, though her husband urged her to leave. They had no children, and she could easily have gone to Hong Kong to wait out events. My parents speculated: was her steadfastness due to love or duty?

Whichever it was, a Caucasian classmate blurted ingenuously to me, “I couldn’t ever marry a Chinese man. How could a white woman like to touch a Chinese man?”

Had I more years upon my shoulders, I would have known what to say to her.

The business of conquest and colonialism had always been carried out by men. These men–who seldom had their women along with them–did what men do. For purposes of sex, distinctions of color among the local female population were irrelevant. Caucasian women were stuck with sterner standards. Left back home or sequestered within a system of mem-sahib households, these women had had no opportunity to meet non-Caucasian men in situations affording intimacy. The status quo faltered when Chinese men began traveling abroad to attend Western schools. The Caucasian women they married and brought home found themselves upsetting conventions that had grown up on both sides of the color fence. On the white side, the woman was considered to be marrying beneath herself (grudging allowances were made if the man was a scholar or terribly rich, perhaps a millionaire industrialist); the family of the Chinese man was usually thrown into turmoil. Unless that family had also had a Western education, they perceived the white woman as a barbarian come to wreck generations of carefully wrought family alliances.

I doubt, however, that the above premise would have meant much to either my Caucasian classmate or myself had I offered it. Chinese women existed for the delectation of all men. European women who married Chinese men had peculiar sexual tastes. That was the creed. Even I believed it.

Up to the early 1920’s Chinese market gossip had it that Eurasian babies were born with a fur pelt and tail. My childhood and adolescent tribulations, in the early ’40’s, were all involved with getting an education. During those years of Japanese military occupation, all but a few persistent foreign nationals hung on in Shanghai, and many of those fled when the communists took control of the city in 1949. For one semester I attended an elementary school run by two ex-secretaries who later became hula dancers at a night club catering to American servicemen. A blur of schools followed: the French convent of Sacre Coeur, the American School of Shanghai, followed by the Convent of Santa Sofia, a school for Russians run by Irish nuns. My mother used simple blackmail to get me into Santa Sofia: she told them that if they didn’t take me she would have to send me to a Chinese school, where I would become a Buddhist. I was forthwith enrolled.

At Santa Sofia classes were carried on in English; during recess the Russian students, children of White Russian emigres, kept to themselves. When I think of it now, I am amazed there were fewer than two hundred Russian children in that school. The population of Russian refugees in Shanghai numbered about 20,000, of whom perhaps 12,000 arrived in 1918 by ship from Vladivostok. Some of those children probably had counts and barons for fathers; in any case they were not friendly. Life for them in a land not their own was as uncertain as their future. They were stateless, owned no passports. Their parents worked as hotel doormen, musicians, bodyguards. A few owned restaurants. The Shanghai that had sheltered them was disintegrating. Once, at the height of Western domination, 60,000 foreign nationals lived in the twelve square miles of the International and French Settlements.

My family lived in Frenchtown, as we called it, about five miles from the Convent of Santa Sofia. The nearly daily bombings by Allied planes did not seem to upset the students, or perhaps they did. Time may have faded any feelings of fear I felt at the time. If we were caught at school during a raid, we stayed there until it was over. f the raid began early in the morning, we stayed home. One consequence of my erratic attendance at classes, of often starting in the middle of a textbook and never knowing what anyone was talking about, plagues me still. This anxiety surface powerfully when I sang in a chorus in California. The others always knew their intros; I always felt ill prepared and liable to open my mouth at the wrong moment.

The Santa Sofia sisters abided throughout the bombardments, but politics defeated them. Given a choice of internment or exile by the Japanese occupational army, despite neutrality as Irish nationals, they left China.

When war ended in 1945 I enrolled in the Loretto School, run by American nuns, and there I managed to stay a whole two years. Whatever I was supposed tto learn about getting on with my peers, albeit multiracial and from a wild assortment of backgrounds, must have been learned then. I can’t remember anything else I might have learned in class.

The communist insurgents in the city began rioting; their disruptions affected businesses and traffic and destroyed any reborn hopes for a stable post-war Shanghai. My sister Maria, who was eleven years older and had begun making most of the decisions concerning my prospects in the world, took me out of the Convent of Loretto and set me to learning shorthand and typing. It was too late for me to learn to read and write Chinese. I spoke Shanghainese, but that was not enough to manage on in a China without foreign commerce. There is only one written Chinese, which may be read in any of the dialects, or languages, of China. The most desirable language was Mandarin; I might as well have aspired to the moon.

The shorthand and typing in English were to provide a buffer of safety in case of…in case of what? I’m not sure we knew what to do, what was coming.

In 1949 the communists possessed Shanghai, and the Eurasian question reared up again. Encouraged by the communist regime, the Chinese found a renewed hatred of foreigners; I walked in the streets trying to ignore curses and insults about m mixed parentage. I reported to my parents one insult that I failed to understand. What did “buggered” mean? And how had I been conceived by such means?

In January 1951 the communist police held Maria and me for questioning. The interrogations lasted six weeks. How long had we been spying for the United States, they wanted to know. They insisted that our religious activities, sponsored by our parish church of St. Columban’s, were a cloak for covert work for the American government. At the end of six weeks we were given our exist visas and told to get out. In this case our foreign passports had saved our lives.

My parents and sister and I took ship for Italy. And there again, in Rome, I became an object of intense interest to every random passerby in the street. Italy was still in recovery from the big war; Orientals were a rarity even in the important cities. My Italian-Dutch-Indonesian ancestry might never have been. My eyes sprang into prominence, as it were, as “dark pools of the mysterious Far East.” To the Italians I was either all Chinese, or more often, Japanese. Sayonara, men on street corners whispered ardently. So long and shove off, I replied, in English. My mother’s bound feet excited attention as though a sedan chair, borne by four coolies softly chanting hei-hao hei-hao, had suddenly appeared amid the bustle of Via Tritone during the noon hour. She spoke no Italian at all. Among her afflictions, her homesickness probably felt the least important to her.

Within days of death, though we did not know it, my father lay in bed in our tiny apartment shared with another family. He had been born and raised in China; his only knowledge of Italy had come from his father. Transported directly from our ship at the Port of Naples south to Sicily by train, then again from Sicily north to Rome by train, and finally helped up the stairs to the living quarters my sister and I had found, he had seen little more than increments of Italy between train stations. Was it nice out? he asked. Did you find any fruit stalls? Are the peaches big and juicy? We always said they were, though we could not bring any back to him. The tiny sum of money the communists had allowed us to take out of China went for bread an plain pasta. My sister was to grieve all her life that she had not been less pactical and bought him a single peach. Not long after he died, she found a job at FAO, a United Nations arm called Food and Agricultural Organization. I eventually settled in at ARAMCO, Arabian American Oil Company. The fact that English was our primary language and we were Italian nationals eligible for work permits was perfect for these two employers. Often, one or the other element was lacking in job applicants. And the family, that is, the remainder of it, breathed easier for a few years. My mother kept house. With greengrocers at the outdoor market she developed a system of bargaining: her fingers and headshakes and nods told them she would pay three hundred lire instead of four hundred, and so on. She conveyed the quantities she wished in the same way; the little finger held horizontally, a purely Italian gesture, indicated one-half. She could not carry many groceries, hobbled as she was by the pain in her feet. In outward fashion, she managed. I did not begin to understand her isolation of spirit until I grew into my thirties and found myself in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

People were always saying how little my sister Maria and I resembled each other. She was taller, bigger-boned. She had freckles, too. Te men did not whisper Sayonara to her; they saw the big fists she could make and they left her alone.

Five years later, we emigrated to the United States, where we settled with relief. My mother spoke passable English, and dispensed with the hand gestures and headshakes and nods. The Italian my sister and I had learned had been inadequate for expressing subtleties; that’s the shortcoming of a second language. Nuance is as elusive as the word’s own precise definition.

In San Francisco we discovered Chinatown. Fittingly, the Italian sector of North Beach sat right next door. While shopping in Chinatown we were forced to speak English; everyone there seemed to speak only Cantonese. In North beach the species of Italian spoken sounded strange, after Rome. The inflections were Sicilian, the words an odd blend of Anglofied Italian dialect. San Francisco was cosmopolitan as Rome had never been. For a long time I felt as if I had become invisible; people walked by me without a glance. In Rome my sister had married a White Russian named Nicholas, whose own history reached back through Manchuria, the Siberian tundra, to the massacre of his father, a Cossack officer. In the Richmond district in San Francisco he found a huge community of White Russian emigres.

Permanence, a German Jewish refugee once told me, is the language of the moment. Within a few years I was living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with my Italian-born husband. An engineer, his assignment was to last six months. We stayed fifteen years. I became used to giving street directions in Portuguese to Brazilians who took me for a Japanese. The population of Brazil includes more than one million Japanese, most of whom live in San Paulo and in agricultural regions in the southwest. Having taught myself Portuguese in advance in San Francisco (I praise the Cortina Academy course, a compact sixteen chapters in one textbook), I arrived in Brazil armed with a decent semblance of language ability. For two years I tried to find a niche for myself. True, language was not my problem, nor was it money, and I was fully mobile on my feet. What attacked me was an unbearable loneliness. Alvin Toffler said in his book, Future Shock, that you had to meet an average of two hundred persons before finding one with whom you had something in common. My acquaintances were company wives, who remained acquaintances despite dozens of get-togethers at lunches and dinners. We chatted and joked (carefully, because indiscretions carried around company circles), but I never found that one person in two hundred. Brazilians call this kind of superficial conversation, “cri-cri,” which suggests the sound of crickets but actually means gossip about children (criancas) and servants (criados). I was a perennial guest at women’s club meetings but never joined. The few Brazilian women I met, through company functions, were even less apt to become my intimate friends. They had their families, their own friends, their card games; what could they want with me? I think I was dying but did not realize the extent of my desperation until my husband himself telephoned the headmaster of the American School of Rio de Janeiro and made an appointment for me. My first job was stuffing envelopes; the excitement of talking to so many people without thought to their connection to the company made me giddy.

Eventually, the odd volunteering jobs I did at the school turned in a steady one, secretary to the headmaster. The school had a large faculty, American and Brazilian, two Germans, a Turk; there was a chorus, performing classical music, drawn from everywhere. I joined The Little Theatre. There were musicales, held in a different person’s home each time. By the time my husband finished his assignment in Brazil at the end of our fifteen years, I found myself saying farewell to at least as many close friends.

The serious side of living in Brazil was this: Americans on company assignment in Brazil are a privileged class. In the beginning, I found the races were mixed to such an extent that I felt the word “homogeneous” described the populace. Then I became aware of several clearly defined strata of class and society.

The rich are white. After the third rich white Brazilian told me there was some Indian in his genealogy, I realized the upper class believe a bit of Indian blood enhanced their status as Brazilians. Otherwise, they were merely descendants of upstart Portuguese settling in a new country. I could not help seeing the analogy in our own society. North Americans say, proudly, “My grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee, as though this reinforced their entitlement to his land. And well it might. The rest of us not so endowed must claim a multitude of interloper nationalities.

The middle-class Brazilians are often mixed and prefer to disclaim their Negro origins; the poor are invariably mixed and almost invariably dark-skinned. My indeterminate racial front found acceptance where I least looked for it. At the home of an engineer colleague of my husband’s. I met our host’s mother. She was German, as was her late husband; they had settled in Brazil early in their lives and become citizens.

Glowering, she regarded two Americans, husband and wife, who also had been invited to her son’s home. “Americans are so clumsy and they think money will fix everything,” she said contemptuously. “They think they should tell everyone what to do. I really dislike them.”

I replied that I was an American, and so was my husband.

She dismissed this fact without a moment’s discomfiture. “That is only on your naturalization paper. Your husband was born in Italy, and you are more Chinese than anything.”

I thought of several obvious things to say, and a few more beyond. Did she require me to a softshoe turn in blackface, yellowing “Mammy!”? How American do you have to look and act to be accepted as American? Finally I made a semi-jocular rejoinder: “We chose to be American. Can’t you please dislike us, too?”

As we were speaking Portuguese, the conversation felt especially bizarre. This lady was quite elderly, yet still was a practicing psychiatrist, as had been her husband. I recognized an obdurate attitude when I met one. In his dealings with Brazilian and Paraguayan clients, my husband found a similar paradox. These clients resented Americans, whose bank loans forced them to hire American consultants. Yet they warmed to my husband; they ignored his passport and saw the man with the Latin background.

My nephew asked me recently if I ever experienced an urge to visit Shanghai. I thought over his question. Since 1952 China had undergone several incarnations, and so had I.

Everyone who watches television must have seen documentaries of a Shanghai filled with bicycles and smoke-spewing factories. Automobiles choke the streets and upscale restaurants line the boulevards. The new China has become an odd marriage of capitalism and a hard-line communist government. China has come to this: knowledge of the world outside that they strive to emulate with frantic buying and selling and manufacture. Though there are always the old-fashioned poor, America is no longer the fabled Gold Mountain which in the decades prior to China’s re-creation caused the self-indenture of thousands of Fujianese attempting illegal entry in the United States. Before the communist takeover, Fujian used to be called Fukien; even the Chinese have contributed to the confusion of language. I have to go to my Pinyin pronunciation guide to figure out how to speak names and regions. This time, I believe, the Chinese have rejected for good the phonetic Anglo spelling of their language. Though muddled, I empathize with the spirit of the change.

And what would I find there, for myself? Landmarks razed, or called by new names meaningless to me. There are no relatives nor friends to look up. I would have enjoyed taking my mother back to her homeland, but would she have wanted to go? Probably not, if she were here for me to ask. Her Chinese-Italian-Dutch-Indonesian child, going on her own, would be as unhandy as any Western newcomer. I have not spoken the Shanghai dialect for forty years. I see myself this way: a ridiculous figure of Latinate gestures and grimaces, helpless as in my dreams. In these dreams I am always trying to speak to a pedicab driver or an anonymous person in a Shanghai street, and nothing will come from my mouth except Italian, Portuguese, or English words. More than ever, I am struck by how much courage she must have had to find in those terrible days of resettlement in Italy. Why should I, a tourist, be reluctant to go back to Shanghai, replete with traveler’s checks and two good feet instead of crippled, bound ones?

What I fear, I think is an unwonted dislodgment of these, my re-embedded roots in California. It has taken fifty years to know myself. A trip into my beginnings is one challenge that, finally, would be pointless. Let the ghosts rest in their graves.